Getting students on board

Apparently students have been applying to serve on the Town of Chapel Hill's Transportation Board, but none have been appointed recently. I'm a bit surprised to see this, but it's hard to draw conclusions without knowing the details of each applicant. In the past students have contributed a lot to the T-board (and others). In fact, joining the board when I was a student in 1991 is one of the things that got me hooked on participating in local politics two decades ago!

With a seat on the board, Medlin said students would have more of a voice about routes and bus schedule times.

Dakota Williams, student body treasurer, said students should embrace the higher fees and advocate for better representation.

“If we’re paying 41 percent … there is no excuse for a student not to be on that board,” he said.

“Those decisions need to be made by the people who are paying for them, which is students more than ever,” he added.

At the beginning of each meeting, Santoro said the transportation board addresses member issues.

“They go around and say, ‘Is there anything you experienced this week using the transit system that the board needs to know?’” she said.

Since no students sit on the board, some problems go unanswered, she said.

“If they’re not taking student routes, then those issues don’t come to light,” she said. “There’s an overwhelming student presence that is not reflected in the town government at all.”

The position requires a three-year commitment to semimonthly meetings.

“Some of these issues are long-term problems that require long-term obligations,” Cho said.

Santoro said while the council might have had legitimate reasons for blocking her appointment, the lack of student representation on the board remains an issue.

“The town has repeatedly and consistently said ‘no,’” she said. “People heard about me applying and Andrew trying, and they’ve been discouraged to try to apply.”  

- Students excluded from Chapel Hill transit talks, 3/28/11  

The Daily tar Heel story is a bit hyperbolic, though. Students have hardly been "excluded from transit talks" since every meeting is open to the public.  What's missing in the personal story of one student's rejection is the information about who the Council did choose to appoint. I'd be pretty surprised if the town didn't proactively want to get some young peopel on all of their boards. That's always been a goal in the past (if not a top priority).


Hyperbole from the DTH?  Say it isn't so.

Student representation on community committees is a hard nut to crack.

'The half-life of a student is about a year, maybe year and a half'. Or so it's been said.

Since student government positions and leaders change every year (and so do priorities), perhaps the Town could set some service parameters that make it easier on a Student Body President or the student body as a whole to maintain a consistent presence on this important committee.

There are certain scholarship programs (Morehead) and courses of study (Sustainability) that require some kind of community-service.  This might help extend student involvement past their 'half lives' and ensure consistent representation.

 Before I can start to formulate an educated response to thisissue, I feel additional information is needed.Who, specifically, is paying for the other 60%? Do thestudents meet the basic requirements to join the ChapelHill Transportation Board (are they permanent residents of OrangeCounty)? What demographic (faculty/student/staff/non-university) is utilizingthe bus service?Without that information,I’m just letting my emotions get the best of me. 

I served on the Chapel Hill Transportation Board as an undergraduate until mid-2007; there is also a student government appointment to the UNC Advisory Committee on Transportation that I served as for a while.  I certainly haven't seen an explicit shift towards excluding students from board service, nor could I imagine most of our Council members making that shift implicitly. That's not to say that more shouldn't be done to get students on boards; I just don't see it as a conspiracy as much as a systemic problem in need of a fix. Maybe what is needed is a more holistic approach to examining board composition.When the town council started their conversation a couple of weeks ago about appointing the committee to start the comprehensive plan rewrite process, they went around the table and identified several different interests and perspectives that they wanted to see represented on that board.  I wonder if a similar approach would be useful for other town boards.  Right now, seats are filled by Council looking at the applications for a particular vacancy on a particular board, in absence of information about the current board's composition. Demographic information (race, gender, and age) are collected from each applicant, but beyond that there's no concerted effort to make sure that advisory boards are truly representative of larger community. I wonder if there is something they could add to the process to help that along. Some boards in Chapel Hill do appoint applicants as representatives from various constituencies, like the sustainability committee; maybe student representation needs an explicit slot on some of our current boards.I think we often fall into a trap in Chapel Hill, a town with so many experts, of expecting all of our advisory board members to be experts too, and I think that's a mistake. The town has no shortage of expert opinion; what we often are lacking is representative input from all of the affected constituencies. Appointing the "most qualified" person for an advisory board spot may make sense when we look at boards opening by opening, but doesn't ensure the right mix of opinions are at the table.

Jason, surely you recognize you are extraordinary in your commitment to our town since your time as an undergrad here.  While I'm sure many would welcome those perspectives, finding students willing to commit to the time for a significant period isn't easy.  I voted for you when you ran for TC, but I also recognize you as a very rare breed...

Thanks for the kindness James. Certainly I wouldn't want the standard for demonstrating service to the town to be the number of hours I spent as an undergrad.  I'm not sure I'd wish that upon anyone. :) But I don't think that level of participation is necessary for someone to be an effective board member.I think one effort that would have a positive benefit in terms of generating applicants would be to remind potential board members, including students, that while the term for most boards is three years, there is certainly little harm in serving less than a full term if your situations doesn't allow three years of uninterrupted service.

One of the pointst hat Jason and I have both been making is that you really DON'T have to be extraordinary to serve on boards and commissions. You need to be able to attend meetings, read the material in advance, and bring an open mind to the table. I came to the Board 20 years ago as one of those single-issue activists that Augustus Cho disparages in the article, but I listened and soon learned about the many facets of transportation (and land use) decisions in Town. In addition, even if all they did was advocate for student perspectives to the Town, that would be a great improvement! 


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