Saxa Politica: This is what “student engagement” looks like

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12/05/2013

My experience being the closest thing to a talking head of Georgetown media has taught me one thing: when you’ve exhausted your list of people to criticize, there’s always an easy target—blame administrators for not having enough “student engagement.”

Here’s the formula. Administrators announce mildly unpopular policy. Various groups of students disagree. Campus media asks questions. Student leaders decry lack of “student engagement.” Administrators tout student input gathered from closed-door meetings. Talking heads retort, “That’s not student engagement!”

Just last week, the Voice’s editorial board trotted out the same old argument: “It is futile to merely increase the volume of the same type of ineffective engagement. We encourage the University to think of creative and organic ways for administrators and students to have conversations about both immediate goals such as the Northeast Triangle dorm as well as long-term campus goals.”

But what are administrators supposed to do? Is Todd Olson supposed to show up at my apartment with a bottle of wine on a Friday night to talk long-term planning? Do we expect Lauralyn Lee to send each student a personal invitation to an intimate roundtable to discuss the Northeast Triangle? Should we offer housing points to students who attend planning forums?

Administrators send out mass emails for public forums. Those interested attend, and administrators answer questions. The model makes sense. After dozens of these sessions, students outside of GUSA and campus media have lost interest, which also makes sense. This trend isn’t the administrators’ fault. If student leaders have real problems with what’s going on, it should be their jobs to get average students to care. GUSA, after all, is an advocacy body.

The school has already thought of a few “creative and organic” ways to increase engagement. Earlier this summer, administrators along with architects from Sasaki Associates let students draw on several brown paper panels with possible designs for the building, which is significantly more involved than merely hosting a question and answer session.

It’s also worth noting that Georgetown is not a democracy. While it should serve the needs of students, it’s unreasonable to expect that they get 100 percent or even a sizeable majority of students to agree to a plan before it’s implemented. We’ve seen so far that, if there is a proposal that is unpalatable to a hefty portion of students, administrators will offer an alternate plan.

The only two Georgetown plans that gained a significant amount of pushback in the past six months were resolved. The vague complaints about the ugliness of the proposed Northeast Triangle dorm were met with an updated, older looking design. The proposed satellite campus was eventually abandoned, even though it took a campaign mounted by GUSA leaders to kill it. As I’ve written previously, the satellite campus option was problematic because administrators had emphatically promised in the past that they wouldn’t consider it. Nevertheless, GUSA did its job, the feedback mechanism worked, and something of a compromise was reached.

Still, you could fault administrators for only holding in-person forums to seek student input. Oh, wait. There’s already an entire section of the University’s website devoted to master planning, where you can read up on the topics related to master planning and offer feedback.

At this point, administrators can say with confidence that they’ve given every student a chance to give feedback on master planning topics.

If, instead, you think that it is the school’s responsibility to get students to care, I have a suggestion: hold online polls to determine what certain aspects of master planning will look like.

Instead of assuring students that they’ll take their comments into consideration at forums, administrators could set aside a few minor decisions and let students, faculty, and staff vote on them. Nothing major, like, “Where should the next dorm go?” Instead, questions like, “How big should the study rooms be?” or, “Should there be TV screens or a mural in the lobby?” or, “What type of trees should be planted?”

Many students would log in and vote if they knew that their vote would affect an aspect of the new dorm’s design. In turn, such a measure would generate student interest in other aspects of master planning and might even increase attendance at upcoming forums.

Engagement is a two-way street. Administrators need to give students enough opportunities to give feedback (which, recently, they have) and students need to care enough to turn up. It’s not enough to criticize administrators for a low level of student engagement.

Talk campus politics with Connor over wine at cjones@georgetownvoice.com

About Author

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Connor Jones Connor Jones is the former editor-in-chief of the Georgetown Voice. Before that, he edited its blog, Vox Populi and the features section. He was a double major in mathematics and economics and is from Atlanta, Ga. He can be reached at cjones@georgetownvoice.com.


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