This semester, Senate has made transparency a priority in order to bring together our community and foster cooperation between students and the administration. Senate is working to release more information to students this year than at any time in the recent past, improving the student body’s access to policies that work for us all. I’m optimistic about Senate’s work this semester, and believe that Senate’s work will set an example on transparency for the administration to follow. With that in mind, the severity of Oberlin’s transparency crisis means it must remain in the public dialogue until transparency and access become cultural norms of our community.
In my recent campaign for Senate, I engaged hundreds of students. About a third had no idea that Senate exists, and the vast majority of the people I spoke to either didn’t know what Senate does or had come to the conclusion that Senate does nothing. Despite students voicing a breadth of grievances about the administration, and Senate being a point of access for students to improve College policy, it appears that many students are politically disengaged from the workings of the College. Many don’t know that policy could fix the problems of our community, let alone who can make said policies, the obstacles to implementing them, and where students can go to begin the policy process. This disengagement is the result of the administration’s lack of transparency, and it has serious consequences. Keeping information vital to the student experience out of the hands of the student body is a threat to the social fabric of our community.
The average first-year student, fresh out of high school, knows next to nothing about the realities of student life at Oberlin. Showered with platitudes like, “Winter Term can be anything” and “Students will return to campus in Fall 2018 to find numerous improvements in campus dining,” it’s hard for a student who’s just arrived to find the truth about the challenges that shape Oberlin. Seeking advice from the administration can often yield similar nonanswers, carefully crafted to escape culpability.
The administration often leaves student concerns unaddressed, which often leads to student frustrations. So what can students do to create policy-based solutions to our problems? First off, students can serve on approximately 40 different committees that draft policy. The problem is that until this year, these committees have been rarely advertised, to the point where most students don’t know they exist. Information about what these committees can do and who serves on them is similarly covert.
Nothing about these committees should be top secret. Indeed, education on the nature of Oberlin’s bureaucratic structure would help bridge the divide between students and administrators. But such an education has not formally taken place in the time that I’ve been a student here.
Students who don’t know these committees exist have relatively few options to enact change on their own. They can seek a meeting with an administrator, but this can be ineffective. Students are often told administrators don’t have time for them, and when administrators do, policy suggestions are rarely considered because of the bureaucratic red tape that is a prominent element of higher education. The system is fundamentally flawed in a way that deprives students of transparency and access.
Senate is supposed to be a solution to these problems. In theory, Senate serves as the bridge between the student body and the administration, giving individual students the ability to change policies for the better. Indeed, Senate does offer students access that the administration does not. Still, the small number of students who take advantage of what Senate can offer demonstrates a need for improvement.
Currently, students don’t have nearly enough access to policy information, especially in the areas of student life, where it is most needed. Students also lack access to information about the administration’s bureaucratic structure, or information about Senate and its bureaucratic structure. The Senate By-Laws, commonly mentioned in minutes and Senate communications, are accessible only on the Senate website, committee information is not public, and Senate has historically distributed little information as to how it influences policy. The Senate website looks older than residents of Oberlin’s retirement home, Kendal at Oberlin.
This semester, Senate is working hard to resolve our twin crises of access and transparency by making more information publicly available. I’d like to commend College fourth-years Joshua Rhodes and Cait Kelley, two of my fellow Senators, who share my commitment to transparency. Josh, our communications director in Senate, recently compiled information about what Senate is and what we do — information that was then emailed to the student body. He has contributed a substantial amount of his time and effort towards ensuring that the public has greater access to relevant information. He’s also working on brushing the cobwebs off our website. Cait is working on the How Oberlin Works website, which, among other things, will provide essential information about the bureaucratic structure and policy processes of our community. We’re also working on other improvements, like increasing student engagement, and information about the existence of committees will soon be released.
I’m proud to work with people like Josh and Cait on these initiatives. Even if transparency isn’t the flashiest issue on campus, it’s an essential element of policy. More importantly, if we can sustain our push for transparency, it will encourage other groups in the administration, such as the Office of Residential Education, Campus Dining Services, and the various groups implementing budget cuts outlined in the Academic and Administrative Program Review to do the same. Senate has an obligation to continue improving transparency. It has great potential to improve our community — and it’s also just the right thing to do.