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'Not meant to be a political position': Why Duke changed the Young Trustee selection process

<p>Past Board of Trustees meetings have often been held at the Washington Duke Inn. The last two have been virtual because of the COVID-19 pandemic.</p>

Past Board of Trustees meetings have often been held at the Washington Duke Inn. The last two have been virtual because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ibrahim Butt, a current Young Trustee, was eating at Au Bon Pain on a Sunday morning when he got the email announcing that he was a Young Trustee finalist.

“My mind went into overdrive,” Butt, T’20, said. “All of us YT finalists, regardless of how happy we were that we became a finalist, our immediate thought process was, ‘Oh god, this is going to be two weeks of hell.’”

The undergraduate Young Trustee election used to resemble a full-blown political campaign: Candidates built a networking team, sought endorsements from organizations and broadcast their platforms across social media. 

This year, the process will look radically different. Previous Young Trustee candidates say that’s a good thing. 

“Having been around the position and around the nominating committee for a few years, I felt like the campaign that happened with the finalists wasn’t the most congruent process with the nature of the position,” said Tim Skapek, a previous finalist who campaigned largely on reforming the young trustee election process. 

“Being a young trustee is, in its nature, not meant to be a political position where individuals are running on policies or issues in particular. It’s not a political campaign, but it’s a selection process,” Skapek, Pratt ‘20, said. 

This year’s changes to the selection process were developed by Duke Student Government, previous Young Trustees and the Duke Office of the Secretary to the Board of Trustees. In lieu of an election process, students will submit a written application; finalists will participate in an open forum with students who can provide feedback to the Young Trustee Nominating Committee; the YTNC will recommend a Young Trustee; and finally, President Vincent Price will approve the recommendation. 

The process is led by Margaret Epps, secretary to the Board of Trustees and Price’s chief of staff.

Epps wrote in an email that over the years the Office of the Secretary heard concerns about the old Young Trustee process related to campaigning and perceptions of the role. 

The campaign process raised concerns that students were expecting candidates to deliver on specific promises once they were elected, Epps wrote. The Young Trustee is meant to be a “steward of the whole university,” rather than a representative of students, she wrote. 

Each Young Trustee serves a term of two or three years on Duke’s Board of Trustees, the first year as a nonvoting observer. There is also a graduate Young Trustee, chosen separately. 

Epps explained that the revised process was approved by the Board of Trustees, the board’s Governance Committee and the 2019 and 2020 Young Trustees. The process was also developed in “close collaboration” with DSG and the Graduate and Professional Student Government.

“Feedback from current and former Young Trustees was instrumental in shaping the new process,” Epps wrote.  

DSG President Tommy Hessel, a senior, wrote in an email that there were three main reasons the old election process needed to be altered: It was “1) at odds with the YT's role as a fiduciary responsible for preserving the long-term health of all of Duke (e.g. university, medical center, international campuses, etc.), 2) divisive in that it ended up dividing the campus strongly (fractured communities and friends), and 3) was physically draining for the candidates as well as the student body.” 

Butt agreed that the old “daunting, taxing” process needed changes. 

Having worked on friends’ Young Trustee campaigns in previous years, Butt was well aware of the journey he was about to embark on when he became a finalist. He began building his team of friends, cognizant of the reality that winning the election was about “who you knew and how many people you knew,” he said.

“You’re one individual trying to talk to over 6,000 students. One individual can’t do it,” he said.

Unable to even walk across campus without someone stopping him, Butt remembers becoming one of the most-known people on campus. 

“So many of the YT finalists were exhausted from doing this campaign, and we didn’t want our pictures out there across campus as much as people didn’t want to see us either,” he said. “But then also you know there are people on your opponents’ teams who are waiting for you to fail, or looking out for you in the wrong ways, and that creates a wrongful student dynamic.” 

Butt now serves on the YTNC along with the student who was elected Young Trustee the year before him, Trey Walk, Trinity '19. Walk’s description of his campaign experience was similar to Butt’s, reflecting a concerning pattern of stress and toxicity inherent to the old process. 

“You make it out of the YTNC, you become a finalist, and then everything really breaks open. For about three weeks of your life, it really is—I don’t even know a word to describe it—it’s an intense few weeks,” Walk said. “My year I had a campaign team of around 60 people.” 

“It would be a Sunday—there would be a lot of group meetings happening—and you would sprint across campus to run to get to these group meetings on time, you would talk for a few minutes, answer a few questions, and then sprint to another part of campus for your next meeting ... You’re out there trying to meet students and find out what they care about, but you’re also trying to get endorsements.” Walk said. 

Walk described being a finalist as being a “public personality on campus,” which led to many students forgetting the fact that these finalists were simply students, just like anyone else. 

“People would read about the candidates in The Chronicle or they’d see a funny satirical piece about them or they’d see their picture posted on social media, and they’d lose context. And then when you interact with them in a group meeting or walking by on campus, people start to relate to you differently,” Walk said. 

When asked if he felt that his campaign process was draining, Skapek said: “Yes. Emphatically yes.” 

However, he did try to “stay away from creating a whole political campaign team,” Skapek said, and instead focused on his background experience rather than a platform. 

Three weeks of missing classes and “going through the wringer publicly” isn’t what Walk believed the process should have to entail, as it discouraged many people from applying, he said. 

Butt noted that he’s spoken to women who have felt that they are more heavily scrutinized in the public sphere, perhaps explaining the fact that there have only been two female young trustees of the most recent nine.

The new YTNC is bringing in “campus leaders from different identity groups to help ensure that the committee is filled with a pretty broad spectrum of students who can help to eliminate as much of that bias as possible,” Skapek said. 

Butt noted that he is already seeing a more diverse applicant pool than in previous years.

Before becoming a Young Trustee finalist, Skapek served on the YTNC in his sophomore and junior years. He said he felt that the nominating committee has done well in being fair to candidates, identifying and avoiding conflicts of interest.

Walk has a different opinion about the fairness of the nominating committee in previous years: “There was sort of this whisper network of people who would have their friends apply to be on the YTNC if they knew they were going to run for YT so that their friends could sort of influence the process. There are conflict of interest policies within YTNC, but the committee was student run, so it was hard to enforce that, whereas the new process is run by the Office of the Secretary who works regularly with the Board,” Walk said. 

The former Young Trustee candidates agreed that the old process created unhealthy expectations about the role.  

“We’re really hoping that these changes clarify that this position is not a student representative—that’s your DSG president,” Butt said. “As a Young Trustee, it’s really about being a fiduciary on the board. You represent the young perspective as a young member of the Duke population compared to a lot of the Trustees who are much older and went to a very different Duke than the Duke you and I went to.” 

Walk shared a story where he went to give his pitch to first-years in their dorm, and a student said, “I’ll vote for you if you get the Dankery on food points,” to which Walk comically replied, “Um, I don’t think that will come up at the board meeting.” 

“I think the changes are positive, and like any change, you’ll see the results of it. If there’s anything that needs to be tweaked, we can make changes. We’re learning as we’re doing it,” Walk said.

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