Still no vote for student representative on Board of Curators

Previous bills failed due to concerns about the students' ability.

Craig Stevenson, former Associated Students of the University of Missouri board chairman, discusses ASUM's stance on former Gov. Matt Blunt's 2008 veto of a bill that would have given the student curator voting privileges Sept. 10, 2008, in Jefferson City. Stevenson, along with former Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, were longtime proponents of such legislation, but the issue has since lost momentum. Maneater File Photo

It was 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 3, 2009, when Laura Confer, a junior at Missouri University of Science & Technology, answered her phone to find out she needed to go to the Board of Curators meeting the following morning.

Confer had been appointed as the student representative to the UM system's governing board earlier that year and needed to fill in last-minute for the then-student representative. While there, an interesting issue came up: An MU student-led initiative to expand Student Legal Services got a 4-4 vote, and the ninth board member was absent. Thus, the proposal failed.

"Coming into the board, I wasn't necessarily against the student having a vote, but I wasn't gung-ho about it," Confer said. "But immediately coming in, I was faced with the reality that was probably not a good stance to have."

But now the issue, nearly a decade old and its main proponent in the Missouri House gone, the momentum of a 2008 peak has been lost, and students are left wondering whether it will ever come to fruition.

A history of failure

The state government approved the creation of the non-voting student representative in 1984, and ever since, various bills have been proposed to alter the position. In 1999, the student was given the right to attend all board meetings, including the previously exempted executive sessions.

In 2002, then-Rep. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, sponsored a bill that would give the student member voting rights. The bill passed the House but failed in the Senate. In the following few years, multiple bills were proposed in the House and Senate, but none made it out of the respective education committees.

As the end of the decade and a Census nearing, new hope was instilled. In 2008, Graham (then in the Senate) sponsored a similar bill in which the student's voting hinged on whether Missouri lost a congressional district. Under Missouri's constitution, the Board of Curators is comprised of nine members, one from each congressional district, and Census projections showed Missouri was to drop to eight congressional districts. The bill passed both the House and the Senate for the first time, and students were ready to celebrate.

But on July 9, 2008, then-Gov. Matt Blunt vetoed the legislation. Later that year, Graham lost his re-election bid, further slowing the momentum of the 2008 version of the bill. Since, longtime supporter Rep. Bryan Pratt, R-Blue Springs, sponsored similar legislation, but it hasn't made it past the House higher education committee.

"There's a lot of passionate people among the legislators with this issue and Rep. Pratt has helped us out immensely," said Joe Karl, legislative director for the Associated Students of the University of Missouri. "Unfortunately the speaker (Ron Richard) doesn't agree with the legislation, so he's halted it."

Stakeholder vs. shareholder

Blunt was persuaded to veto the legislation in part because of direct lobbying from the curators, who have openly opposed a voting student curator. In 2008, when the bill went to Blunt's desk, the UM system spent $26,675 in student money on various lobbying expenses. The next year, the system spent $13,652.

Multiple curators sent letters to Blunt stating their disapproval of the voting student curator legislation. A main reason they cited for their opposition was a voting student would introduce a bias to the board and turn the "lay board" into a stakeholder board. Curator Warren Erdman said it's appropriate for board members to inform legislators of their stances on issues.

The concern is if a student were given voting powers, other constituency groups, such as faculty, would seek a voting board member. Between 1999 and 2004, legislation was proposed to create a voting faculty member, but that has since died off and given way to the student-led movement.

ASUM, the student lobbying group leading the campaign, has countered the curators' concern about a "stakeholder" board and instead said students are more like "shareholders." Students' tuition covers about half the UM system's $1 billion operating budget, and ASUM has argued giving shareholders a vote is a more businesslike approach.

The board stands by its argument, though, saying a representative is enough to give students a voice.

"It works very well and gives the important student stakeholder group special voice with the board that no other stakeholder group enjoys," Erdman said.

Qualifying a curator

The curators also believe students, who serve a two-year term on the board, wouldn't have enough time or experience to tackle issues the board addresses.

"The University of Missouri is a very complex organization with a steep learning curve," the curators said in a resolution opposing the 2008 legislation. "With a voting student curator term expiring every two years, the student will barely have been oriented to the policies and issues."

The typical curator is a white 40- to 60-year-old male MU graduate, though not all have gone to a UM school. They have experience in politics, business and health care, but many boast a background in law. Students have argued their perspective would be refreshing to the board.

About half of related institutions' governing boards would agree with those students and have given their own a vote. The UM system surveyed Big 12 and Big Ten schools, as well as other public universities that are members of the Association of American Universities.

Iowa State is the only Big 12 school that gives its student representative a vote, compared to 14 of the 22 Big Ten and public AAU schools surveyed.

"All curators, not just the student representative, must consider student opinion as they consider their votes," Erdman said. "It would be a mistake to vest only one student curator with this duty."

But former student curators said their extended time on campus (many are graduate students) and experience in student government have aided their learning curve.

"I had a relatively short learning curve due to my prior experience in student government," former student representative Tony Luetkemeyer said. "I felt fairly comfortable with most of the issues on the board's agenda by my second or third meeting."

A need for accountability

Students acknowledge a vote might not change too many outcomes but say there's a more symbolic reason for the legislation: a need for accountability.

"Most of the time, the board votes unanimously. I have 60 pages of reading on why a degree should be entered, and we talk about it for a minute," Confer said. "I would feel more accountable if those 60 or 70 pages was worth something."

On the other hand, Luetkemeyer said even without a vote, the student representative and the board members are held accountable.

"The student curator vote is not about holding the board accountable; it's about giving students, who fund most of the university's operating budget through tuition and fees, a real say in how the institution is governed," he said.

The curators have sided with the student opinion in many cases, but other times went against it (the SLS expansion) or didn't take up issues for which students advocated, such as adding gender identity to the system's non-discrimination policy or making women's and gender studies its own degree program.

If a specific item is sent to the UM system, it is considered by President Gary Forsee and whichever curator is the chairperson at the time. They determine if and when the board will review the issue. And though some student initiatives have failed to make the agenda in the past, the student curator has influenced the board to make decisions based off student input.

When the board was voting on a student fee increase at MU in 2007, the item said students supported it, which was false. Luetkemeyer brought up the discrepancy to the board, and the members delayed the vote.

"It was a huge victory for students, ensuring that their voices were heard," Luetkemeyer said.

How it all fits in

This session, Pratt has again sponsored legislation that would give a vote to the student representative if Missouri loses a congressional district. The only problem is, the chances of that happening seem more remote than they once were.

According to the Census Bureau's last projections, released Dec. 23, before officially beginning its Census, Missouri's population would have increased about 7 percent, an average bump that wouldn't result in the loss of a House seat.

Regardless, students say they're hopeful the legislation will pass this year, but if not, their work isn't over.

"We're definitely going to pursue it in the years to come," Karl said. "We'd have to go back to the drawing board, but we're just trying to take it this year."

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