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The student voice

A glance is all it takes to reveal that it’s an elite group. Left and right are CEOs and presidents, successful business people and administrators. For the lone student in their midst, it’s a huge step up from chalking on the sidewalk.

Since 2001, student body presidents accustomed to the low-key world of student government politics have been thrust into the tumult of Florida’s education politics. Their place on each university’s Board of Trustees gives students a voice in the shaping of university policy, but leaves mostly young, inexperienced students to deal with complex financial, political and ethical issues, sometimes pitting them against trustees with a wealth of business acumen.

“With (trustees’) experience and expertise with business and real estate, compared to them, I know nothing. It’s natural to feel that way,” said Bijal Chhadva, student body president.

Boards of Trustees were created for all state universities in 2001 after the Florida Legislature abolished the Board of Regents, the body that administered public universities. As a fully fledged member of the 13-strong board, the student body president votes on every issue the board considers, not just those related to students, requiring him or her to understand such arcane topics as Public Education Capital Outlay funds and debt refunding.

“It’s a very challenging position for the student,” said Omar Khan, student body president for the 2003 academic year. “It can be quite intimidating, but I told myself I’m not there to have the best argument or the best dialogue, but to represent the students as I see fit.”

Both USF President Judy Genshaft and BOT chairman Dick Beard described students’ participation on the BOT, particularly at committee level where many policies are formulated, as invaluable. The learning curve student trustees face is no more daunting than for any new trustee, Genshaft said.

“I would think that if you were to ask Omar (Khan) or Bijal (Chhadva), they are prepared just like any other Board member,” Genshaft said. “We don’t treat students any differently than other trustees.”

But with the exception of the BOT’s faculty representative, the other trustees’ main concern is the university, rather than students or faculty. The crunch comes when the BOT considers increases in fees or discretionary tuition increases.

With increases invariably unpopular among students, the student trustee is forced to choose between voting against the wishes of those he represents and voting against the other trustees, even when there is a strong financial case for the increase. The possibility of swaying the board’s decision in these instances is remote, Chhadva said.

“I don’t think I’ve been able to change any votes,” Chhadva said. “(Being on the BOT) is worthwhile for the speaking rights more than the vote. Speaking rights go a long way because there’s the media there, because it’s an open meeting.”

In 2002, Mike Griffin, USF’s first student body president trustee, received a harsh lesson in the realities of BOT politics. While he had worked to get students to accept a $2-per-credit-hour fee to raise revenue for the Collins Boulevard Parking Garage, unbeknownst to him, plans were drawn up to raise parking decal fees by $5.

To try and cushion the blow to students, Griffin proposed an alternative financial plan he had devised with Parking and Transportation Services. His motion at the BOT meeting was met with a stony silence.

“I debated trustee (Lee) Arnold on the floor. I didn’t even get a second,” Griffin said. “It kind of hurt. I did a lot of work on it.”

Sitting on the BOT can also thrust students into controversial issues, often in the glare of state and national media. In December 2001, Griffin’s vote was one of 12 by the BOT recommending that Genshaft fire Sami Al-Arian, a tenured professor at the time, after his post-Sept. 11 appearances on The O’Reilly Factor resulted in the school receiving a series of death threats.

More recently, Florida State University student body President Jarrett Eady found himself embroiled in a political argument as the university’s trustees were asked to vote to approve a chiropractic school for which the Legislature had set aside $9 million a year.

The budget for the school was approved without any input from the Board of Governors, the body created by the voters in 2002 to run Florida universities without political interference. A heated debate ensued, with lawmakers being accused of exceeding their authority and some FSU professors characterizing chiropractics as a pseudoscience and claiming it would damage the university’s reputation.

As an FSU trustee and a member of the BOG, and as a result of his position as chair of the Florida Student Association, Eady found himself in a unique position of being asked to rule on the school at both university and state level. Between classes, the student found himself dealing with lobbyists including Ray Bellamy, an assistant FSU professor and leading opponent of the school, and The Florida Chiropractic Association.

“After FSU made a decision, I got to see it again,” Eady said. “It put me in the interesting position of looking out for my university and then looking after all of our universities.”

Student body presidents’ role as trustees has also led them into uncharted ethical territory. In 2002, Griffin and then-vice president Dave Mincberg flew to a USF football game in Oklahoma in a private jet belonging to former Outback Steakhouse owner Chris Sullivan, also a trustee at the time.

Griffin said he was planning to drive to the game anyway and that accepting the offer would only have been an ethical issue if he had been asked to do something in return.

“I do not regret it. I made it no secret,” Griffin said. “The president was on board, other students were on board. I got a lot of support from it and got zero negative feedback from that.”

After graduating, Griffin found employment with a real estate company owned by former trustee Ann Wilkins Duncan. Griffin said that his family and Duncan’s have been friends for many years and that his employment was not the result of any relationship established while he and Duncan were trustees.

Griffin’s successor as student body president, Khan, said after the publicity given to Griffin’s trip in The Oracle, he made it a policy to be careful about accepting any offers from other trustees to avoid the appearance of a conflict of issues.

“I guess it’s a personal thing; I don’t know if I would accept (the plane ride),” said Khan. “That’s one of the grey areas; there’s always grey areas in politics.”

But for Jay Black, a media ethics professor at USF’s St. Petersburg campus, students rubbing shoulders with other trustees are vulnerable to the glamour of wealth and success, especially when it gives them opportunities unavailable to the general student population.

“It’s business as usual — the ‘political beasts’ who gravitate toward student government leadership positions are tempted by some of these kinds of perks,” Black said. “The story is as old as history, as old as serving in the kings’ courts in the ancient world.”

Despite the challenges the role brings, all three USF student body presidents who have served as trustees are fans of the new system. Chhadva, who voted against Genshaft’s most recent pay raise in August 2004, said the key for students is to research the items discussed so they are able to understand the issues and their impact on the student body, an approach that Khan also subscribes to.

“(The trustees) look to you for insight from the students’ perspective,” Khan said. “You’re the minority. You’re the missing piece of the puzzle. You can substantiate or contradict a lot of beliefs.”