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For the eight or nine years I’ve been involved in administrative work, I’ve been struck by how passionately students feel about decision-making processes at Middlebury. Maybe because I had little or no interest in campus politics when I was in college, I’ve had difficulty understanding why students today get worked up by decisions that have been made without their consent. Maybe, too, because I attended a larger university, I failed to connect in a particularly personal way to the community around me. Or maybe I was just a slacker to begin with and then overly concerned with implementing my own agenda as a 40-something administrator. I don’t know. But I can say after almost a decade of working in student life—beginning with the development of the Commons system—that I’ve suffered the slings and arrows arrows of top-down administration and thereby come to a philosophical view of decision making and its relation to student culture. Which in turns brings me to this question . . . .

If top-down decision making is a thing to be avoided and condemned, then what does bottom-up decision making look like on a campus like ours? How would or should a good idea or policy develop, get discussed, and then be implemented?

For the sake of discussion, let’s say the idea in question is connected to alcohol use on campus. Let’s say more specifically that we all agree that something should be done to curb 1) extreme drinking; 2) the irresponsible, damaging behavior that often follows from such drinking. How should this problem be resolved? More to the point, what solutions might emerge from the student community that are not seen as coming from the powers that be?

Yes, I may have an agenda in framing the discussion in this way, but I am also trying to give this open-ended, philosophical question some focus. For inspiration, feel free to consult anything that President Liebowitz or I have posted on this subject. Or push off from the recent discussions on Midd Blog. Mostly, though, I am interested in hearing how students think this particular issue should be engaged and acted upon by their community.

Fire away.

27 Responses to “Where Bottom Up Meets Top Down”

  1. OK. I’m going to get philosophical…
    The question of top/down vs bottom/up decision making is obviously important to more than just Middlebury. This question is pivotal to our governance in many different situations.

    My opinion is that in order to have students (or citizens) engaged in the decision making process, there has to be two things: they have to realize they have a stake in the process and also there has to be belief or at least trust in the system.

    So what can administrators such as you do to help both of these necessary things for engagement from the masses?

    Well first you can help people realize they actually do have a stake in the process. For example, one pretty major thing that annoys me about Middlebury is that academically, our school relies on the honor code, but there is little transparency for who wrote it or how it was written. At my sister’s school, Bryn Mawr, the student body as a whole ratifies and amends the honor code every year. It is theirs. This is just one example of how students could be able to take more ownership of the school and be more involved.
    (Also I should mention that your and President Liebowitz’ blogs are really helpful in creating transparency.)

    The next problem of creating trust in the community (loosely, Robert Putnam’s idea of social capital) is more difficult. I love Midd’s student body, but there are definitely major problems with it. To begin with I feel that social groups are disconnected from one another.

    I think this overall lack of togetherness and openness is what leads to student apathy. I felt this student apathy when I was voting for SGA president last year. There were definitely good candidates and I really admire the people who ran, but in general, the ideas put on the table where not wide-reaching big ideas that would really impact the community.

    Programs to bring communities together, reformation of the commons system (commons spirit doesn’t exist), and making our confusing website better should have been at least on the table.

    So what do we do to create more trust and togetherness within the midd community? One small idea that came out of the Synergy conference was having a room near a dining hall once a week where people could go and just meet people.

    But more broadly, people need to start reaching out to each other in small ways. Better social events (including less liquor inspector!), more programs that bring people together and all are part of the solution, but I think the biggest and easiest solution comes down to the website.

    Middlebury needs an events calendar on its website that allows you to create a profile and allows you to select types of events you’re interested. Other schools have this, and for the amount of money the school has (and we pay) there is absolutely no good excuse for not having it.

    OK. So to recap: more love, a better website and more top-down involvement for more social capital and a better community.

  2. quick follow up: I commend the creators of the google calendar online, but this should be done by the school.

  3. Molley Kaiyoorawongs says:

    George hit on a topic I discussed with Doug Adams the spring of 2007 which more or less got completely shot down and was ironically created anyway in the form of the midd confessional. I was asking about the possibility of having midd server space be used as a forum. On this forum, people didn’t post anonymously since their midd user names would be attached to it but on this forum, people could post invitations and throw out ideas for impromtu get togethers, have discussions and even exchange dead baby jokes if they so chose. With the way the world is evolving, this will eventually happen. Why can’t middlebury be on the forefront? Doug Adams cited liability as the reason Midd would never go for something like this. I argue that, just like the college relies on students for many committees throughout the year, it could elect a select group of students to moderate the forum throughout the year. Furthermore, the college already has open forums for incoming students as well as for classes on segue. Why is there only a hang up when it can actually benefit our community at large?

  4. Molley Kaiyoorawongs says:

    Sorry, I didn’t connect my forum idea to the response to your blog. I was thinking that a highly frequented forum that isn’t anonymous could easily develop into a conduit among students and even between students and administration.
    Discussion is such a hard thing to facilitate when everyone is on different schedules. How are students supposed to effectively propose ideas and receive feedback from other students if there is no forum (ha ha) for this? Sure, they can block off the Green Mitchell Lounge for 2 hours on a Tuesday night–if they’re REALLY impassioned about their idea–but who would clear their calendar of whatever else they were doing to come? If Matt Biette threatened the discontinuation of food altogether, I doubt a quarter of the student body would show up at scheduled discussion. This is the reference I made to selling books without Amazon at the res life meeting.

  5. Ryan says:

    Interestingly enough, Molley. A online forum like this was in the works last year under the leadership of the dynamic Ramirez duo (Shirley and Alfredo) who are now leaving the College. The idea was to have ideas and debates cook in that space until a boiling point (lots of participants, heated debate) when the discussion would be locked-down and brought off-line in the form of a discussion. I wonder what ever happened to that…

  6. Ian McBride says:

    This is somewhat tangential to the topic, but I wanted to respond to George’s comment as a Lead Web Programmer for LIS and let him know that I very much want to provide an interactive online calendar application for our community. I’ve helped this a bit this morning by adding RSS feeds for each event type on our calendar. I invite you to read more here: http://sites.middlebury.edu/imcbride/2008/09/29/rss-feeds-for-events-at-middlebury/

    Thank you for your input on Middlebury’s web site!

  7. Mr McBride, thanks so much for being responsive. I understand that people are working on the scheduling idea and that Dean Guttentag is working on updating the honor code. I can’t wait to see what both groups come up with.

  8. Tim Spears says:

    Lots of good ideas here; thanks to all for weighing in.

    Regarding Molley’s recommendation that the College host an online forum that enables community-wide discussion, it’s worth noting that Roman Graf (who served as OID Dean) developed such a site with CTLR a few years ago, where students, faculty, and staff could address diversity issues of note. It was called “dis.course,” and is no longer functioning. Recently, however, there has been conversation within the administration about launching a forum geared to more general topics/discussion. My guess is that we would not pursue this option until we redesign the College website (a project which is also under consideration).

    I like the philosophical turn that George took in his initial post, and would like to hear more from people about how some of the technological solutions mentioned here could affect/improve how people relate to one another face to face.

    Also, we got to online issues here pretty quickly, and I wonder if there are other ways–apart from relying on the web–of building the social capital (and community) that we haven’t considered on our campus.

    Note that I am ignoring the fact that no one has picked up on the “alcohol problem,” which I mention in my post. . . .

  9. Real quick: I think the alcohol question is hard to pick up on because, mostly, I don’t think there is much either the administration or students can do about this question on campus. The policy is dictated by our government’s laws and our local liquor inspector and it is my perception that the administration does the best they can do within this [ridiculous] set of state laws and local policy.

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