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Pity the poor City University of New York Board of Trustees (you know, the ones who denied Pulitzer-winning playwright Tony Kushner an honorary degree owing to one trustee’s totally false impression of said playwright’s views on Israel). Why? Because when it comes to exercising covert influence on their institutions they’re such a sad amateur outfit. I hope that one or two of those trustees are coming to the meeting of the Penn Board of Trustees so they can learn at the feet of masters.

Consider the instant case — awarding honorary degrees. At the CUNY board meeting, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld made his inaccurate accusations in a very public meeting. You could sit in — you could even watch via live webcast.

Who voted for what was also public; the decision to table (read: kill) the honorary degree for Kushner was public. The inevitable embarrassing reversal was also very public, as was the scorn heaped on Wiesenfeld and the Board by the very large number of liberal academics who felt distinctly snubbed. This is in no small measure because CUNY is a public university.

The University of Pennsylvania is far more sophisticated. Here, the process begins with broad consultation (students, faculty) where everyone can throw in a name.

But the process of winnowing through the list is absolutely secret. The ultimate decision is in the hands of the Board Committee on Honorary Degrees, which issues no report and holds no public meeting. The first most people hear of the degrees is when they are announced, shiny and approved.

How many Tony Kushners have been denied a degree from Penn because one or two trustees disliked their views on Israel? Or politics, for that matter? Or knitting patterns? No one will say. Because at Penn, the Trustees are cloaked in mystery. Their public functions are pro forma; they make few disclosures. Committees routinely go into executive session, kicking out the non-voting student and faculty representatives.

A public meeting of the Penn Board of Trustees is a surreal experience comparable to a meeting of the Supreme People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China (though with fewer people and, I understand, better canapés). Administrators present work reports highlighting amazing progress; unanimous applause. Resolutions are proposed — the chairperson’s call for debate is answered with silence, followed by the unanimous raising of hands.

Where is the debate? Where is the discussion? Where are these 60 very clever, very rich people actually making up their minds about the future of the University?

The Trustees’ allergy to public discussion and debate wouldn’t be problematic were it not for the fact that they wield a lot of power — in the best Penn tradition — behind the scenes. People we do not know shape our housing system, our student fees and even our curriculum in ways we do not see.

Indeed, the Trustees eliminated formal student representation on the Presidential Search Committee in 2009 without even notifying any person involved in student government before taking the proposal to a vote.

We can only hope that when it comes time to select a new University president, the Trustees are kind to us and allow us a look in — though, of course, it will be the Trustee Executive Committee that makes the final decision, in secret.

The “corporate/outsider” model of United States’ university governance has many merits; it has enriched schools like Penn more than just financially. But Trustees are ultimately making decisions for a community in which they do not actively participate. They stake their money and their time in the school; our faculty, staff and students stake their lives, their careers, their families and their futures.

When Trustees make decisions for us, we deserve — at the very least — a public explanation of why they do so. That’s how democratic education should work.

Alec Webley is a 2011 College graduate from Melbourne, Australia. His column appeared in The Daily Pennsylvanian every Thursday last semester. His email address is

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