Decisions, Decisions

“Transparency” and “accountability” have been buzzwords during every discussion on student power that have taken place on campus this year. The words, used often by StuCo, Gazette columnists and commenters, and the administration itself, call to mind a cluster of “good governance” practices that make available to the public details on the way in which the school’s decisions are made. Often, the words have come up during conversations about decisions in which some students felt minimized within –- or else excluded from — the decision-making process. In some cases, that feeling of exclusion was attributable to oversight or lack of understanding between administrators and students about what made a decision important enough to students to merit some degree of student involvement in the decision-making process.

You’ve heard from us before that we believe students deserve a more significant level of involvement in administrative decision-making, and we’re not the only ones who have made such a point this year. What we have omitted, however, is a rigorous outline of just what decisions we believe students ought to be a part of. In this column, we’d like to think a little bit about ways to re-structure administrative procedure to allow for more and broader student input, although we do not hope to compile an exhaustive list of areas for increased involvement. Instead, we’d like to call for a broad and considered school-wide conversation that re-evaluates what types of decisions are important to students, evaluates why those decisions are important, and moves towards re-shaping the way students are included in — and excluded from — the decision-making process.

In many cases, we want to work to minimize the occurrence of what a Phoenix editorial published during last semester’s budget discussions dubbed “retro-activism,” which the article defines as “the well-chronicled tendency of student movements to be reactive rather than proactive.” The Phoenix cites last year’s NOTA campaign as an example of “retro-activism at its finest: activists choosing to act only when a blatantly available opportunity has passed them by.”

In the case of policy decisions that exclude students, those opportunities never truly come. The resulting “retro-activism,” if that’s what you’d like to call it, leaves student activists in a disadvantaged position, since they have relatively few official channels for registering their discontent and pushing for some change to occur. Further, it makes student activists unpopular among their peers — the people who should be their biggest supporters — because it is easy to characterize activists as a group of malcontents who can only complain and cry that an injustice has been committed.

The issue boils down to re-examining the scope of administrative decisions and asking ourselves, for each one: do students have an interest in this decision sufficient enough to warrant their inclusion? Further, we should ask: what is the best way to facilitate that inclusion? To be fair, we should acknowledge that Swarthmore has tried, in good faith, to open up many important decision-making processes, and the College’s selection of Liz Braun as our new Dean of Students is a testament to the success of that process. Including students in the selection process for a new Dean of Students is obvious and makes sense, since that position requires constant interaction with students and the Dean has a tremendous amount of influence over student life.

But students take interest in other areas of the College’s operations, and our policies should better recognize that interest. The successes of activist campaigns like Living Wage in the not-so-distant past testify to power a group of students can wield when they mobilize in support of an administrative policy. Students have fought to have a voice in the College’s employment practices, its purchases, and its investments, but that voice is not always heard before decisions are made.

Naturally, the administration daily makes countless decisions that pass unnoticed by most of us. And, to be honest, we would never expect that students should be allowed — or should even want — to micro-manage every aspect of the way that the College is run. We’d likely fail badly at it if we tried. However, the students, as one of the many interest groups to which the College is responsible, bring to policy considerations a unique perspective—a left-of-center one and an idealistic one perhaps, but unique nevertheless—that needn’t wield unmitigated influence, but ought to be heard. Put bluntly, there will always be someone around to stress budget neutrality or whatever “practical” perspective is the order of the day, but who will always remember and stress our commitments to ethical operation and to our values? That role is, and should be, played by the students. To that end, those in charge of the process for making larger decisions about hiring — say, whether to subcontract — about purchasing, and even about investing, should always expect and solicit student input. Students should not always be put in the position of having to question, and perhaps protest, a decision after the fact.

Finally, we need also to re-define our idea of what it means to solicit and receive student input. Student Council plays a large role in communicating the concerns of students to administrators, but recent comments on the Gazette suggest that there are those among us who believe that Student Council itself needs to operate more transparently. Personally, we believe that Student Council is a good way of bringing some concerns to the attention of the administration, but that it should not be the most important way of doing so until it can demonstrate that it genuinely represents a wide cross-section of student viewpoints. To clarify, we don’t mean at all to impugn the work done by any current Student Council members, but only to note that StuCo is a small group, and that they depend upon the larger student body to keep open lines of communication, and that this is quite a challenge. Perhaps some structural reform of Student Council would be appropriate, though we’re not sure where we’d begin (perhaps you have a suggestion?). For now though, we will say that we ought to stress that talking with members of Student Council does not necessarily equate to a genuine effort to solicit student input, and, secondly, that as long as these conversations happen on an ad-hoc basis, without a larger framework for just how to include student opinion, we can expect little in the way of transparency or accountability.

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