Balloon forum “pops” the student-trustee partition

This past April, student protesters gathered a variety of questions that they wanted to ask the College administration and wrote them on big balloons. The protest aimed to point out the lack of transparency between students, administrators, and the Board of Trustees.

On Friday, Oct. 24, trustees Ann Marie Connolly and Vice Chair Richard Uchida ’79 answered the balloon questions in a school-wide forum.

President David A. Greene opened the dialogue by discussing the trustees’ relations with the campus: “They have a distinctive position. They have overall responsibility of the College and delegate that responsibility to administrators, like myself.”

Greene went on to describe the breadth of the trustees’ collective role, as well as how their responsibilities relate directly to student and faculty interest. “The Board of Trustees has very little to do with [campus issues] on a day-to-day basis,” Greene said. “Rather, they are working to address the question of how should we be thinking about Colby and how can we make it excellent going forward.”

When the attention was turned to the panelists, Uchida discussed his experience at Colby and how he viewed the Board. He remembered them as “old, white men walking across campus.” He was frustrated by the lack of communication between his peers and the Board of Trustees during his time at Colby. “We never had a chance to see them,” he said, but added jokingly: “It was probably by choice.”

SGA President Justin Deckert ’15 and Vice President Michael Loginoff ’16 began the forum by asking Connolly and Uchida a series of questions that had been written on the balloons in April. One of the first questions asked was whether or not the trustees were working toward providing larger amounts of money for students on financial aid. Connolly described the question as the “preeminent conversation today.” She added that the Board “[wants] people to feel like they can come here regardless of the cost” and that raising the money necessary will be a “priority of the Greene Administration.” Uchida added that he hopes that students will “think about the growth in the endowment in terms of what [they] can and want to generate [to help future students].”

When asked about their personal visions for the college, Uchida said he wanted to “create a platform of excellence for [current and future students] who come here.” In addition to these subjective visions, Connolly had a quantitative goal: “I would like to see Colby move up in the proverbial rankings. Colby is better than what we’re listed at and we’re looking hard at that and take the good things about Colby and work hard to reposition ourselves among other schools within the NESCAC,” she said.

Deckert and Loginoff then opened the floor to audience questions. Nick LaRovere ’15 asked the panel about their vision for admissions in coming years. Connolly said she was looking  to “expand” the admissions scope past New England. She told the forum that “students are the best marketing” and hoped they would continue to engage with the school.

Chris Millman ’16 asked whether or not the Board plans to change Colby’s sexual assault policy. Uchida responded that the Board doesn’t “make that policy, but as the policy is developed, [they] want to make sure that [they] are critically watching the development itself,” finding ways to minimize trauma for victims of assault.

Other students asked about the perceived importance of college rankings, possible changes to food providers and concerns about introductory class sizes.

The crux of the forum ultimately came down to how to maintain a relationship between the Board of Trustees and Colby students. Greene spoke about the desire to begin informal “fireside chats” or something similar to “break down some of the mystery” that surrounds the Board.

Though some students called for a more direct relationship with the Board, Greene reminded the audience that doing so would cut out the administration, the body responsible for daily activity on campus.

Another central focus of the forum was the long-discussed prospect of divestment. When asked if the Board planned to divest itself of stakes in fossil fuels and other so-called “dirty” industries, Uchida commended students for opening a dialogue while also saying his intention to  “not let [Colby’s] financial goals be driven by social policy” while also “doing right by the world.”

Pressed by Paul Wennberg ’15, who asked if the current state of the world’s climate provided enough motive to divest, Chairman of the Board Bob Diamond intervened, saying that he doesn’t “want [students] to think that when the Board doesn’t choose not to disinvest, it’s because [they] are supporting or discouraging anything.” Speaking in terms of pragmatism, Diamond noted that socially responsible investing would raise costs, taking money away from students in need. However, Diamond also commended the students for “getting [the Board] the information [they] needed.

Maravilla Clemens ’16 commended the members of the investment committee for teaching many students how they go about managing funds. She noted, “For me, it wasn’t about just divestment, but going through that process,” adding that she hoped Colby might create a hybrid student-trustee committee that would give students more voice while also teaching them about the real world pressures.

Diamond and Connolly both seemed receptive, with Connolly adding “we are listening to your concerns and that is part of the educational process.”

As the forum came to a close, Diamond made a few final remarks, saying that the lead up to the event “made us look back, and we couldn’t think of a meeting where we didn’t think ‘we need to reach out to students.’” Diamond continued that he felt the meeting was constructive and wanted more to happen in the future. “We want to engage more with students, and it won’t happen all at once, but these dialogues are incredibly important and need to continue.”

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