September 19, 2007

Fix the Communication Breakdown

With the inauguration of a new president and turnover of several top positions in the administration, the 2006–2007 academic year initially promised a new era of positive leadership on campus. Instead, it became the year of the student activist after the administration failed to seek out and understand students’ opinions. Causes such as graduate student financial aid, the Uncommon Application, and to some extent divestment from Darfur festered in no small part because of the administration’s inability to effectively communicate its actions and goals with the student body.

With a number of high-profile appointments moving in this fall—including new Vice President and Dean of Students Kimberly Goff-Crews—administrators will be getting a fresh start of sorts. They’d be wise to make full use of it. In meetings with the Maroon and other student groups, President Robert Zimmer and other members of the administration have acknowledged a communication breakdown and expressed a desire for improvement, but so far they have little to show for it. Uttering platitudes about the importance of listening to the “voice of the students” isn’t going to get the job done. Here are two tangible suggestions that can.

The obvious starting point for better communication is open discussion with the student body. Under President Don Randel and in the early stages of Zimmer’s term, these came in the form of “brown-bag lunches” that were laughably attended and generally ineffective. Holding the meetings at more convenient times and discussing hot-button issues are measures that have proved successful in encouraging students to attend.

While Zimmer’s first open forum at the Reynolds Club last February lacked the coziness of a bagged lunch, the overflowing crowd of students armed with questions was a positive step. However, he followed it up with two Student Government–run (SG), RSVP-only events with space for only 30 students. This format ensures a less raucous atmosphere than the open forum, but it prevents the average student from stopping by.

The administration could also improve the relationship with students by cooperating with SG and using referenda as a tool for communication. By taking the initiative in providing more referenda on salient issues, SG—and through it, the administration—could effect real change while giving every student a direct means of expression.

The machinery is already in place. SG holds the right to use a referendum, but until very recently has made little use of its power. Financing is a potential barrier in some cases, but in most instances the bill would be covered by ORCSA, and if the petition were coordinated to occur during the spring election cycle, it would give the referendum a natural, predictable venue.

This spring, with a non-binding referendum on the U-Pass prominently on the ballot, turnout for the executive slate elections was at a record high. In addition to helping generate interest in SG, it provided the University with valuable information by showing the voting results from each division. Such initiative is a positive sign but will be an exception to the rule unless the administration encourages such efforts.

The turnover of key positions provides a golden opportunity for administrators to learn from the mistakes of last year. By opening up to student criticism and inviting feedback through referenda, they can do so. It’s time to ensure every voice is heard—not just the ones with megaphones and poster board.