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The challenges of turnover on college campuses

Published: May 19, 2012
Section: Opinions, Top Stories


This week, I returned to Harding Avenue in Waltham. My last visit was in September, and the scene then was very different. The road had been blocked by police tape, and police lights had lit the area. Reporters and neighbors had gathered, astonished to learn of a triple-homicide committed on the usually quiet block.

You want to know what makes me mad: Police still haven’t arrested the culprits. But, more than that, when they do, I won’t be the one covering the story.

That’s not a statement of nostalgia. It’s a fact that college clubs and organizations deal with on a yearly basis. High profile businesses hold serious meetings to discuss strategies for surviving employee turnover. In academic settings, where student commitments have definite end dates, turnover is a fact of life.

The dynamic creates clear winners and losers. When club leaders graduate, institutional memory is lost. Some clubs are run entirely by one or two active students, and when they graduate the core mission of the club becomes more difficult to carry out.

The best campus organizations combat this reality through training and mentorship. Others struggle and even fail.

The winners, of course, are the new aspiring leaders who have a chance to learn as much as their predecessors and leave their own mark. That challenge is what college is all about.

But a campus newspaper is a funny thing. It is all about institutional knowledge.

For instance, this year when Brandeis rededicated The Rose, only seniors on campus remembered the original decision to sell the art and close the museum. The newspaper’s job was to inform the rest of campus and write editorials and news analyses that put the rededication into perspective.

When members of the Knesset spoke this semester at Temple Emanuel in Newton, they were interrupted by Brandeis students. This newspaper decried the decision to protest rather than engage through open debate and scholarly analysis. But that opinion wasn’t something we thought up that day. This newspaper has taken the same position for years, including when protesters interrupted Justice Richard Goldstone and Dore Gold; Noam Chomsky; and members of the Knesset who visited campus last year.

And then there’s this tragic triple-homicide that rocked Harding Avenue. I remember covering it. Our editor-in-chief and photo editor remember covering it. And they will no doubt continue asking questions of community leaders until an arrest is made. Or until they graduate.

The Brandeis Hoot as an organization is lucky. We have archives (and alumni) to consult. We also follow training procedures and an appointment process designed to train new staff quickly and efficiently and to pass on what we know.

Other student organizations aren’t as lucky. Before I matriculated at Brandeis, I ran a high school newspaper that unbelievably enough is no longer publishing. The paper won all sorts of awards and graduated an impressive set of alumni.

But when the student leadership of the paper was confronted with the idea of ending publication and switching to an online-only format, few remembered the valuable stories the paper had written, including an investigation into secret security cameras hidden in the ceilings of the school. The administration shuttered the paper without much forethought or community input.

Administrators can be impatient when dealing with student turnover. Student Union leaders deal with this all the time—a great new idea that was tried before and an incredulous administrator unwilling to try again.

But I think the Brandeis approach is right. Turnover is a real-world challenge like any other. So we deal with it, we put policies in place to ensure club continuity and, most importantly, we learn. Leadership development is not about running a perfect organization. It is about constantly developing strategies for improvement. I had a unique chance to do just that on The Hoot, and I would not have changed one thing about my own experience.

Earlier this academic year, I wrote about turnover at the highest levels of our university’s administration, and I quoted President Fred Lawrence who told The Hoot, “Presidents change but universities have continuity.”

I wrote then what I still believe: He’s right. This university has core principles that no leader can alter. Styles might be different—and The Hoot has covered those different approaches—but the core mission remains. It has to, anything less would be unacceptable.

I like to think The Hoot has stayed true to its mission as well, regardless of leadership. In their very first column, the founders of this paper wrote, “We founded The Hoot because we believe that what Brandeis needs is a community newspaper. A newspaper written about, by and for members of the Brandeis community. The Justice’s philosophy of attempting to emulate professional newspapers like The New York Times is laudable, but it is not the approach we believe is most needed here, now, at Brandeis. What is missing from this community is a publication that provides deep, insightful, meaningful news coverage and commentary about interests of direct concern to Brandeis students, staff, faculty and alumni.”

That remains our mission. I look forward to reading The Hoot as an alumnus because I trust the paper will continue to serve this community.