February 21, 2016

LETTER TO THE EDITOR | On Shared Governance

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To the editor:

Shared governance and student participation in University decisions has been an integral part of Cornell’s structure since 1967. Throughout the history of our University, we have seen students challenge their role in the policy making system and question whether student opinions and experiences are fully considered. The recent decisions of the Board of Trustees and University Administrators once again test our faith in the shared governance system.

Students are given positions on various committees that govern the University such as the Board of Trustees, the Council on Alcohol and Other Drugs, the University Assembly, the Provost’s Financial Aid Committee and the Student Health Fee Advisory Committee, but we question what tangible impact the student voice has on major University decisions. Why is there usually only one student allowed on such committees to represent the concerns of a wide variety of constituents? At what stage in the process are students brought into the conversations? Did student voice have any impact on the decision to include only Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival students as domestic students for financial aid or the transition to need-aware admissions for international students?

Though students have been made members of several councils and committees, they often face limitations that create barriers in representation, such as obligations to sign confidentiality agreements, which prevent open discussion between student representatives and the student populations affected. Additionally, when students admit to their limitations in delivering appropriate representation, they have been barred from giving their position to other students.

At the Feb. 11 Student Assembly meeting, the Provost reminded students that not every student could have a seat on every committee that they wanted. We do not believe that this is the current demand of students. Rather, students are asking for an opportunity for their voices to be heard before radical decisions that greatly impact us are made. While we expect our voting representatives to vote in the best interest of their constituency, the importance of sharing students’ lived experiences requires a more nuanced approach to selecting student representatives to fill these committee positions. Student opinions in these decisions appear to be mere formalities for the administration. Moving forward, we ask the administration to move away from this “tick-the-checkbox” attitude and show a genuine concern about student opinion on campus. We request that the administration introduce ideas to students before they are fully baked, and instead involve students, including members of the populations that will be affected by new policies, in the development of initiatives and policy changes.

Shivang Tayal ’16

Julia Montejo ’17

Jordan Berger ’17

  • R. Alex Coots

    “We request that the administration introduce ideas to students before they are fully baked, and instead involve students, including members of the populations that will be affected by new policies, in the development of initiatives and policy changes.”

    Where does this line of thinking end? Should faculty consult students about course content? How about student involvement in the tenure review process? Above all, do undergraduate students have the depth of knowledge and breadth of perspective to give informed ideas on university initiative and policies?

    “… and show a genuine concern about student opinion on campus.”

    All this means is that the authors want the administration to do what the students want. There’s no evidence to suggest that university administrators are unconcerned. On the contrary, university administrators appear to have genuine concern by meeting with undergraduate students to receive their input.

    There seems to be this idea that undergraduate students are entitled to not only have their opinions heard, but also be implemented. Undergrads should understand that it’s possible to have your opinions heard and not get what you want.

    • Matt Gleason

      At least from my perspective, much of the frustration comes when – as with the business school – there is a consensus among groups that the administration claims to consult, but they are repeatedly ignored regardless. When faculty and students are nearly unanimous in their opposition to an administrative action, it would be nice if the response was more than lip service and misdirection. An appropriate reaction would be to provide reasonable counterpoints to student and faculty opinions instead of claiming to value the opinions of both while refusing to implement or adequately address complaints. These independent bodies exist to keep administration in check and in touch with the bulk of the University’s population. If administrators want to make a decision that is largely opposed, they should first justify that action in a way that satisfies some of these bodies. If it proves impossible to convince the students or faculty, then the decision should probably be rethought and changed until it can garner broader approval. Sure undergrads shouldn’t control the university, but when a decision impacts ~15,000 people and they are unified in their opinion, more weight should be given to that than the administration currently does. In a time of heightened skepticism around the responsiveness of government, there is a greater sensitivity to anything that is viewed as opaque. Universities should be bastions for social progress and fairness created by an academic community that respects the opinions of its many members. While from a pure shareholders and profits perspective, administration has no duty to hear its students and faculty, we should hold our academic institutions to a higher standard of transparency and responsiveness especially when so much of the community has valid, educated ideas and concerns to bring to the table.

  • Glenn Goerke

    I agree completely. As an example, the College Of Business Plan continues to lack support from the Faculty Senate, Student Assembly and the University Assembly. • During last week’s dial-in Hotel School forum to address concerns relating to the College Of Business Plan, I found it interesting that the University’s host choose to not show the list of conference call participants and abruptly ended the meeting without answering all questions. All questions were screened and the chosen questions appeared to be quite ‘powder puff’ in difficulty.

    In my opinion, these and similar actions have been a carefully planned and implemented procedure by the University. Overall – in my opinion – the administration seems unpleasantly anxious to implement a plans with restricted communication outreach to the Cornell University community.

  • another alum

    Coots is right. I’d also point out that the board of trustees has voting members elected by students, staff, faculty, and alumni – all of whom voted for the proposal. Cornell’s board has “supreme control” over the university per the bylaws – so you had an organization that had broad representation, had sufficient mandate, and made a decision. Just because you didn’t like the decision doesn’t mean that the decision wasn’t made appropriately, or that governance wasn’t shared. If you don’t like the result, take it up with your duly elected student / staff / faculty / alumni trustee representative.

    Compared to peer institutions the makeup of the Cornell board of trustees is very inclusive, representative, and democratic…