By Kavya Udupa (BSE ’19) and Brandon Quinere (CE ’19)
There is another very important election in our midst this year. Your friends and family aren’t ranting about it on Facebook, but it should have just as much attention and concern devoted to it, as it affects our student body and your personal experience as a student at Cooper much more intimately. Plus, this one doesn’t involve Donald Trump.
Voting for the Student Trustee opens today, and talk surrounding it has been somewhat sparse. In the weeks leading up to today, students have been relatively silent about the election itself. While signatures were required for nominees to run, students signing were unaware about the plans of the candidates and the candidates themselves, let alone what a Trustee actually does for us. The lack of concern surrounding this election is frightening, as it leaves the Cooper community left with a student vote without the support or awareness from which that vote requires: the students themselves.
There isn’t much history behind the Student Trustee as the position was recently created. Monica Abdallah (ChE ‘17) and Jessica Marshall (EE ‘17), the current Trustees, are the first students to hold the position, whereas Devora Najjar (ChE ‘16) was the first Student Representative to the board.
Jessica was elected as the next Student Representative in the spring of 2015 but became the Student Trustee as the Consent Decree, approved in November 2015, stated that there should be two Trustees to the board. The second Trustee was chosen by the board from the two students who ran against Jessica in the previous year; the board chose Monica as the second Trustee. From then on, the process of voting for the Trustee was staggered. One of the first two Trustees, Monica, will only hold the position for one year, which allows for voting for a new Trustee to begin today.
Though both jobs share a lot of similarities, there is one huge difference between the role of Student Trustee and the role of Student Representative: Student Trustees can vote. But having the ability to vote makes the Student Trustees look at everything from a fiduciary standpoint; As Jessica states, “We have to do what’s best for the Cooper Union, the institution. Not what’s best for our constituencies, the student body.”
So, what does the board vote on? The board discusses various issues that range from the budget of the school to the new president search and all of these issues are discussed in separate committees like the Governance, Academic and Student Affairs, Presidential Search, and Free Education Committees. A lot of the decisions that affect Cooper immediately are made by the administration and faculty of Cooper, what some call “the Cooper bubble.”
In essence, the board deals with long-term goals and fundamentally have “big picture final say, not implementation final say,” as Jessica puts it, which in turn brings in the role of the Student Trustee. The job of the Student Trustee is to listen in on the discussion and voice their opinions when they feel that something in the big picture either does or does not sit well with them.
The role of Student Trustee is very difficult to hold, as there is a delicate balance that needs to be maintained in terms of the relationships between the Trustees and the student body, as well as between the Trustees and the administration. “There’s more going on than what people see; there are confidential ideas that if exposed to the entire Cooper community, would be twisted very quickly,” Jessica states.
It is clear that Student Trustees cannot divulge everything that is discussed during board meetings. Recognizing confidentiality during these discussions is immensely important for the position, as Jessica explains, “Though people want transparency, it’s not necessarily beneficial to the community as many good ideas are lost before they were even thoroughly discussed.”
The nominees for the Student Trustee position are Jacqueline Baum (Art ‘18), Zhenia Dementyeva (Arch ‘20), Julian Mayfield (Art ‘18), Waseem Nafisi (Art ‘18), Kevin Savillon (Arch ‘19), and Clara Zinky (Art ‘18). Speaking to some of the nominees individually over the past couple of weeks revealed an interesting range of motives for each in regards to running.
Regardless if candidates were motivated to run for any reason other than to better engage our student body, the mystery surrounding the sincerity of our candidates’ motives would rightfully generate some suspiciousness in any curious voter. The events of last week in preparation for today’s Trustee election attempted to alleviate that concern, to what many consider subpar results.
The Student Trustee Forum held in Rose Auditorium last Wednesday night was loosely moderated. Though the more Trustee-related questions had the intention of showcasing the candidates’ knowledge about their role, they were executed in a way that allowed nominees to branch off of each other’s answers. The forum became more conversational, and while good for generating healthy discussion, it did not reveal individual views for each, which was important for any student in the audience to hear.
The style of the forum was somewhat of a blessing in disguise, as it did serve its purpose in showing the Cooper community whether some of the candidates truly understood their role as a Student Trustee. Many candidates were confused as to what the role entails and have not done sufficient research to figure out the extent of the job. Case in point, when asked if they sought out advice or knowledge from current Student Trustees Jessica and Monica, the candidates on stage remained silent.
The students in the audience, on the other hand, were not as silent as they had an opportunity to pose their own questions for the candidates. A portion of the forum was saved for this audience Q&A, which still did not aid in understanding the strategies of our candidates, with responses instead focusing on personal ideologies rather than actual plans. This was displayed in the amount of students that stayed in Rose to reflect on the forum after it was over.
Students voiced their concerns to peers as well as to the candidates themselves on how this platform for them to speak was unsuccessfully acted upon. Allowing students to vent these opinions to each other in person, however, was a refreshing change of pace from the slew of passionate rants that has become prevalent on our Facebook feeds.
Cooper students have a tendency to privately complain to their friends or publicly complain on social media about the way our school is run. That is expected to happen for any opinionated student at any institution, but those objections are only justifiable if you actually participate in our student affairs. How can your peers take your grievances about the Student Trustees seriously if you never voted for a Trustee in the first place?
If you don’t feel personally represented by any of the candidates or feel that last week’s forum did not help with understanding the candidates, talk to them and make your own judgment as to who could have the ability to serve as your Trustee for the next two years. The majority of the candidates at the forum stressed how accessible they would be to students if they had any personal concerns. Take advantage of that accessibility this week.
Ultimately, vote and be smart about your vote. Your votes will decide which three of our candidates will be sent to the Board of Trustees to be interviewed and ultimately selected for the position. It is your duty as Cooper students to exercise your right to vote in deciding who will be our next Trustee.
Former President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” Use this week to educate yourself and make an informed decision. And if you still choose not to participate in this week’s election: this decision to not vote will greatly affect you.
Even if you are at Cooper solely to learn, this election impacts you in ways that you probably don’t even realize. Student Trustees are sitting in on and speaking in discussions that directly affect Cooper. And what affects the institution will, in some shape or form, affect the student body.
One day, you will find yourself up personally affected by a change in our school. You may find yourself up in arms about this change, a perfectly rational reaction. What’s
irresponsible is an inability to take on an opportunity when it’s provided to you to prevent that change from happening in the first place. Regardless of who you choose this week, voting for your next Student Trustee is that opportunity. It would be wise to use it.