One year ago today, an embattled President Zimmer met with students to defend the University’s new graduate student financial-aid package and the decision not to divest from Sudan. With a hostile audience that often seemed more intent on drawing applause than asking questions, the event was a failed attempt at conversation. While tonight’s discussion with Zimmer, organized by Student Government (S.G.), is a step in the right direction, it demonstrates how far the president still has to go.
The event is RSVP-only, and in order to draw a “broad cross-section of students,” S.G. will select 25 attendees from the 87 who expressed interest. However, it’s unproductive for S.G. to decide who should get to meet the president. Instead, students should be randomly chosen from the pool to ensure a better sampling.
Even with random selection, however, it is highly unlikely that a true cross-section of the student body will be present at the dinner. The meeting is self-selecting and appeals only to those willing to sacrifice their Friday night to discuss campus issues with a high-ranking administrator. Furthermore, communication about the dinner was poor: The event was announced on the S.G. website only six days before the dinner, while a campus-wide e-mail provided only three days’ notice.
Since the Reynolds Club debacle, Zimmer has favored smaller group discussions over larger, open meetings, claiming that they allow for more interaction and create a more hospitable atmosphere; his meeting with representatives of the Student Justice Coalition this fall was a notable example. However, sometimes open forums are the only way to gauge the campus’s pulse. They are more likely to attract the average student and ensure that more diverse opinions are given a voice.
In addition to holding small meetings with a self-selecting audience, Zimmer should reacquaint himself with the student body as a whole. Taking a page out of former President Don Randel’s book, he could begin holding brown-bag lunches, casual forums which allowed interested students to walk in as they pleased.
In order to ensure that the student–administration relationship does not degenerate to the extent that it did last year, Zimmer needs to give undergraduates more opportunities to express their concerns and grievances. After 12 months, it’s time for the president to face the student body again.