Before Wednesday’s regular Joint Board meeting, SGA Cabinet executives delivered a 20-minute presentation on the current campus climate. The presentation, similar to the one given before Trustees last weekend, addressed concerns over the current campus climate and perceptions of growing distrust among faculty, students and administrators.
The subject and tone of the presentation, which was delivered before an audience of approximately 60 students in JRC 101, were sobering as Cabinet members described the current state of the College and relations between its various communities as a “crisis.”
“What’s the crisis?” asked SGA President Neo Morake ’09 at the beginning of the presentation. “We have a broken community.”
Cabinet members sought to provide a comprehensive overview of “the current campus climate,” Morake said during the presentation. “We feel that it is necessary to confront the very issues that are breaking down our sense of community.”
The presentation first turned to the ongoing dispute between some faculty members and members of the administration which erupted following the contentious departure of Sheree Andrews, former associate dean and director of Residence Life. According to Morake, students had been thrust into an uncomfortable position in navigating relations between faculty and staff.
“Students are structurally placed in the middle of a dispute between faculty and Student Affairs,” Morake said. “SGA has heard many of their concerns, some including that students have felt uncomfortable at the perception that they were being used as pawns. And to us, perception is reality.”
In addition to students’ position relative to faculty and staff, the presentation highlighted a perceived lack of transparency and openness among both the College’s professors and administrators.
“We feel like [students have] been sort of disenfranchised in a way and cut out of our role in Student Affairs decision-making,” said SGA Vice President for Student Affairs John Burrows ’10 in describing student perceptions about administrative decision making. “We feel a lot of these new administrators are coming from places where … they have a rules-based culture and they base their student affairs profession on national models … whereas at Grinnell we have a values-based culture.”
Vice President for Academic Affairs Julie Hoye ’09 echoed similar concerns about transparency in faculty decisions. Hoye recounted efforts to change the Faculty Handbook policy on class attendance during religious holidays after a student had to drop a course after being penalized for missing class for a religious obligation.
Hoye said the response, a letter encouraging greater understanding of religious obligations, seemed too tepid because there was no policy change. “There was the perception or the thought that because the policy wasn’t changed, there wasn’t any way to hold faculty accountable for this sort of change,” Hoye said.
Hoye also said she had been approached by a number of students who serve on committees with faculty and felt that their power in the groups was seriously limited.
Despite the topics addressed, Cabinet members emphasized a need to move forward. “Right now we’re sort of just going through the process of raising awareness and consciousness of students about the issues … and how we need to do something tangible about the lack of communication” Burrows said in an interview, “and how we need to refocus on … what’s really in the best interest of students.”
After Cabinet members had delivered their presentation to the full Board of Trustees this past weekend, some students learned of the subject matter and were concerned that SGA had misrepresented student sentiment or irresponsibly cast blame upon either the faculty or administrators.
In a post on the popular cyber-forum GrinnellPlans, Sollie Flora ’07 expressed concern that the SGA presentation to the Trustees had inappropriately charged faculty without evidence and encouraged students to keep SGA members “accountable.”
Parvoneh Shirgir ’09 who said she had concerns about the presentation after reading Flora’s Plans post, attended the Wednesday presentation to learn what SGA had told the Trustees. While she said she generally agreed with the presentation’s message about the campus climate, she took issue with the characterization of student opinion.
“I don’t think that it’s fair to say that students feel this way because I wasn’t asked,” Shirgir said. “I personally encourage faculty interaction in current affairs even if [those current affairs] are in the administration or Student Affairs. So I don’t think it’s fair to characterize students as saying that we don’t feel comfortable with this because I would actually want more of it.”
Trustee Laura Ferguson ’90, who serves as chair of the Board’s Student Affairs Committee, said she thought the presentation eschewed casting blame or singling out groups. “I didn’t think it was hostile,” she said. “They were by no means saying that all the faculty are doing this and I know this is a very isolated problem. … It was a very even-handed approach.”
While highlighting recent tensions between the faculty and administration, the presentation also touched on a number of other student life issues. Hoye raised concerns about student wellness, citing increased property destruction and theft on campus and a more than threefold increase in hospitalizations compared to last year.
Among specific measures designed to help alleviate tensions and build community, Burrows included updating the Strategic Plan to include an emphasis on student wellness and creating an orientation program to introduce new faculty and administrators to the College’s culture and values.
Ferguson said that while Trustees were always concerned about student life and that the Board is “concerned and taking this matter very seriously,” the Trustees were not necessarily the most appropriate avenue for enacting change and instead encouraged students to seek reform directly on campus.
“I think generally our goal is to help … them go to the right place,” she said. “Go through the usual channels because [the people in] Student Affairs are the ones that can help you with self-governance at the end of the day, not the Trustees.”