Gingerly, gingerly, I want to approach the third rail of campus politics and touch the decision-making processes that can entangle administrators and students in relationships of love and hate. Historians often look back to the late 1960s as a transitional moment in the politics of higher education, a time when students disillusioned by Establishment policies, an unpopular war, and a raft of other issues, pushed back against administrators (and even faculty) and demanded change. There are many ways to score the changes that followed, but there is no doubt that faculty, students, administrators, and staff have spent the last forty years enmeshed in the process of governance, of figuring out how best to share power and authority (or not). When it comes to matters that impinge directly on student life, the governance question can get real complicated.
Consider, for example, two situations that came to light during the last week.
The first case involves the party that Cook Commons Council organized around the R-rated film, “Pirates.” When Feminist Action at Middlebury (FAM) found out about this party, they protested the exhibition of “porn” by an official college organization and asked the Cook Council to reconsider the event. The council agreed to hold an open meeting to revisit their decision, but ultimately voted to show the film anyway. The debate over this matter has been well documented on Middblog, and I won’t rehearse it here, except to say that the question that hung over this discussion was whether the administration should intervene and cancel the showing of the film.
The second case is closer at hand, even though the outcome in question grows out of a decision-making process that concluded more than a year ago. The details go like this: at this past Monday’s Community Council meeting, members learned that as a result of a Strategic Planning recommendation (#44), the College calendar will be revised in 2009 so that the Friday of Winter Carnival will no longer be a holiday. Instead, classes will be cancelled on a Friday in April to make way for the newly established Student Research Symposium. For some of the students on the Council, this was unwelcome news and an example of top-down decision-making that did not involve adequate consultation with students. I suspect other students will share their sentiments. However, it is also true that the Strategic Planning process did give students the opportunity to engage, debate, and question the eighty-two recommendations included in the plan.
Was the administration correct not to interfere in Cook’s democratic decision to show a potentially offensive film?
Should the administration revisit its decision to revise the College calendar, despite the existence of a relatively inclusive strategic planning process?
What principles of governance and communication ought to guide the answers to these questions?