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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?

No Responses to “Top down, or bottom up?”

  1. Susan says:

    The change to the College calendar is another example of the “work hard, work harder” philosophy that seems to be taking hold at Middlebury. It chips away at an enjoyable and quintessentially Midd event — the Winter Carnival. Will there be anything left that makes Middlebury special? With the social scene having devolved into an alcohol-soaked quagmire, why diminish a celebration that consists of good wholesome winter fun? Why abandon something that lessens the long, cold ordeal of a Vermont winter? A successful life requires a balance of work and recreation. That’s something worth learning.

  2. Ryan Kellett says:

    Very interesting parallel here. As a person on campus who pays close attention to communication among students, I offer this: it matters how issues are framed.

    In an email dated 3/10/06, Dean of Planning John D. Emerson provides a link to the draft of the strategic plan and opens with this statement, “I write again on behalf of the Planning Steering Committee and President’s Staff to invite input on the January 31 revised draft plan for Middlebury, Knowledge Without Boundaries: The Middlebury College Strategic Plan.” Students read this email and delete it within seconds. It doesn’t explain what a strategic plan is or why it’s important. Students need to know what’s at stake and have a means to discuss it at large. Emerson offers an email address to send comments. Granted there were also larger open meetings which I attended but the key here is that the average student won’t naturally participate. If you want to participation from students, you have to work harder and frame the issues in a way that demands a students’ attention. This is what FAM did well through MiddBlog: they hooked students attention and then proceeded to explain the issue and importance thoroughly using open blog medium to generate discussion. If a strategic planning email went out with the first sentence: “Recommendation #5: Reduce Feb admissions through voluntary program” or “Recommendation #44: Remove Winter Carnival day-off and use it instead in the spring.” I guarantee you would have a wave of students wanting to talk about either. I come from the camp that you need to get students in the door and talking about the strategic plan from that somewhat contrived but immediate angle and some of those students will take initiative to learn about the rest of the Strategic Plan, giving feedback there as well. It also helps when students see other students participating in one location. That’s what made MiddBlog so successful last week (50+ comments) is that it became the central source for information AND discussion.

    This may seem like cop-out, but it’s up to students to reach out to administrators and for administrators to reach out to students. Both must work harder. The irony is, of course, as Susan mentions in another comment, it’s up to the school to create an environment where there is enough time for students to care beyond schoolwork and where there is a place (online or off) to reach out to the benefit of the school as a whole.

  3. Dominique Thompson says:

    In a good compromise, neither party is happy. Students, faculty, and administrators are all going to have to give a little more and take more initiative. I hope future generations will be more successful than their predecessors.

  4. Mary says:

    I agree with Susan. I’m not at all surprised to see Winter Carnival Friday go.
    I toured the campus Summer 2005, before my senior year of high school. So many of the things I heard and loved about Midd at the time aren’t here now. It truly has become a “work hard, work harder” school. Kids are too tired to go out on Fri and Sat nights. They would rather sleep, since they don’t during the week as they are always working. There aren’t many parties left to go to, however, as they always seem to get broken up five minutes after they start. I keep hearing my classmates say “I can’t (a) apply for this internship off campus (b) apply for this campus job (c) eat (d) sleep (e) socialize (f) rush a social house (g) take up a club/IM sport because I have too much work.”
    What’s worse, the college now has a reputation across the country for being this way. I have a lot of highly qualified, incredibly talented friends from high school (Class of ’07) who didn’t even apply to Midd because they heard our social life was so bad and all we did was work. They’re all at Ivies, Williams, or Georgetown now. I had a friend from Williams visit last weekend who was horrified to see how intent pubic safety was on shutting down private parties in dorm rooms. “I thought Public Safety existed to keep you safe, not police you,” she said.
    I’ve run out of answers for these kids.

  5. Parent says:

    In the time-honored tradition of burying controversial recommendations in places where people won’t notice them, preferably under a caption that raises no controversy whatsoever, the Carnival Friday recommendation is found in the middle of a paragraph in Chapter 3, Curriculum and Faculty, recommendation #44 under the caption “Promote student research through a day-long research symposium.” Even the most motivated Middlebury student would likely, in the interest of time, have passed over the details of this recommendation, which on its face is innocuous and laudible. Who would ever have thought to connect it to a controversial proposal to gut the 85 year tradition of a Winter social and athletic celebration, which every other peer institution observes. As a parent, I am second to none in concern about the academic quality of the school I spend more than the median household income in the United States to send my child to. Balancing the “calendar” concerns against the benefits of a mid-winter day off to have some fun, especially one of such long-standing tradition and so emblematic of a northern New England college that identifies strongly with the outdoors and the environment, I come down on the side of giving the students a break and upholding the tradition. But framing the discussion as a “calendar trade-off” seems like bureaucratic myopia. And suggesting that students had the opportunity to comment on the gutting of Winter Carnival by scrutinizing a long and dense document in which the the Winter Carnival issue was well-camouflaged seems rather disingenuous. I hope the administration and the Board of Trustees will reconsider this unfortunate decision.

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