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Borde-nough: Students need a seat and a vote

Published: March 13, 2009
Section: Opinions


<i>PHOTO BY Judy Kaufman/The Hoot </i>

PHOTO BY Judy Kaufman/The Hoot

Imagine a university. Now, step out of the shoes of one of the top university administrators, put on your administrator pajamas, and drift off to sleep. Dream administrator dreams. Dream that the university is bureaucrat paradise.

What are you dreaming about? Origami palm trees made of discarded manila folders? Long, soft beaches of pencil sharpenings next to placid seas of black ink?

Are you dreaming of new buildings everywhere, covering every square foot of grass and every parking space on and off campus, and even a satellite campus on the moon, each of them a brick-and-mortar testament to your fundraising job-well-done? How about campus peace, even world peace, brought about by calling a giant “town hall” meeting involving all six-and-three quarters billion people together? Do you envision inviting them to discuss any issue that’s on their minds, on the understanding that you and a few close associates have made or will make every decision yourselves anyway, notwithstanding their input? Do you assume that, in this administrative heaven, the meeting participants will never conclude that the meetings serve only to boost their self-esteem by letting them pretend that they matter?

Where are the people in your dream? Do they take human form, or do they exist only as numbers on a balance sheet? Other than alumni with money to give, can you shake hands with any of those people, or can they only be added or subtracted – or erased?

Where are the undergraduates? Are they customers, or are they cows that you can confidently assume will stay here giving milk until they finish their degrees?

Where are the arts and sciences graduate students? Do they appear to you to be young and financially fragile workers and students, who received promises regarding their employment and study that the university should try hard not to upset? Or, are they totally expendable and exploitable, a group that has not organized to protect its own interests and, consequently, deserves no respect?

Where are the staff and faculty? Are they people who bleed red blood, or liabilities that make the university bleed red ink?

Difficult economic times place real constraints on institutions like Brandeis, and dealing with those constraints is not exactly a bureaucratic paradise. Even the best administrator, tasked with allocating insufficient funds, is going to leave someone disappointed, and should not be blamed simply because there’s not enough money to go around. But administrators have kept too many important decisions to themselves, and the financial downturn has muted questions as to whether this concentrated form of decision-making power is a good idea.

“Transparency” in administrative decision-making and the fate of the Rose Art Museum has been at the center of student discussion of the administration’s decisions. It shouldn’t be.

Students enjoy, at best, only weak input into university decision-making, and only on some issues. They can participate in so-called “town hall meetings” – a misnomer for these stale question-and-answer sessions, given the name’s evocation of the direct democracy characteristic of some New England towns. Students with opinions have had to vie for the podium with the uninformed and with groups pressing for changes relating more to policy than to people, such as science professors calling for an integrated science-business program. Speaking at these meetings, moreover, has seemed to achieve little. Hearing an administrator or committee representative respond with similar banalities to everybody gives participants the impression, whether well-founded or not, that the meetings distract and disempower participants, rather than give them a meaningful say.

Another form of student input involves student representatives sitting on some of the university’s proliferating committees. Many of these bodies have only an advisory or consultative role. And many student representatives have no vote on their committees. Moreover, in no committee, including the most important ones such as the UCC, do students have control or the power to choose, veto, or even propose policies.

Arts and Sciences graduate students are a case in point. At two meetings with administration representatives held earlier this semester, administrators spoke at length about aspects of the graduate programs that wouldn’t be changed, leaving students to raise issues they were actually concerned about in the limited time allotted for questions and answers. Administrators from IBS and the Heller School also took precious time to discuss how, save for funding a few scholarships, those schools did not face serious financial problems.

However, the questions on many GSAS students’ minds – whether and how Brandeis would try to compel students to remain in Waltham and work as unpaid teaching fellows for longer than they initially agreed to, and whether their programs were among those slated for elimination – were not clearly answered. The administrators assured those assembled that graduate students would have a representative on two committees. But the student representatives would be unable to vote, and administrators, rather than the committees, would keep all decision-making power. The writer recalls with some bitterness that an administrator at the first meeting laughed as he dismissed the prospect that graduate students would be allowed a say in “decisions” affecting them – as though the question that another student asked him raising this possibility could only have been meant as a joke.

So many committees now exist that even the most earnestly concerned students cannot follow all their activities. Students can’t provide the kind of feedback to student representatives that would allow them to function in a truly representative capacity.

In this situation, transparency won’t prevent the administration from making decisions against students’ interests. Transparency is nice, but what’s really missing is power for students (and, for that matter, for those staff and faculty members who may be concerned about recent changes). Behind the curtain of secrecy that some have complained about is a bureaucratic paradise, a place where people are inconveniences who exist only in quantified form. They amount to nothing if they have nothing to give. To change that, students and others need decision-making power, not mere transparency.

The museum, for its part, was of concern to only a few people on campus before announcement of its closure dramatically raised its profile. For many, the Rose had been a rarely visited building that entered one’s consciousness only on the infrequent occasions when a visitor to campus asked how to get to it. The Rose’s closing has