At Messiah, it’s easy to view the Board of Trustees as a somewhat mythical group of individuals who make important decisions on campus. Not many students have the privilege of interacting with the Board of Trustees or spending a few days talking, working, and engaging with the Board members like Student Body President, Jonathan Fuller, did in the middle of October.
I sat down with Jonathan to ask him about his experience with the Board and hear why he believes having a Board of Trustees is important at Messiah.
MC: How would you describe the role of the Board of Trustees?
JF: The Board at its very core serves as “stewards of the College’s mission and identity.” Any decision related to those things comes to the Board. They are the highest governing body on campus. They work on advancing the College’s mission and protecting its identity, and addressing things that come through as they relate to the College’s mission and identity. They’ve been given a gift that is Messiah College, and they’ve been entrusted with its care, and that’s the motivation for their decision-making.
MC: How would you describe SGA’s relationship with the Board of Trustees?
JF: I think the connection that’s been established recently has at least allowed the Student Body President to serve on the Education Committee. I think it was in the last ten years that the Student Body President was allowed to attend the general sessions of the Board. The connection used to be much more involved in terms of student interaction with the Board beyond Student Government Association (SGA). It wasn’t anything intentional that lessened that connection, but now there are active steps to increase that connection both with SGA and with students in general. Our Board is very concerned with the student experience here at Messiah. The College isn’t just students, but students are one of the main reasons the College is operating, to impact their lives and educate them. The Board realizes it’s crucial to know what their opinions are and what they’re thinking.
MC: What specifically did you do with the Board over the two and a half days they were on campus?
JF: My primary involvement was attending meetings. They had two general sessions of the Board, and I was included as a member of President Phipps’ cabinet. The meeting time is set aside for the Board to interact with each other and make those decisions. We wouldn’t provide input unless specifically asked. I was involved in both of those sessions and gave two brief presentations to the Committee on Education. I shared meals with Board members, and I was there as they were interacting with each other outside of the meeting context. I also had the privilege of sharing a devotional to open up the Friday meeting. I really appreciated the chance to do that.
MC: What topics were discussed during your meetings?
JF: The first general session was primarily based on three presentations by Messiah College administrators. The first presentation by Vice President of Information Technology and Associate Provost, Bill Strausbaugh, addressed the state of online education at Messiah College. Dr. Pete Powers, Dean of the School of Humanities, then led a discussion on the College’s strategic plan, which is in the process now to be improved and hopefully implemented in the May Board meeting. President Phipps then led a discussion on how the College is already in plans to pursue and advocate for religious freedom in the coming years since recent political events have kind of come to the forefront for religious nonprofit organizations in particular. While those events didn’t necessarily have an immediate impact on Messiah, there’s potential for challenges on that front to come down the road. The Board and the President are being very proactive in how they face those pretty pressing issues, which obviously when you’re at an administrative level you take those kinds of things very seriously. On a preliminary level, we talked about the student alcohol policy. Then at our breakfast with the Board we primarily focused in terms of things we would like the Board to do surrounding the LGBTQ community. That was the biggest agenda we had during that time together.
MC: I understand you discussed the results of the LGBTQ survey students were asked to take last year. What did those results look like?
JF: We’re hoping to release those survey results and the alcohol policy results on a larger scale very soon. However, we can make three general statements at this point about the survey results. First, the survey indicates our demographics on campus are relatively similar to national averages with regards to the percentages of students that identify with the LGBTQ community. The second takeaway involves the College’s policy. The survey was structured where student respondents were posed with a statement on a belief regarding same-sex identity and practice. They could respond both with a spectrum of “strongly believe/disagree” or “yes/no” type of responses. There were a lot of completely incorrect or much more ambiguous responses regarding orientation. We understand through this process the College hasn’t taken a stance on orientation, but that causes a lot of confusion. Finally, and sadly, the survey indicates a significant level of fear evident among many LGBTQ students on campus. The results and the comments themselves mostly indicate a fear of the unknown. Because of the policies that are in place on our campus there’s a lot of ambiguity about ‘if I’m open about my sexual identity, and it’s not in line with what the College has affirmed, what will happen to me?’ Someone who’s open about their sexual identity is not the issue on the table. The issue on the table comes to behavior. That hasn’t been made clear because of the questions regarding the College’s stance on orientation.
MC: Did you discuss the College’s document on LGBTQ behavior and orientation on campus?
JF: We addressed it briefly; it should move forward for further discussion and approval at the Board level during the January meetings. That document has been in the works for two years now and doesn’t express any sort of change to the College’s mindset; it’s just trying to make it clearer to students and the broader community. They’re being very intentional about how they’re going through that process and they make the distinction between orientation and behavior in that document. I think the clarity that’s made as a result of the document can be helpful, but I personally think you can expect a lot of questions when you don’t take a stance on an issue.
MC: Overall, did you feel as if your goals for your meetings with the Board were met?
JF: I will speak specifically to the breakfast because that’s where we had the most intentional influence. We had a great conversation. The Board members we met with were incredibly receptive. I wish we had another hour to spend with them, and I think they would’ve said the same thing. We might not have gotten answers to all of our questions, but we know based on our conversations and the things they told us that they were taking our input to heart. On that front we definitely succeeded.
MC: Why do you think having a Board of Trustees is valuable to Messiah?
JF: I’ve had a lot of people say to me, ‘How can a group of people who’s not even here on our campus, make significant decisions that impact our campus so much?’ I would go to those people and say first off there are few, if any, colleges in our country that don’t have this kind of governing structure. This is part of the way college works. More importantly I would say I don’t know how people who are on our campus every day and are so ingrained in our community and our process here could make decisions that impact our campus on that broad a scale. The Board has the privilege of being able to come together and make decisions from so many different perspectives.
The Board meets three times a year and at most they’re together two weeks out of the year, and that’s being generous. That would be really problematic if we didn’t have the President we have. President Phipps does an incredible job of keeping the Board informed, keeping them up to date, and maintaining good relationships with them, so those of us on here on the ground know that our voices are genuinely being heard at all times. The Board isn’t coming to campus having to be informed about everything and then making a decision. The Board’s coming to campus informed, ready to engage in dialogue, and ready to make decisions. I don’t think President Phipps gets nearly enough recognition for the way the Board operates so openly and efficiently, and that praise comes from several Board members as well.
MC: Is there anything else you’d like to say about your time with the Board?
JF: I want to emphasize that I do have this avenue of input with the Board. There is a connection here that is more than just a formality, and we’re trying to continue to bridge whatever distance that is left between the Board and students in particular. My job is to represent students before the Board and the Board members really appreciate the opportunity to connect with students as well. If anyone desires to know more about the Board, they are more than welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or stop by during my office hours to chat!