March 13, 2011

Open Discourse on Transparency

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One word has pervaded much of my experience at Cornell this year: “transparency.”  Almost daily in The Sun, I find an article that comments on a perceived lack of transparency. At meetings, in classes and in casual discourse, I have heard countless students, undergraduate and graduate alike, lament the absence of transparency at Cornell and make statements such as “Day Hall needs to increase transparency.”  What does this word mean?  Transparency about what?  Transparency to whom?

A textbook definition of transparency, from the public participation literature, is “clarity of process.” Access to information is also of central importance. These characteristics, however, leave a lot of ambiguity. The textbook definition implies that Cornell administrators could maintain transparency by engaging students in every step of each decision-making process, from the problem formulation stage through evaluation of selected decisions. Nevertheless, the definition also affirms that transparency could involve telling students that all decisions will be made by specified committees of faculty and senior staff, with no student input, and that the students can read a report when the analysis has been conducted and the decision has been finalized. In both instances, the process is clear and information is made available. I do not advocate either approach; I merely wish to demonstrate that what one person identifies as a transparent process may not be the same for a different person. Likewise, the form of a transparent decision may vary across the contexts surrounding different issues.

The references this year to our administration’s lack of transparency have been myriad; they include the change in administrative reporting of the Africana Center, the closure of the Department of Education, the changes to the Cornell Council for the Arts and the changes in the University’s Greek Recognition Policy. All of these decisions included conversations between multiple people affected by the policy changes; at the same time, none of them included detailed conversations with every major constituent group on campus. Information about the process and knowledge that informed the decision were made available to different groups at different times for each decision. Did any or all of these decisions lack transparency? That is a difficult question to answer with no specific definition of what transparency means at Cornell.

Ultimately, students and administrators need to come to some understanding of what defines transparency across varying contexts before we can have a useful discussion that employs this word. Thankfully, the senior administration will be meeting this month with elected student leaders to discuss the issue of transparency. As one of your two student-elected members on the Board of Trustees, I shall participate in these discussions. How can transparency be defined to allow for the contextual variation in issues, but still provide students with a clear understanding of the level and type of information and consultation that they can expect in various types of processes?  This question is not an easy one, but one that the administration has pledged to deliberate on with students.

One way the issue of transparency will surely never be addressed is by thinking of the administration as “Day Hall.” The senior administrators at Cornell are real people who care deeply about the student experience. These people need students to help them understand student perspectives and views, but ultimately, the administrators are on our side and want to do what is best for the Cornell community as a whole. I look forward to working with these real people to help Cornell better define what it means when it says that decisions will be transparent. I also look forward to hearing student ideas on what you think transparency means and how the administration can help students understand what characterizes transparent decision-making processes at Cornell. I am YOUR trustee, and it is my duty to understand students’ thoughts about important issues such as this. Please e-mail me with any comments you have at dte6@cornell.edu. I am also willing to meet with you to discuss your ideas and concerns.

Let us hope that frustration, confusion, polemical rhetoric and general dissatisfaction can subside once we all have a clearer understanding of just what transparency means.

Darrick Nighthawk Evensen is a graduate student in the Department of Natural Resources and one of two students on the University’s Board of Trustees.  He can be reached at dte6@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Darrick Nighthawk Evensen