Confusion lingers over students’ understanding of the Board of Trustees

Haley+Beardsley%2C+Print+Presentation+Director+%2F+The+Bucknellian

Haley Beardsley, Print Presentation Director / The Bucknellian

Dora Kreitzer and Jaxon White, Print Managing Editor and Editor in Chief

The Board of Trustees is a mystery to the majority of students on campus. 

Roughly 68 percent of 236 students recently surveyed by the Bucknellian said they were unfamiliar with the role of the Board, and more said they were unfamiliar with functions of the group.

Board of Trustees Chair Chris O’Brien ’80 and Assistant Secretary Laureen Costa ’90 said in an October interview that they wanted to address misconceptions they believe students have.

“We want to make sure the campus has a better understanding of what it is we do and how we operate,” O’Brien said. 

Some students believe there is an easy solution to the disconnect between the Trustees and the student body: adding a student representative to its membership. 

Student perceptions

“We’re actually an incredibly transparent organization,” O’Brien said. “We’re now listed on the Bucknell website, and how we conduct ourselves and how we operate is also transparent.” 

According to the description of the Board on Bucknell’s website, “Bucknell’s Board of Trustees guides the strategic direction of the University. These alumni, parents and friends share their leadership expertise for a stronger Bucknell.”

The vagueness of the description matches the ambiguity found in student responses.

When asked what they think the role of the Board of Trustees is at Bucknell, most students gave unclear answers — understanding it broadly as the body that handles operational decisions and manages the funding of the institution. Given the recent extension of President John Bravman’s contract, some students also correctly identified the Board as the body that oversees Bucknell’s administration.

Through its committees, the Board provides its oversight of the university. These committees are associated with various portions of campus, such as the Student Life Committee and the Finance Committee. They conduct their own findings of campus and report it back to the full Board. 

“We don’t create the plan…but we ultimately approve of it,” O’Brien said. “Our real goal on a regular basis is to challenge John [Bravman] about the operation of the university to ensure that John [Bravman] is meeting the standards of the strategic plan that we have approved.” 

Some students also said they believe Trustees are in charge of making hiring and firing decisions for the university, which is not entirely true. 

The Board is in charge of approving employee hires for the business side of campus, but O’Brien said students should distinguish that from hiring faculty. Trustees are not involved in the hiring process for faculty, and are not involved in the academic side of campus.

Where the Board does get involved in academic affairs is when professors are qualified for tenure. O’Brien said that faculty members nominate their peers for tenure, Bravman will discuss the tenure of that faculty member with the Trustees and then the Board will make the final decision to approve or disapprove. 

“I don’t know that we’ve ever not approved the tenure, in fact I doubt we ever have,” he said. 

According to the Bucknellian’s survey, roughly 86 percent of students are unfamiliar with the membership of the Board of Trustees. Many students anonymously said that the Board is made up of large donors to the university, with a few noting their belief that Trustees make a profit from their participation. 

The Board of Trustees currently has 40 members, each limited to 15 years of service, or a total of three five-year terms. According to Costa and O’Brien, the Board looks very different than it did about 20-30 years ago. About half of the Board members are women and about one-third of the Board are “qualified by higher ed standards as diverse,” O’Brien said. 

“We always say time, talent, treasure, that’s what we’re looking for from the people that join the board,” O’Brien said. 

While there is an expectation that Trustees financially support the university, that is only one of multiple criteria for Board membership. Members are not paid by the Board and are not reimbursed for hotels, food or other travel expenses on their visits to Bucknell.

“We pay the University to be on the Board, as my wife constantly reminds me,” O’Brien said. 

Members are selected by the Nominating and Governance Committee, and are alumni, parents and sometimes people completely unaffiliated with Bucknell, if they are able to bring a needed-asset to the Board. 

“That’s not probably something we would do…” 

Roughly 86 percent of The Bucknellian’s January survey said they were unfamiliar with the role of student input to the Bucknell’s Board of Trustees. Costa said students are regularly brought into committee meetings to share their experiences with the Trustees, but she clarified that there is no permanent student member of the Board. 

Jahnia Treadwell ’25 spoke to the Board in her first semester and didn’t know what the organization did on campus until other students in her hall informed her.

