On an almost weekly basis, the student body receives an email from Jay Gruber, Todd Olson, or Robin Morey, inviting them to take part in an upcoming event designed to “maximize engagement” with whatever issue is pertinent that week. Just about every student will casually scan the email with no real intention to act on the invitation, ultimately moving it to the trash folder.
I know this because at each of these kinds of forums I have been to, it’s the same group of students who shows up: student media reporters, outspoken activists, and a few student leaders from GUSA or other groups on campus.
Although students do an award-winning job of playing victim to the administration’s shortsighted policy making, few attend the town halls, round tables, and open houses that are supposed to give students a means through which they can effect change.
It’s not like administrators are trying to discourage student attendance—they hold these meetings on weeknights as opposed to weekends, they give students ample notification, and they often offer free snacks and beverages. Outside of forcibly dragging students to meetings, I’m not sure what else they could do. But if students are concerned with the future of the Hilltop and administrators are making a concerted effort to host forums for student input, then there must be something else deterring students.
Even though students might care a great deal about the issues being discussed, they are also aware that these meetings, in all likelihood, will not generate any substantial change. They know all too well of the power dynamics at play and how they inhibit meaningful discussion. Administrators are placed on a pedestal above students, as they are the ones who have called the event.
For instance, it was revealed in early October that Olson and other administrators were discussing the possibility of consolidating three campus cultural centers. In the following weeks, students published criticisms through student-media outlets and IdeaScale. They were not given the opportunity, however, to voice their complaints to actual administrators until last week’s town hall meeting. In the mean time, students were left in the dark, not knowing what the administration was thinking or planning. The administrators, on the other hand, were able to hear and synthesize student feedback without facing them. By the time of the meeting, administrators were able to regain the high ground by announcing what they knew students wanted to hear—that they were taking the proposal off the table.
The fact that the administrators are the ones who lead discussion in these types of forums gives them the power to decide which points will be expounded upon and which will quickly be brushed off. At the last town hall meeting, Olson spent plenty of time making it clear that the administration would be protecting the integrity of the three centers and that their funding would not be cut. He also emphasized his commitment to addressing the issues facing disabled students, but when disability rights activist Lydia Brown (COL ‘15) asked about a firm timeline for the disability working group, Olson admitted he could not give her a definitive answer.
Another issue is that administrators often hold these events under the pretenses of receiving student feedback, but in practice, it is often too late to make changes. All they can really do is justify their decisions.
Earlier this semester, I went to an open house on residential construction projects. As I was looking at one of the room designs for the former Jesuit Residence, a woman who was part of the design team asked me, “What do you think?” But she wasn’t asking to hear my response. When I blandly said, “It’s different,” she agreed and then proceeded to explain to me why the design was so innovative and thoughtful. There was nothing I could have said to change the design. The facilitators were not looking for suggestions on how to improve the plans, rather they were there to assuage any worries or criticisms.
It is impossible for constructive conversations to occur when administrators stand above students—where their claims have an inherent validity and students have to earn such respect. Instead, both parties should have to work to earn the other’s respect. In order to form an environment that fosters productive discussion, administrators have to be more transparent throughout their processes instead of leaving students in the dark until a meeting is called.
At meetings, rather than having administrators stand up in front of a room of students, all participants should sit around a table as equals with administrators as mediators, rather than leaders.