After reading yesterday's Texas Tribune article about student regents at universities, I feel the need to add something beyond the usual demagogue's storyline.
A board of regents is not a representative body like another legislature. Being a regent is a trust function, representing not only current students' interests but the interests of taxpayers, staff, faculty and the broad community — and not only current but future beneficiaries as well, many generations in the future. The interests of today's beneficiaries have to be balanced with many other long-term issues. And putting a student regent on the board with a vote immediately raises the issue of who votes on behalf of staff and faculty and other special interests.
There are many other methods that regents use to learn about the interests of students and many of these entail representative processes in which students are given the opportunity to participate. These processes are far more capable of representing a very large, widely dispersed and very diverse body of students. They also produce direct and regular access to the senior management and the board of regents.
The idea that one or even several students who are fully engaged in student life know most of what students want and need is not realistic. The idea that one or a few would even represent what most students want or need is obviously wrongheaded.
Where in our society do we give inexperienced and unproven people responsibility to manage large amounts of assets, spend very large amounts of money, manage large and complex organizations, protect the safety and provide for the health of a large and vulnerable population or choose employees for such purposes? Even our elected legislatures don't do that. We manage with accountability and oversight from elected officials who do represent the community at large. We usually think of trustees as our most experienced and trustworthy citizens, which seems the responsible way to do it.
This passage from your story is telling: "Critics of the push say students don’t have the experience to make big and impactful decisions, and they’re not on the boards long enough (student regents serve one-year terms, while grown-up regents serve six-year terms). But other states have made such an arrangement work: Of the 39 states that have student regents on public university boards, 29 give students voting power."
The more objective way to tell this story would have been to conclude that there is no evidence that such "arrangements" work, or if they work that they work better than the system Texas has.
In my opinion, which at least might be regarded as informed, other states typically have had more problems in governance than Texas has had. One problem in other places is that very large boards, which are intended to create a more representative body, are in practice clumsy, disperse responsibility, are costly and give staffs more power over governance than is appropriate.
In a few states, board members are elected, which again implies public representation. I feel that has not demonstrated any advantages and clearly has disadvantages when making long-term decisions, as is often required.
Would you turn all of your family's assets, its health and safety and future, or those of your friends and neighbors, over to an unknown university student, even one carefully selected? Of course not. Well, you might give him or her a voice if surrounded by you and other responsible adults who have the final call.
I think the inclusion of student regents is one of those issues that always promises more to students than it can deliver. It's a form of condescension: It really treats students as if they need to be pacified, not taken seriously.
Charles Miller chaired the University of Texas System Board of Regents from 2001 to 2004.
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