‘Denied a seat at the table’: Presidential search committee fails to include students

The Board of Trustees has appointed a 23-person committee to aid in the selection of the University’s next president, Chair of the Board Rick Caruso announced Tuesday, raising concerns among student leaders about the lack of student representation.

The committee comprises faculty, trustees, the School of Cinematic Arts dean and the interim president, Wanda Austin. No students were selected for the committee.

“The Board recognizes that selecting our next president is not only historic and consequential, but it is also our most inviolable and solemn fiduciary obligation,” Chairman Rick Caruso wrote in Tuesday’s letter to the USC community. “This is a monumental moment for the future of our University and we commit to this undertaking with the utmost faith, trust and confidence.”

The announcement followed a meeting between student leaders and Caruso  this summer, and a newsletter from Graduate Student Government President Joycelyn Yip sent to grad students on Monday. In the newsletter, Yip shared that GSG has “persistently requested that there be student representation within decision-making bodies.”

“The Board has denied us a seat at the table,” Yip wrote, explaining that universities like Stanford, Princeton and NYU have included students on similar committees. “The Board of Trustees has voted to exclude students and staff on the Presidential Search Advisory Committee this fall.”

Yip revealed that the Undergraduate Student Government and GSG both requested that the committee include two student members — one graduate and one undergraduate — to represent USC’s student population of over 45,000.  

USG President Debbie Lee confirmed the governing bodies’ request.

Emily Smith | Daily Trojan
Searching for a president · USG President Debbie Lee was one of the student leaders who met with Board of Trustees Chair Rick Caruso about student representation on the search committee.

“I think it’s imperative that administrators realize that student voices aren’t just a check mark on the qualifications — [that they’re] a priority,” Lee said. “There needs to a clear and direct channel where students are actively engaging and participating in Board decisions because at the end of the day, their decision affects all of us.”

Caruso told the Daily Trojan that the Board did not vote to exclude anybody and that the voice of students was “critically important,” but also that the Board can’t have “an unlimited amount of people” participating.

“Quite frankly, this is a difficult process to get through,” Caruso said. “We think it’s well representative of the faculty, of the deans and the trustees.”

Caruso said in his letter that the faculty representatives were recommendations from the Academic Senate, along with the inclusion of Yaniv Bar-Cohen, the president of the Academic Senate, who expressed his optimism with the presidential search process.

“In terms of qualities we are looking for in a new president, the most important thing for the search committee to do right now is to listen as best we can to the members of the USC community to answer that question,” Bar-Cohen wrote in an email to the Daily Trojan, stating that he had nothing to add regarding the exclusion of students on the committee.

“The voice of the students is critically important and we’re going to listen to their voice through the town sessions that we’ll have,” Caruso said.

In his letter to the USC community, Caruso stated that anyone can access a presidential search website to submit recommendations and nominations for the new president.

He also explained that students and other members of the community are welcome to attend one of three town hall-style “listening sessions” where people can share recommendations and opinions regarding the search. The first meeting is set for Sept. 13 at Town and Gown.

Kristopher Coombs, former president and a current vice president of GSG, said that concerns about student representation during major decision-making processes are not new. According to Coombs, students advocated for representation at the trustee level weeks before the presidential search.

“Every time we brought up having a permanent student representative, who basically had voting power, they were very dismissive about that idea, or very vague about it,” Coombs said.

Caruso explained that the Board’s Governance Committee is currently looking into ways to restructure the Board, with a decision expected by the beginning of 2019.

“There’s no doubt that we need greater diversity at the Board level, and that is one of my primary goals,” Caruso said. “We need more diversity in terms of men and women of color and ethnic backgrounds.”

Hours after the announcement regarding the committee, a Change.org petition began circulating on social media, led by USG leader Christopher McMorran.

“The Board of Trustees has made it clear that the oices of wealthy donors and elite members of the University are valued over the voices of their own students,” the petition read. “If USC is to achieve the culture change it so badly needs, this is unacceptable.”

The petition garnered a few dozen signatures by time publication.

1:45 a.m. Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include information regarding the Change.org petition.