The national anthem, the Mennonite-faculty hiring policy, the iCore initiative. What is the common thread throughout all of these contentious administrative decisions? A degree of hurt and mistrust on the part of the students and faculty. In each case, the administration (either the President’s Council, “PC,” or the Board of Directors) has withheld information from students out of the fear that students will become angry about their decision. In a cruel irony, though, the administration’s actions of clandestine, closed-door decision-making have created exactly the type of impassioned, angry response from students they were hoping to avoid. The problems here are institutional and attitudinal – the disenfranchisement of professors and the lack of both student input and administrative transparency is pervasive at Goshen College. The fear of an informed and engaged student body is particularly shocking and counterintuitive at a college that gives off the image of being egalitarian.
A case in point of the flaw of closed-door decision-making arises over the issue of tenure. Members of both PC and the Board of Directors have expressed their concern over students knowing which professors are up for tenure review. My question to that is, “Who does the college serve?” If the answer is anything other than “students,” then the college has undoubtedly lost its way. The purpose of tenure is to protect professors who have been proven to be good at their job; students should absolutely know which professors are up for it, so they (the most important constituents) can help shape the success of the institution. Professors’ job is to educate students, making it quite logical that students should at least know who is up for tenure. In each and every decision the administration makes, the question they should be asking themselves is, “Does this positively affect students?” not, “Let’s make sure the students don’t find out until later.”
Another example of contention that is fresh in everyone’s mind is the iCore initiative. Allow me to preface this by saying that I am not opposed to the decision itself; I hope it helps to increase enrollment, which is far too low at present. Rather, I take issue with the manner that the administration and the task force handled the decision. Students were kept out of the loop for the majority of the time and more than one member of PC asked, according to one administrative employee, “What if the Record gets a hold of this?” When students eventually did find out about the decision, they were angry and distrustful of the administration, just as PC had feared. However, this anger, like many of the other past decisions, is at least as much about the process with which the administration has handled things as it is about the decision itself. Had the administration involved students from the start, even in a small capacity, they likely would have had less student resistance. When the so-called “stakeholders” of the college don’t feel appreciated or respected (as many students and faculty feel right now), there is sure to be a backlash. This same flawed mentality pervades the President’s Council and the Board’s decision-making process.
To avoid the tension and subsequent student/faculty animosity that has resulted from numerous executive decisions, the administration can begin by legitimately incorporating students into the decision making process. This means that the administrative boards must move away from the mentality that two members of PC articulated, “This is how all the other institutions make their decisions.” Goshen College is not ‘every other institution’, nor is that a wise argument. Goshen College has developed and takes pride in its counter-cultural reputation, which makes this argument particularly ill fitting.
Administrative meetings should not be closed-door affairs; the minutes should be easily available for all students, no excuses. Students and professors need legitimate representation at PC and Board meetings, if not in a voting capacity, then at least with the ability to contribute. The excuse that students cannot understand the issues facing the administration is weak and unacceptable. The problem lies not with students who cannot understand, but with an administration that refuses to share information with them.
The present model of authoritarian administration does not adequately serve the students and professors of the college; rather, in a fearful attempt to avoid confrontation and conflict, the administrative boards appear passive-aggressive and secretive. This antiquated approach to decision-making (straight from the bowels of the old Mennonite Church) must be thrown out recycled. Transparency and meaningful involvement of students and faculty are the solutions; they have the potential to bring about accountability and transformation towards a healthier institutional culture. A failure to move towards transparency and incorporation of students will only bring more conflict and frustration over future administrative decisions. The administration must recognize that the students are not only the primary stakeholders and consumers, but also that there is need for a legitimate social contract between the two groups. Until such a commitment is made, a palpable level of tension will continue to be a part of the Goshen College narrative.
David Harnish is a senior history major
David Zweir, a senior interdisciplinary major, and Isaac Yoder-Schrock, a senior physics major, also contributed to this perspective.