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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Rose backlash increases transparency

Published: February 27, 2009
Section: Front Page

Executive Director of Union Communications Jamie Ansorge ’09 and 59 other Brandeis student leaders met with university President Jehuda Reinharz about the university’s budget crisis on Dec. 5 2008.

During the meeting, the students were shown a presentation of the budget projections and were told that budget cuts were going to be made.

“But we didn’t know where, we didn’t know what was going to go,” Ansorge told The Hoot in an interview. “We had no idea that study abroad or the Rose was coming down the pipes.”

The December meeting between student leaders and university administration was an anomaly of the fall semester, a period that was marked by small budget changes made with little to no student input.

Comparatively, the spring semester started in January with the initial decisions to retract merit aid portability for study abroad and the authorization of the closing of the Rose Art Museum. While these decisions were met with backlash and outrage from faculty, students and alumni, the reaction from the community has increased transparency most noticeably in the recent academic restructuring of the university, but also across the board.

“Last semester, we knew there would be cuts, but we didn’t know where they were going to be,” Ansorge said. “It’s hard to ask for representation on a decision we don’t know is being made. Now we know what decisions are being made, and students are even being given a voice in the decisions.”

Student Union President Jason Gray ’10 said he thinks the administration had been less transparent before the Rose decision because they were making decisions with sensitive results.

“These cuts impact lives,” he said. “If staff gets cut, that’s the job their families and their kids are depending on. There are real stakes here and the administration understands that and so they tend to keep that information to themselves until the last minute.”

Lev Hirschorn ’11 helped to found the Brandeis Budget Cut Coalition at the end of last semester in an effort to increase transparency in budget cuts and agreed with Gray.

“There was secrecy in the making of decisions in order to avoid public relations debacles,” he said. “Students didn’t know what was going to happen with the university and I think the administration was afraid to tell us because they knew they were making big cuts.”

Senior Vice President for Communications Lorna Miles denied claim that the administration was afraid to be transparent. Instead, she told The Hoot that the university’s administration has tried to be transparent from the beginning of its economic crisis, citing the fact that President Reinharz’s Oct. 3 email to the community about the impact of the nation’s economic crisis on the university was the second like it from university presidents around the country.

Miles said that the economic crisis “was like a train that just kept coming that we didn’t know when it would stop,” and that though the administration’s transparency may seem retroactive now, that is a result of the fast pace of events.

“We have a very small senior administration for a university our size,” she said. “It looks like an evolutionary process because there was a small number of people working on a large number of things.”

To students, however, the initial decision to make merit aid not portable for study abroad and to authorize the closing of the Rose came as a shock. No member of the student government, nor any member of the student body was consulted on either decision—something which enraged the community at large.

Both decisions were met with physical, verbal and written protest, and the protests of the authorization to close the Rose Art Museum were covered by the local and national media.

Ansorge believes the two decisions, especially the authorization to close the Rose on Jan. 26, brought the university’s lack of transparency to the forefront of the community’s attention.

“For a lot of people, the Rose Art decision made people hypersensitive to the need for transparency and community engagement,” he said. “A lot of students and faculty woke up said ‘Wow, there really are important decisions being made behind closed doors.’”

“The Rose helped the Union, though,” Ansorge continued. “More students got pissed, so Jason [Gray] was able to get on the horse and pressure the university on transparency.”

Ansorge credits Gray with convincing the administration to become more transparent.

According to Ansorge, after Reinharz emailed the Brandeis community about the Rose decision, Gray “was in meetings from 9-5 with administrators, sometimes skipping classes, trying to figure out how we can include and inform students.”

While the administration “was resistant at first,” Ansorge said, Gray was finally able to convince Reinharz to hold a forum on Jan. 28.

Gray, however, attributed the student body’s interest in the budget cuts with the subsequent increase in transparency.

“When more students want to get involved, it makes my job of asking for transparency a lot easier,” he said.

Gray also said that the administration is always happy to include students in decision making, but did not know how until after the backlash from the Rose and study abroad decisions.

“What the backlash forced us to do is put forth a vision of how transparency would translate into better process and what that means,” he said. “The administration is not some evil want to be non-transparent group. They are glad to be a part of creating substantive change.”

Miles agreed and said that the administration’s “object is to be transparent, but first we have to develop what information we are conveying.”

Since the initial forum, student involvement in budget-related decisions has greatly increased. Gray was made a member of the Faculty Senate’s Curriculum and Academic Restructuring and Steering Committee (CARS) where he is not allowed to vote on the committee’s recommendations but is able to give his input as a representative to the student body. Additionally, each of CARS’ five sub-committees contains student members with similar roles, something Ansorge calls a “huge victory.”

Gray sees student involvement in academic restructuring as a model for how students can be involved and engaged in future budget-related decisions.

“The administration deserves credit for doing as much as they have recently regarding the academic restructuring,” Gray said. “Once the administration involves students, they learn the benefit of doing it and will continue to do so.”

Dean of Arts and Sciences and chair of CARS Adam Jaffe said that the increased transparency and student input has been beneficial to the committee and credited Gray for making such transparency possible, saying that “he is a constant reminder of the importance of transparency and student input. This wouldn’t have happened the same way without him.”

Jaffe also said that he would hope that it would continue in the future.

Gray agreed, saying that he has already spoken with administrators who have mentioned that they want to get student input on various ideas for the university without his prompting.

“The administration lost trust in the beginning of this semester,” he said. “I think they are beginning to regain that, but it is by tangible acts that trust is built.”

Ansorge agrees that the administration “has learned its lesson,” but said he is concerned that the semester’s gained transparency is not sustainable without maintained student interest.

While Reinharz’ initial forum on Jan. 28 attracted 350 students, his second forum the following day only attracted 50. The three academic restructuring town halls that have taken place this semester have attracted between 20 and 40 students.

“I hope this is sustainable,” Ansorge said, “but the Union has opened up the administration’s ears. It’s now up to the students to speak.”