College Governance: Disappointed by a lack of participation

Last Thursday, April 4, I attended the Strategic Planning Committee’s Listening Session on the topic of College Governance. I attended because I want Macalester to be a more transparent institution and I believe students need a larger role in processes that affect them directly. So, trying to practice what I preach, I showed up, thinking that other students would as well. I was disappointed, however, when I walked into the meeting and saw that there were only three other students in the room. None of the students there were on MCSG nor were they the two elected student representatives to the Planning Committee.

This Listening Session was a forum to collect ideas and hear comments on the topic of College Governance. It was open to the entire community as an effort to establish structures for how the college would make future decisions and talk about issues, especially those pertaining to the strategic plan. President Brian Rosenberg emceed and other members of the Strategic Planning Committee, such as CFO David Wheaton, VP of Student Affairs Laurie Hamre and Provost Kathleen Murray, attended to hear the community’s thoughts. The fifty to sixty faculty and staff members (and the four students) in attendance had the chance to share their opinions while their remarks were recorded to be incorporated into the committee’s plan to move the campus forward with its planning process. Despite my disappointment with the student turnout, I was excited that the committee seemed receptive and genuine in their interest to collect ideas about change. However, I was also weary of the trap that public forms often becomes just a façade of participation and democracy.

One after another, faculty and some staff members rose to share their opinions on governance. Many advocated for transparency by mentioning the lack of access to information, especially concerning the budget, and the need to break down barriers between different constituents on campus so better ideas and stronger solutions can emerge. Others reflected on the topic of trust and urged the committee to not continue with “business as usual.” Even though I agreed with most of what was said, the thought at the forefront of my mind was that if this process is going to truly be transparent, participatory and innovative, then students must be at the table contributing to these conversations.

So, I spoke up and expanded on the issue of transparency from my perspective as a student. In my time at Macalester, I have found that students are at even more of a disadvantage than faculty when trying to gain access to information on campus. Governance improvements need to focus on how students can contribute to larger issues on campus and how the administration can be more open with decisions that directly affect the students. Information (like meeting notes, agendas, and final decisions) should be made more widely available and there should be greater student involvement in campus committees that do not already have student representatives. The college needs to be more imaginative about how we build Macalester collectively based on strong student participation that is supported actively by the administration.

I understand that the commitment to participation needs to come from both sides: students need to be willing to come to these types meetings and committees, but the responsibility is also on the college to make spaces of decision-making welcoming to students, spaces where they are valued and their opinions are taken seriously. The Listening Session was not a space designed for students, even though we were invited in the Daily Piper. I was exposed to a whole other side of campus power dynamics between the “adults” that was not necessary hostile towards students, but was not intended for us to be a part of either . I found this to be disconcerting since this was intended to be a Listening Session where all members of the community could share their ideas and have their input taken into account.

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote an Op-Ed for the Mac Weekly titled “The Double Standard on Macalester’s Campus: A Call for Transparency”. As implied in the title, I argued for more transparency in decisions that affect the entire Macalester community. This was prompted by the SRC’s dismissal of MPIRG’s Ethical Travel Policy, the shrouded and only semi-public announcement of subcontracting out the Highlander to Follett and the beginning of Occupy Mac’s Cut the Contract campaign that now has become KWOC. And today with KWOC, Fossil Free Mac, and students supporting Laura Nelson and K.P. Hong, I couldn’t help but think about that call for transparency again during the Listening Session and how greater student participation provides one solution to that call.

I know this meeting was not intended to directly talk about the difficult decisions we need to make in the upcoming years. It was rather about the process by which we are going to tackle those difficult decisions to make sure that we take bold, dynamic and wise steps forward. But I cannot help but tie my call for participation to mentioning the challenges that lie ahead. The challenge that lies ahead is how to make sure that economic, social, and environmental sustainability are constantly at the forefront of the minds of those who are making critical decisions about the college. In a world where college is becoming cripplingly expensive, how can we maintain a commitment to fund our college with money that is not complicit in destroying communities or the environment? How can we maintain financial solvency without compromising our values and pillars? These challenges are not going to stop if they are ignored. Students are pushing the administration to think about these issues and we should be at the table.

Towards the end of the Listening Session, President Rosenberg briefly responded to the issue of transparency. He stated that Macalester is one of the most transparent institutions of higher education in the country and cited as proof that CFO David Wheaton gives the same annual budget presentation to faculty, staff, and students as he gives to the Board of Trustees. Despite this, transparency is an issue on this campus because members from all different constituencies feel it is. Transparency is not about every person on this campus having the time to read all the detailed and long budget notes. The point of transparency is that things can be reviewed when they need to be if an issue occurs. And participation guarantees that a wide audience of people have a say in processes of accountability and decision-making.

All constituencies on this campus (students, faculty, staff, administrators and even campus workers) need to be considered citizens of this community who are given the same right to exercise their “vote” and their voice. Students especially should not be disregarded. Student participation can be one solution to the issues on transparency on this campus. We are the heartbeat of this community.

If you have feedback for the Strategic Planning Committee, please use this link on the President’s website for feedback on the strategic planning process.