What would happen if the President of the United States said that he did not want taxpayers to debate how revenue was allocated, that he was going to stop publishing the federal budget? Would his continuing to announce which departments and programs received funding be enough to placate the people? Do we really need to complete this ridiculous scenario?
Yet this was essentially Dean Shollenberger’s response to the Spectator when asked to divulge the breakdown of the student life fee. He did not “want to get into the debate of students saying, ‘Out of my $1,396, I don’t want X amount going to athletics because I don’t go to any of the games or work out at the gym’ … We view it as an option that’s available to everyone regardless of whether or not they choose to take advantage of it.”
This is, remember, the student life fee, not the laboratory fee or the transcript fee or the health service fee. Who better to judge what will improve student life than the students? Surely Shollenberger and other administrators do not think so highly of themselves as to believe that they can predict and prescribe students’ priorities. His justification is specious at best, and arrogant at worst, for it risks implying that they think they do know better. Avoiding debate on this topic should not be on Student Affairs’ minds at all. On the contrary, there should be a frank and open discussion of how effectively our student life money is improving our lives as students. If it turns out that printer malfunctions, a perennial frustration, are due to lack of funds on the part of CUIT, students might want to shift a larger fraction of their money in that direction. If we knew how much was being spent on events that seem chronically under-attended, perhaps we would clamor for a review of the event-planning process. And if we were somehow able to determine that an overwhelming majority of students favored an opt-in model for the gym, would it really make sense to charge students for it against their will?
Of course these are all hypotheticals, most of them probably false, but students have no way of knowing one way or the other. Are we to be equal partners in the Columbia community, or are we simply seen as the lowest rung of an administrative hierarchy in which decisions are dictated top-down? I would hope that, as intelligent, reasonable adults who are intellectually, emotionally, and materially invested in the University, we have something to add to campus discussions. It often seems—and I cannot emphasize “seems” enough—that many in the administration do not agree. A desire to avoid unnecessary debate and complication over what some see as straightforward, uncontroversial decisions may drive administrators to keep their plans from student eyes. It may also be that some developments are not considered finished and ready to announce to the public. I prefer to believe that such rationalizations, rather than some malicious intent, are responsible for not including students in decisions that will affect their well-being.
One of the more widely held arguments against trying to engage students is that they do not care enough to understand the complexity of competing interests that must be balanced when, say, allocating student life fees or deciding to close the Barnard pool. There is too much whining and too little active participation—a view held by some students as well. For instance, President Spar recently noted low response to surveys despite Barnard students’ recent outcry that they were not being engaged in the cost-cutting process. Obviously, we must hold up our end of the deal as well. We must make a real effort to form nuanced, rational opinions. Complaints, suspicions, and muted mutterings will do no one any good.
Without any information, however, there is little to do but complain. Students should be able to participate in University discussions from their inception, not just notified after the fact. Spar’s conclusion in her op-ed on the Barnard cuts (“Budget cuts in the name of Barnard,” Oct. 2, 2012) attempts to reassure us by saying that administrators are “striving to communicate changes to students, faculty, and staff as promptly as is feasible.” If administrators genuinely believe that letting us know is enough, that sending out an email or news release counts as engagement, then it is little wonder students feel alienated. It is the difference between saying, “By the way, we’re closing your pool, go swim at Dodge instead” and saying, “We’re thinking of closing the pool, what do you think? Is it important enough to you that we should try to save it and cut more elsewhere, or even raise fees to sustain it?”
To her credit, Spar has acknowledged the need for student feedback during the decision-making process, aiming to organize a focus group of sorts. Let us hope such a vision of participation is realized on both sides of 116th Street. In short, what Shollenberger and other administrators need to understand is that the best way to accommodate students, to know what we want, is to give us the facts and let us decide for ourselves. For it is my belief, at least, that the University has more to fear from excluded and frustrated students than from informed and engaged ones.
Bob Sun is a Columbia College junior majoring in history and biology. He is a member of the Committee on Instruction. Terms of Engagement runs alternate Thursdays.
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