In any community, the functions that make living, working and studying a cohesive experience are often planned and executed outside of the public eye. Especially in colleges and universities, most students are unfamiliar with how their campus is maintained, how programs are funded and even who legislates and makes the significant decisions at their institution. While the undemocratic structure and lack of public representation at institutions like the University of Connecticut Board of Trustees contributes to such problems, the community has a responsibility to hold leadership accountable and demand better.
The board of trustees, chaired by Morgan Stanley managing director, UConn alum and prolific donor Dan Toscano, is the highest governing body at UConn. They are responsible for the “corporate authority” of the institution, according to their by-laws. This authority encompasses establishing new schools and colleges, as well as managing investments and controlling expenditures. These powers constitute a huge amount of influence over our everyday lives as students whose tuition should make us direct stakeholders in the decision-making process at UConn. Unfortunately, only two student representatives serve on a committee mostly staffed from governor appointees and ex-office members from state institutions largely unaccountable to the community here.
When the student community doesn’t pay attention to the governance of our university, it removes the ability to respond in meaningful ways when the administration and board of trustees make dissatisfying or harmful decisions. After all, accountability isn’t an option when you don’t know who to hold accountable. The old cliche, “knowledge is power,” is truer than ever for UConn students in the sense that understanding the composition of the board of trustees, what is on the agenda, and how to speak at meetings equips us with a direct, albeit one-sided, line of communication with the clique behind each of UConn’s major financial and political decisions. Governing bodies, such as the board of trustees, benefit from their constituents lacking interest in or knowledge regarding their activities and decisions — the limits to their power are few and far between when the UConn community remains unaware of what they do in the first place.
Students and community members are able to attend board of trustees meetings, which are typically held once a month on Wednesday mornings in the Wilbur Cross North Reading Room. The next board meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 28, which raises a number of questions about the accessibility of these events to members of the student body who, despite experiencing the consequences of each board vote, would have to decide between skipping or attending early classes in order to have their voice heard. Additionally, public comments must be submitted 24 hours in advance of each meeting — this period may be over by the time most students even know the board is convening.
Nonetheless, students often do take the time to voice their stances on board decisions, whether it be a public comment in favor of decarbonization, recounting experiences of sidelined victims of sexual violence or an orchestrated protest against administrative neglect of UConn’s mental health services, as student activists organized in 2020. Evidently, students, activists and community members have experimented with board of trustees meetings as opportunities to hold leadership accountable and inform the public.
It’s essential that we remain involved and knowledgeable about important policies and contracts being implemented at the university. Keeping tabs on the board of trustees not only enables awareness, but proactivity on advocating for the changes students see fit at their school and in their environment. Students — and all other members of the UConn community — have the right to demand transparency from their institution, part of which requires active participation in administrative processes, such as those run by the board of trustees. Keeping up with the board of trustees is a strong jumping off point for a truly educated, involved and independently organizing student body that could someday perhaps even govern itself.