February 24, 2004

DAC discusses student input in University decisions

Editor's note: This is the fourth article in a series of occasional updates from the chair of the Dean's Advisory Council.

Last week, the Dean's Advisory Council confronted the issues of student involvement in University decision making and the scholarship/grant processes overseen by the College.

The first topic was last quarter's Shoreland issue, not for further debate, but as a vehicle to asking how and when students should be involved in decisions that may eventually have a significant impact on student life. As always, the essential answer from students was, "as early as possible." We believe, however, there are two aspects of this issue that have been, of yet, insufficiently considered.

The first is the necessity of allowing students to participate in or, at the very least, thoroughly understand the financial factors that often drive controversial decisions. From the potential closing of the Shoreland to the definite enlarging of the College, to the perennial (and silly) U-Pass dilemma, the council agrees that student frustration predominantly results from a lack of information. An institution that prides itself on critical thinking simply cannot expect students to find blanket statements or simple figures sufficient. Students should have the chance to truly understand the budgeting systems and the priorities that affect them. If students can see for themselves that the money is not there to keep a popular service or dorm open, argument will be quickly cut off at a friendly point. If assumptions are being made early on with which students do not agree, those can be discussed extensively, rather than merely at the superficial level (e.g. "Small classes are good!") of issues on which we all generally agree. Certainly, understanding organizations at this level takes time, and we are not suggesting that any student be able to casually walk into Cheryl Gutman's office and ask for some spreadsheets. However, in a college where undergraduates form a business-consulting club for an extracurricular activity, it seems like those who are willing to invest real time for a service, fun, and excellent résumé-building experience would not be hard to find.

A vital complement to this proposition is the further integration of students as consistent partners and advisors in decisions, rather than as occasionally or ad-hoc consulted "focus groups." Aside from having a crucial perspective, another key reason to involve students is that when students have a meaningful role in a decision, they can also be asked to be part of the announcement of this decision and the dissemination of its rationale to other students. This is not the sacrificial offering it might seem. When students are allowed to explain why semi-known administrators are making decisions that seem to strike at their core, no pun intended, the result will probably be a more patient and thorough hearing than if the administrators explain it themselves. It is easy to boo Dean What's-His-Name, much harder to boo the girl next door.

On the entirely unrelated subject of scholarships, the council's discussion led to the conclusion that more information needs to be offered on the process of applying for the variety of grants offered and supervised by the College. Both the level of competition and the expectations of a potentially successful proposal should be outlined in detail. It is too easy to spend a significant but vastly insufficient amount of time on a third-year traveling research grant or to count on a sure-bet FLAG grant that is no longer a guarantee.

Comments on anything said above, or suggestions for future topics, should be sent to dac@listhost.uchicago.edu. Please include your name, year, and concentration. Mail will be read by myself and Brittany Ann Simmons, the council's secretary, and contributed anonymously to the council's discussions.