Of the 26 members of the UT Board of Trustees, one trustee is not like the others.
A senior and former SGA president at UT-Chattanooga, Shalin Shah currently acts as the sole voting student trustee, a two-year elected position allowing one student an equal vote on all board decisions. At the close of Shah's term in 2014, a student from UT-Knoxville will rise as his replacement, an opportunity which rotates through the UT system.
The board, which seeks to provide academic and operational direction across UT's institutions, is the "governing body of the University of Tennessee," according to their website.
"The board can decide anything from tuition rates to admission requirements, so clearly students are directly affected by board decisions," said Lindsay Lee, a senior in mathematics and a member of this year's SGA election commission, a group working to ensure fairness and efficiency in the upcoming spring elections. "Being a student member is a very unique and valuable opportunity to represent the entire student body in this impactful board."
Although Shah's pursuit of a career in student affairs drew him to the position, he began to recognize the necessity of a student perspective on the board.
"Most of the other trustees are 30 to 40 years removed from their college years and represent a very different world," Shah said. "We can't expect them to understand the day-to-day concerns and needs of students. They try their hardest but they are from a very different socioeconomic group. It is my job to bridge the gap between them and the students."
To become a student trustee, the candidate must win both a student election and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam's approval.
"The results of the campaign are meant as a student endorsement for a particular candidate," Lee said. "But ultimately Governor Haslam has the final say of who gets the position. This means it is possible for someone to win the SGA election but not be chosen by Governor Haslam as the student board representative from UTK."
Although Shah admits that much of the position involves discretionary work on the student's home campus alongside SGA, he was required to prepare for and attend an average of seven to eight board meetings and committee meetings each semester. As the student trustee, Shah automatically received membership on the Academic Affairs and Student Success Committee and the Research, Outreach and Economic Development Committee.
In addition, Shah noted "ancillary responsibilities," like serving on the UT Diversity Action Council and other various committees.
During the first year of his or her term, the student observes the board as a non-voting member, garnering insight as to how meetings proceed. In the second year, the student ascends to the role of voting student trustee. Only offered to Knoxville students every five years, the trustee position does not come without its challenges. Shah confessed he often felt "too nervous" to "speak up."
"Most of the other trustees have been serving for many years so it can be intimidating," Shah said. "It takes time to understand the protocols and procedures."
This, however, did not prevent him from initiating a dialogue with board members about "how adjuncts are treated," calling it "a hidden problem and a stain on our schools, our reputations and our moral authority as educated citizens."
"I have learned that all of the trustees and staff members really care for the student trustees and want to help you learn and adjust," Shah said. "You just have to ask."
While Shah believes "gravitas," or "seriousness" is vital to the success of a student trustee, Lee mentioned the importance of the ability to "fairly represent the opinions of a wide variety of UT student demographics," "a passion for the university" and "a record of high academic achievement."
Lee stated that nothing has been formally done to decide the candidates for the student trustee position, but discussions will begin later this month and into February.
For the chosen UT-Knoxville student, Shah advised a constant mindfulness of "the average student."
"It's easy to get caught up in the world of administration," Shah said. "Make sure you walk every decision through the eyes of your quietest, poorest, average student."
This year's SGA elections are April 2 and 3.