Boardroom: Giving Students a Seat at the Trustee Table

Winter 2020

By Julie Johnstone

Picture your boardroom. Odds are it’s a healthy mix of alumni, current and past parents, donors, and local thought leaders. Now imagine that same room and those same people, but with two current students. And not just for one special meeting—but for every meeting. Two students, sitting on the board, with full voting privileges.
While there are a handful of progressive schools that do include students on their boards, the vast majority do not. Depending on the culture of your school—and your board—it’s a prospect that can elicit a gamut of emotions. Intrigue. Excitement. Trepidation. At The Cambridge School of Weston (MA), it’s all we know. Our best records show that the school started electing students to its board of trustees in the 1970s, so I don’t know about the conversations that took place before this decision. Nor can I tell you what that initial adjustment period was like. What I can tell you, is that having a constant, engaged student presence on our board of typically 20 trustees has been one of the greatest, most rewarding assets of our school’s governing structure. Every school is different, and no model is one-size-fits-all, but some strategies and practices have worked well for our school.

For Starters 

At The Cambridge School of Weston, a high school for day and boarding students, we’ve always had two student trustees—one day student and one boarding student. The student body of 310 elects both student trustees annually for one-year terms (with the possibility for reelection). To be on the ballot, students must submit a petition signed by at least 25 classmates, give speeches, and participate in question-and-answer sessions with current students, faculty, and staff. Each year, about 12 students run; it’s the largest pool of candidates that we have for any position and consistently yields a highly diverse group.
Students tend to run because they want to be part of the big-picture conversations that are happening at the board level. Most campaign on a platform of transparency and communication. Candidates want the voices of the student body heard and considered when strategic decisions are being made. They also want to be sure that the student body is aware of issues, so students are more likely to provide ongoing input.
At our school, board meetings are open. That means all current students, faculty, and staff are regularly invited to attend and observe meetings. As such, by the time students have decided to run for a seat officially, most have already experienced a board meeting, which helps to facilitate the onboarding process, though prior attendance at meetings is not technically required.
Once the student trustees are elected, they meet with the head of school as well as outgoing student trustees. They attend the same training and onboarding sessions, with the same documentation as adult board members. Training sessions usually include an overview of the school’s financials, strategic plan, goals for the head of school, and other items that may be on the board’s agenda for the year. In the late summer, all trustees attend an informal social gathering to get to know one another better.
Our board convenes four official meetings per year, in the evening after school and afternoon activities. While students are expected to attend all meetings, exceptions can be made, as they are for any board member. Between meetings, the students meet regularly with the head of school to ask questions and gain additional context on the information discussed at meetings. All student trustees are also paired with returning board members to serve as mentors. 

Behind Closed Doors

There are inevitably times when the board must discuss information that isn’t appropriate for a student audience, such as legal and personnel matters, compensation, or a head’s performance. On such occasions, the board chair will call an executive session, a designated block of time where all guests—in addition to student and faculty trustees—are asked to depart, and all content discussed is considered confidential. During an executive session, only three-year trustees are present, and minutes are taken separately. During their training, student board members are made aware of executive sessions, and we have never had a student board member complain about not being included.
About 10 years ago, we added executive sessions to the agenda of every board meeting to eliminate worry and pre-plan logistics. The thought was that the executive session might run five minutes if there was nothing to discuss or longer as needed. This way, if a board member had any doubts about whether a comment, question, or agenda item was appropriate for students to hear, they could rest assured that space would be available for them to speak without hesitation. Students also do not typically serve on board committees, which offer board members another opportunity for more candid discussion.

Cultivating Leaders 

Many schools aim to develop students as leaders, and one concrete way to do that, to demonstrate that your school empowers and values student voices, is to have students sit on the board of trustees. It’s important to clarify the difference between a strategic decision and a publicity stunt. Providing students with this level of access and responsibility can be a highly impactful, mission-affirming selling point for your school.
Students are attracted to the prospect of serving on the board because it offers them an insider’s view on how their school is run, and parents appreciate a school that empowers their children and teaches them how to be thoughtful leaders.
“Serving as a student trustee did a few things for me,” says former student representative Jordan Clark (‘05). “It gave me perspective about what it means to be at a school and how much work goes into the decisions that are made. Did I bring about specific change? I don’t know. But it was a great experience for me, and to expect major change after a one-year stint isn’t realistic. That’s not how boards work. Things take time.”
Clark, who now serves as director of community programming for equity and inclusion at CSW, remembers an occasion when the board was engaged in a discussion about the issue of race, and how good it felt for him to be able to offer his insights about what it was like to be a student of color on campus. He remembers feeling like his voice was valued. And the experience of speaking in front of an adult audience of prominent community figures was one that taught him a lot about professionalism, public speaking, and advocacy work.
The energy and sense of possibility that students bring to the table can be contagious. They bring names and faces to the stories and issues board members are hearing and addressing, and offer fresh, on-the-ground perspectives that a traditional board member simply can’t. The result is a more engaged, energized conversation for everyone. 

The Benefits are Mutual 

When students serve on the board, they develop tangible, directly transferable leadership skills that will last them well through adulthood. One of the greatest delights is seeing how seriously students take the role, conducting themselves with maturity, professionalism, and poise. They quickly become invaluable stewards of the school who remain ready and willing to dedicate their time and energy to an array of school endeavors. At the same time, they learn how to communicate, self-advocate, and balance priorities, while also gaining a greater understanding of how organizations function and thrive. The responsibility gives them an advantage not just in college, but in life, which can, in turn, yield a community of alumni and donors schools can be proud of.
Our former student trustees have gone on to serve as politicians, educators, philanthropists, and leaders in their respective fields. In the past 10 years, we’ve had a Fulbright scholar, several Ph.D. candidates at highly prestigious institutions, and the youngest member of the Connecticut House of Representatives—a post that student took on just two years after graduating from our school. It’s these same alumni who we see engaging with and investing in the school, returning to campus for guest lectures, attending chapter events, and making gifts. It is a mutual exchange in which both students and the school benefit in genuine and meaningful ways.

Want more insights about critical governance issues?

Tune in to The Trustee Table, an NAIS podcast for board chairs, trustees, and school administrators. In Episode 9, “Leveraging Emotional Intelligence in the Boardroom: Insights for Heads and Trustees,” Marc Brackett, founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and professor in the Child Study Center at Yale, discusses how his research on emotional intelligence can inform strategic planning, the head-board chair relationship, and board culture. Go to iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, or Google Play to subscribe and hear a new episode each month.
Julie Johnstone

Julie Johnstone is assistant head of school at The Cambridge School of Weston in Weston, Massachusetts.