Ohio universities fight for student trustee voting rights

More than 30 years ago, the Ohio General Assembly voted to allocate two seats for student positions on the boards of trustees for each university in Ohio. These student trustee titles were not created equal; the students were never allotted full voting rights. However, a bill introduced in the Ohio House of Representatives may change this, and Youngstown State University students plan to help.

House Bill 111 aims to allow Ohio’s 13 public universities to permit student
trustees full voting power, though actually granting them such is not mandatory.

Harry Meshel — a YSU Board of Trustees member and former Ohio Senator — said that the bill was introduced earlier this year by Michael Stinziano, a democratic senator for Columbus, and Mike Duffey, a republican senator from Worthington.

“That gives it bi-partisan support, but I don’t know if that goes to the leadership in the house and the leadership in the senate because they can make or break a bill,” Meshel said.

As it stands, student trustees at YSU are able to vote within the committees they are part of, but they are not permitted voting power in the full board meetings.

Melissa Wasser  — a fourth year YSU student and one of the university’s two student trustees — wholeheartedly supports changing this.

“It is very important that [student trustees] fully represent the student body in the way they were appointed to do, and I think that comes with the voting rights,” Wasser said. “It is kind of rough when students you are supposed to be representing come to you and say, ‘Why did you raise tuition? Why did you vote to raise tuition?’ and I have to explain to them that although I get a vote in committee … I do not get a vote on the floor during a board meeting.”

Despite this being Wasser’s last year on the board, she is actively supporting the bill by drumming up support and communicating with students, administrators, legislators and other student trustees around the state.

“There is a Facebook group that some of the student trustees have started. … We are trying to brain storm ways to make sure that they know that there are other universities in Ohio that support this bill,” Wasser said. “I did ask Governor Kasich what he thought of the bill. Governor Kasich is really supportive of it. He says if it comes across his desk, he’ll sign it. I talked to Dr. Dunn and he said that he fully supports it.”

Eric Shehadi, the other YSU student trustee and a YSU Student Government Association representative, said that SGA has thrown their support behind the bill and taken tangible action to support it.

“SGA has actually co-signed [with other student government associations in Ohio] a letter that is being sent to the state legislator,” Shehadi said.

Meshel, who is in full support of the bill, said that the issue is long-standing and divisive, with opponents who fear that students trustees will act in their own interest on decisions that affect them directly. He believes the bill’s success is dependent on extensive student involvement, including acquiring official support from the YSU Board of Trustees and the university as a whole.

“If we [the board] received 300 letters of some kind … if we received that kind of support from the students and if the legislators would receive the same kind of evidence that the students care about this, then they might very well support it easily,” Meshel said. “If the students don’t give a damn — you know, if they act disinterested or disheartened or don’t care — then the leaders say, ‘Why should we even worry about it if the students don’t exhibit strong support for it?’”

House Bill 111 comes on the heel of the related House Bill 377 that was struck down in 2012. However, the differences between the two bills are noticeable; House Bill 111 has more extensive bi-partisan support and allots universities the choice to refuse student trustees voting rights.

“I am much more optimistic. There is just much more buzz about it. Last year, when this happened, there was a little blurb and no one really did anything about it,” Wasser said. “I talk to other student trustees across the state; I am hearing them talk about it — go to their papers, their news stations, their administration and say ‘this is what is going on, we would really like your support.”

Shehadi added that, although he is hopeful that the bill will pass, the student trustees will continue to represent YSU students to the best of their ability, regardless of the outcome.

“I do know that it has had a history of failing,” Shehadi said. “I’m hopeful that it does pass, and I think it is only a positive thing. I guess for students at YSU, if doesn’t pass, they can still rest assure that the student trustees represent them and that the rest of the board of trustee take our opinion into account when we voice them on behalf of the students.”