Students Voice Concern with Board of Trustees’ Alleged Lack of Diversity, Transparency

Ethan Ehrenhaft – The Davidson College Board of Trustees (BoT) is one of the most powerful bodies in the college’s administration. According to Article I of its bylaws, the “ownership, management, and control of Davidson College” falls under the responsibility of the Board. While undoubtedly important, these duties can often be interpreted as vague. The rest of the Board’s bylaws generally detail procedural operations and election of new members. This year, the Board is comprised of forty-four members, including President Carol Quillen. The Board’s chair is currently John W. Chidsey III ’83.

Despite being a powerful group of individuals that controls so much of life at Davidson, the BoT remains unfamiliar to the student body. Due to a general campus-wide lack of awareness about how the group functions or what it achieves, a group of students, known as Ortaculture, has started a petition to increase the Board’s transparency.

On Tuesday, April 4th, this student group staged a rally outside the Alvarez Student Union while the BoT met inside. Speaking at the rally in the midst of the Union amphitheater, Ortaculture member Tony Solís ‘19 stated, “We want to add the student voice back into the BoT so that we are able to be a part of these decisions because we know what it’s like to be here and we know what it’s like to have a voice here.”

Other than pushing for a forum for public discussion, two of the major issues that Ortaculture addresses include: (1) the Board’s lack of diversity, both ethnically and religiously, and (2) the relatively old age of its members, some of whom graduated mere years after Davidson began admitting African-American and women students. The average age of a 2017 trustee is fiftynine years old, with an average graduating class of 1981. Reflecting this statistic, one sign at the rally read: “Davidson has changed but only 2 out of 44 Board members graduated after 2000. Where does that leave my voice?”

With Davidson having undergone such radical changes in the past forty years, the Trustees’ average age worries many community members. Ortaculture is concerned that the Board fails to adequately represent the concerns of current Davidson students, especially given the contentious political climate. Solís says that the group wanted to start the petition and raise awareness due to “conversations on the current political climate and the ways in which many communities on campus may feel attacked in some ways and not necessarily have a venue to feel safe or to have their voices heard.” Solís added, “I love Davidson and want to help make it a better place for everyone.”

The rally itself drew a sizeable crowd, and several speakers voiced their discontent with the Board’s current structure and mentioned specific ideas for improvement.

Solís articulated to the crowd that 21% of private colleges and 70% of public universities have a student member on the BoT. Thus, by doing the same, Davidson would not be moving into controversial territory.

Speaker Sarah Mellin ‘20 argued that the Board should change the college’s 50/50 gender admissions policy. “By maintaining a 50/50 gender ratio in admissions, we are actually really disadvantaging qualified female applicants,” she said. Nationwide, women account for roughly 70% of high school valedictorians, according to The Eagle-Tribune. Mellin pointed out that Pomona College and Williams College, liberal arts institutions similar to Davidson in academic rigor and size, had male-to-female acceptance ratios of 15% to 10% and 21% to 18% in 2014, respectively.

The rally focused on the lack of direct communication between Board members and the majority of the student body. “Current legislation restricts [the Board] to communicate only with the SGA President, placing our SGA President in a position where he must convey all issues of the student body, which is a huge burden,” said Ortaculture member Saidah Rahman ‘20, during a speech at the protest. In his speech at the protest, Santiago Navia ‘17 proclaimed, “Nobody knows who the trustees are. Who is holding them accountable? Where is our voice being heard? There is such a big disconnect.”

Currently, the SGA President can only attend limited meetings and lacks a vote. Ortaculture hopes that the Board can help provide the desired platform to better communicate with students who feel marginalized and grant students a space to voice their general concerns about the college.

Many students may not be aware of a governing law of the Board which states, according to Davidson’s website, “At least twenty-five percent of the Board members will be a member or an affiliate of a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation.” This requirement reflects a desire by Davidson to maintain some of its Presbyterian roots. The President of the college must also be a Presbyterian. Article IV, subsection IV of the bylaws, reads, “It is natural and desirable that the educational service of a church-related College should be carried forward from one generation to another by persons committed to the Christian faith.” Up to 20% of the Board members may be non-Christians. Some students feel that with the heightened priority of religious diversity on campus, the quota is now obsolete.

In addition to peacefully demonstrating, Ortaculture sought to garner attention for its petition, which is currently circulating throughout campus both online and in paper form. The text of the petition begins, “The hope of establishing a more accessible system of communication between the BoT and the Davidson students whom they represent.” It goes on to “demand an amendment to Article II (Meetings of Trustees) of the Davidson College BoT bylaws to require the attendance of at least 20% of the BoT members at a public town hall.” The full Board meets twice annually, and the aforementioned town hall would occur within seven days of each full body meeting.

As of Sunday, April 9th, the petition has 152 signatures. 200 are necessary to send it to the SGA and call for a referendum. If a referendum passes by a simple majority vote, then the Board must debate the issue at its fall meeting. “The administration has been understanding and has agreed to meet with us to better understand our own goals and perspectives,” said Solís.

This week, President Quillen is expected to meet with Ortaculture to discuss the issues the group has brought forth. BoT member Virginia Richards ‘85 expressed, “We would like to endeavour to improve students and student voices and make sure we are understanding of what is relevant to students here at Davidson.”

As Solís stated, the petition and rally’s goal is to make Davison a better place. While transparency is an issue, the school is annually becoming increasingly diverse. As evidenced by students’ frustrations, the school has not progressed enough, and student-led bottom-up movements like Ortaculture’s are seen as essential if students’ concerns are to be effectively heard by the administration. Solís concluded, “This is not supposed to point fingers…this is a movement for transparency. We do not want to alienate anybody.”