“I went in very intimidated… I thought it was going to be corporate and more structured,” Treadwell said. “But they were actually really kind people. They seem to be like some of them are alumni, so they have connections to Bucknell and they just want to ensure that we all have a good experience here.” 

But based on her experience, Treadwell said that more students need to be involved in the Board’s decision making, since students are most affected by their decisions. 

Bucknell Student Government President Sam Douds ’25 said he is trying to advocate for a permanent student member on the Board of Trustees. He and other members of the student government have monthly meetings with Bravman to discuss a list of their top issues for students. 

Douds said putting a student representative on the Board is the top issue on his agenda. His proposed student member would not have voting privileges, but would serve as an advisor for the Trustees, he said. 

“I’m afraid that [a voting member is] unachievable right now and in the interest of achievable progress, I think it’s important that we look at right now, we want somebody in the room where it happens”

Although he said his position is described in the Bucknell Student Government Constitution as “a liaison” between the Board and the student body, he has yet to meet any Trustees. 

“If it’s in the BSG constitution, it means that generations of students before us recognized it as a need, something that’s really important,” Douds said. “I don’t know when that precedent changed, and I’d like to change it.”

Douds said he’s optimistic that Bravman and the Board will hear what he and other students are demanding. Board members reciprocate those feelings. 

“That’s not probably something we would do,” O’Brien said, when asked if the Board would consider including a student representative. “It’s simply because some of the level of decision making that is done by John Bravman, the debate and discussion and consent and all that stuff, is pretty confidential.” 

If administrators say no to a student member of the Board, Douds said it could sew distrust between its members and the student body.

“What are you hiding?” he said. “If you really don’t want anybody in the room, what’s the problem?”

A non-voting member from a group on campus affected by Board decisions is not a new concept. Professor Alan Cheville is the secretary of the faculty, and sits in on board meetings to mostly observe. He also provides counsel about faculty operations through presentations.

He said representing all of the students on campus could be difficult, but he believes that Bucknell Student Government could make it work. 

“My personal feeling is that I think that students need to be involved in all aspects of decisions of the institution,” Cheville said. He added that he conducts research on this topic and is “very involved and very interested,” in the idea. 

In a February emailed response from O’Brien, he referenced a number of ways the Board communicates with students.

“Nonetheless, the Trustees believe that a regular dialogue with the student body will only serve to improve the Board’s understanding of the student experience at Bucknell and we will be discussing at our next meeting the opportunity to enhance student participation at Board meetings,” he said.

Past attempts for representation 

Douds is not the first person on campus to advocate for a permanent student representative to join the Board of Trustees. Christian Melgar ’23 said having a student on the Board has been a consistent topic of conversation during his various positions with student government.

“We asked Bravman directly and his answer was just a flat out no, with no real reason behind it,” Melgar said, in an emailed response. “This is disheartening, given how much power and pull they have on making decisions for students. Yet, they do so without them.” 

Griffin Perrault ’22, an alumni and former editor in chief of The Bucknellian, said that he worked with a group of students that tried to accomplish the same thing. 

His pitch for a student member was to have a permanent student-held seat, subject to two-year terms, that would have full voting power among the Trustees, unlike Douds’ proposal. 

“Altogether I see it as a pretty modest proposal to increase student participation in the community, improve transparency and incorporate student concerns into higher-level moves by university officials,” Perrault said. “BSG, while valuable in many respects, can’t really lay title to this function since it lacks institutional power over any administrators or other decision-makers.” 

University officials responded minimally, Perrault said, but were mostly upset that he and his peers reached out to Trustees directly. Bravman met with the students, which Perrault said he was grateful for, but after that meeting they never heard back from him. 

Bravman said he was concerned about the potential lack of life experience of the student member and the length of meetings involved in the role of a trustee member, according to Perrault. 

“Whatever the university wants to say about student trustees, they are common,” Perrault said. “A number of universities — private and public, big and small, liberal arts and research — have set up these positions and generally provided glowing reviews for them years down the line. Students are regarded at these schools as valuable voices, artful contributors, and quick learners. No testimony of a school in my research ever came to regret instituting the position. So what is Bucknell so afraid of?”

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