Staff Editorial: Board of Trustees makes genuine effort to lead
Board could do more to seek out student perspectives
From the Newsstands: This story appeared in our December 2021 print edition. You can find the digital version here.
An institution like American University requires significant resources and dedicated people committed to ensuring it runs smoothly. The Board of Trustees provides both of those things and has a larger impact on our lives at AU than students realize.
The Eagle Editorial Board agrees that the Board of Trustees has shown willingness to be transparent with the student body. One of the clearest ways the board proves this is by having a student trustee position. Student trustee Anusha Mannam shared with The Eagle that the board regularly consults her during meetings and asks her opinion on what the student perspective might be on an issue. This shows a real commitment to understanding what students want and taking steps to deliver on that. Mannam noted that she was not just a placeholder, rather, her presence in meetings had an actual purpose. The University was not under an obligation to add a student to the board, but doing so represents an inclination to work with the student body rather than be an invisible body quietly making important decisions.
The board could, however, take steps to be more representative of the student body if it values the student voice in decision-making. The current trustee, Mannam, is a 3L student in the Washington College of Law. The trustee-elect, Aisha Jallow, is a junior undergraduate student in the School of International Service and will take over once Mannam’s term is finished. Mannam is able to provide the unique perspective of WCL students for the board, but cannot fully capture the views of undergraduate students. Similarly, once Jallow takes over, she cannot fully advocate for the needs of WCL students or even the needs of other undergraduate students in the other schools. While both Mannam and Jallow may be equally qualified for the position, student representatives are best able to advocate for their own schools. If the board is truly committed to hearing students’ voices, it should consider expanding the amount of student trustees to include students from different schools who can understand and communicate the unique needs of their programs. WCL, Ph.D., graduate and undergraduate students should all have the opportunity to directly advocate to the board.
It’s important to note students’ dissatisfaction with Wesley Bush, a newer trustee on the board and the former chairman and CEO of defense weapons manufacturer Northrop Grumman. This criticism is appropriate and students are rightfully angry about his background. Some members of the Eagle Editorial Board noted that his previous leadership experiences provide a helpful background for his duties as member of the trustee board. In an interview with the Eagle, Bush agreed with the importance of students being able to express differing views on the national security industry, something the Editorial Board also supports. He expressed a desire to communicate directly with the student body about this and other issues. This direct communication with the student body is necessary and something that the board of trustees as a whole should implement.
AU requires trustees to donate at least $25,000 each year in order to have a stake in the University. The University asks them to “identify the area(s) they are most passionate about and make a major/leadership campaign commitment.” The trustees should consider asking for student input when creating their philanthropic plans. Members of the board should go beyond consulting the student trustee and hold forums open to the student body as a whole. It’s important to hold these forums, regardless of student attendance. Symbolically, it would show the board is truly willing to listen to students. Practically, students would have an equal opportunity to suggest programs or institutions that could benefit from targeted investment. Open forums would ensure that all students’ needs are represented and heard.
The Board of Trustees presents as a group of people genuinely interested in making the University better. Their differences in background allow them to introduce a variety of views before coming to a consensus on what direction the University should go. The diversity, while not accurately representative of the student population, is more than the national average which indicates a step in the right direction. Members’ willingness to communicate with The Eagle is a positive indication that they would be receptive to suggestions from students as trustees continue to make an effort to lead AU the best way that they can.