Graduate Student Assembly calls for more input on presidential search

On Oct. 15, the Graduate Student Assembly (GSA), along with the Student Government Executive and the Undergraduate Student Senate, issued an open call through The Tartan to the Board of Trustees, expressing our displeasure towards students being excluded from the Presidential Search Committee.

More than four months later, we are writing to share our continued and increasing disappointment about this policy of active exclusion. The only thing more unfortunate than the lack of student representation has been the silence the Board of Trustees has adopted and an implicit refusal to reform in the future.

Through that open call, we asked for student inclusion in the Presidential Search Committee. We also asked for more campus forums than the two token 45-minute “listening” sessions that were organized to gather student opinion.

Students who attended the fora decried the absence of student representation and the opaqueness with which the search process was being conducted. They also voiced frustration at the Search Committee’s refusal to answer direct questions. But, members of the Search Committee were steadfast in keeping up appearances and ignoring the students’ requests.

We proposed that the process be amended to allow student representation on the Presidential Search Committee. We also proposed the idea of the creation of a student advisory body as a short-term solution and more engagement with the Board of Trustees at both undergraduate and graduate levels to ensure shared governance.

These simple requests for further student involvement were reiterated in numerous communications with the Search Committee — both over email and in two meetings. However, the Committee has taken none of these requests seriously.

In the absence of any meaningful dialogue on student involvement, these meetings look like nothing more than a poor attempt at checking boxes.

While the Search Committee was meeting with a few student leaders to understand what we sought in a new President, a report had already appeared in The San Diego Union Tribune proving this was all a pretense. The report stated the Committee had already made an unsuccessful attempt to recruit the Chancellor of University of California San Diego for the position of Carnegie Mellon’s next president.

If the Committee was already attempting to recruit someone, it’s fair to assume they knew what qualities they wanted in the new president, without student input. What, then, was the purpose of those meetings?

It is important to re-emphasize that universities are places of higher learning which would not exist without students. When choosing someone to lead these universities, it should be a no-brainer that each of the university’s constituencies should have a voice in the process.

We understand that the addition of a few students on the Search Committee may not accurately reflect the entirety of experience of this 13,961-member strong constituency. But surely, it will be better than having no students on the Committee.

Current students would bring a lived student experience and a fresh perspective to the committee that no other group could bring. However, those calling the shots decided this important voice is not worthy of inclusion in the decision-making process.

Some are concerned that, by opening the process to students, they would also have to invite other stakeholders, such as non-university residents of Pittsburgh. This is an egregious argument, as students are key stakeholders in the Carnegie Mellon community. Stated concerns, such as confidentiality or capping the committee size are condescending and show a lack of respect for our student body. In fact, the question of whether or not this process should be secret is an open one that merits a different debate altogether.

While many forward looking universities have progressed from this antiquated search process, Carnegie Mellon seems to be caught in a slumber —snoozing and refusing to wake up.

A noteworthy example is Harvard University, which has recently completed its 29th Presidential Search with the help of an 18-member student advisory board. This is not as recent a development as members of the Carnegie Mellon Board of Trustees would have you believe; Harvard first included students more than a decade ago in their 2006 Presidential Search. And Harvard is not alone. Princeton opened up the process almost three decades ago in their 1989 search, and Stanford opened it up in 1999.

The Presidential Search Process at Carnegie Mellon is “led by the Board of Trustees, in collaboration with the Faculty Senate.” The Search Committee is comprised of equal representation from the Board of Trustees and the Faculty. The leadership of the committee is also split between the two bodies.

Given this reality, the blame for excluding the students from the Search Committee should also be split between the Board and the members of the Faculty. At the time of writing, there has been no public endorsement of student representation in the Search Committee by the Faculty Senate or faculty members of the committee — just silence and passing the buck to the Board of Trustees.

Assuming that the decision on composition of the search committee rests solely with the Board, we would like to ask the Faculty Senate to weigh in on this debate and clarify whether they believe the search process and the Board of Trustees should have greater student participation.

For a university that prides itself on decentralization and shared governance, Carnegie Mellon fails to let some constituencies, namely students and staff, participate in key conversations. Without a better model for shared governance with students, what avenues do we have for improving the Carnegie Mellon experience for ourselves and those who come next?