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Tennis ’14: Provost search lacks student representation

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Opinions Editor

Two weeks ago, two forums offered undergraduate and graduate students each the opportunity to participate in the University’s search for the person who will replace Provost Mark Schlissel P’15. I use the term “participate” cautiously, however. A closer examination indicates that the process only minimally involves students.

I’ll be plain. I have little confidence that this semester’s search for a new provost will keep the student body’s interest at heart — or even in mind. And after attending the Feb. 19 Undergraduate Council of Students forum featuring two members of the search committee, Professor of Visual Arts Wendy Edwards and undergraduate appointee Daniel Pipkin ’14, my concerns have increased. The purpose of the UCS forum was to allow students to express their views regarding the qualifications that the next provost must possess and their thoughts on what type of person he or she should or shouldn’t be. It’s true that students were given space to speak candidly on the topic, and I would never underestimate the capability of Brown students to do so with wisdom and insight. But I do doubt the willingness of the search committee to meaningfully consider students’ wishes.

I would comment on the trustworthiness of the search process, but I can’t, because I do not even know what the process entails. And I asked. Twice. Yet Edwards and Pipkin declined to answer — the administration had instructed them not to. Again, I asked why. Why, at a forum that existed solely to obtain student input into the provost search process, were we excluded from knowledge about it?

No dice.

So I ask you: What is the point of permitting students to weigh in on a process they aren’t even allowed to understand? This question begs a bigger one: What is the point of an organization like UCS if it is ultimately kept in the dark by the administration?

Edwards and Pipkin’s instructions to remain mute originated high up within the administration. Pipkin said they came from President Christina Paxson herself. It is always disturbing when the University’s administration refuses to be transparent, but it is more disturbing when this refusal is tied up in the selection of an administrator that will be directly engaged in the academic experiences of both undergraduate and graduate students — as the next provost will be.

It is clear from the administrators’ instructions to Pipkin that they have already impaired his power to represent the undergraduate community thoroughly. As I’ve already stated, it is difficult for students to demand representation in a process they do not know the first thing about. Therefore, Pipkin simply can’t obtain meaningful feedback from students. Equally troubling is the paltry level at which UCS is at all involved in the search, which seems to be the result of the administration’s disinclination to involve them. Indeed, a few members of UCS stated at the forum that they merely hoped the body would have the opportunity to assist the committee in assessing applicants.

Shouldn’t they already have it?

In my view, we elect — to the extent that there is more than one candidate running for any position — our UCS representatives to serve as liaisons between undergraduates and the administration. It’s worth noting, however, that there have been disagreements about the body’s purpose from within UCS. A recent Herald article noted that while many members believe that they represent student perspectives, others do not. The undergraduate community has always been skeptical of the Council’s utility — UCS members certainly take a lot of flak. But most have good intentions and want to support undergraduate interests. Yet, unfortunately for them and the rest of us, the administration severely limits their efficacy.

Consider the provost search committee appointment process. Out of 10 applications, UCS recommended three to President Paxson. Paxson got the final say and appointed Pipkin. But why couldn’t UCS choose its top choice directly? If an undergraduate appointment to the committee serves the purpose of representing student voices, shouldn’t that appointment be based solely on student voices, without administrative oversight?

Undergraduate students are not alone in experiencing exclusion from the provost search process. A similar forum for graduate students resulted in little opportunity for diversity of perspective on the process and potential candidates, because only two grad students attended the forum. But don’t blame grad students for this poor attendance. The forum was held during the lunchtime hour, a time of day when the majority of grad students are attending departmental workshops, brown-bag events and meetings. Graduate students must prioritize these responsibilities, which are directly vital to their studies and training. The administration apparently didn’t understand this conflict, thereby once again demonstrating its isolation from the very students whom it claims to serve. Or it understood, but didn’t care.

In a few words, the administration must be more transparent. Transparency requires that Paxson disclose her rationale for choosing the members of the search committee, including her appointments of Pipkin and Crystal Ngo GS, the search committee’s graduate student appointment. But the president and the administration could go further if they genuinely want to represent students in the search process. The first step would be to invite more students to join the committee. The second step would be to increase the involvement of UCS and the Graduate Student Council beyond the mostly for-show student representative appointment processes and open forums. At this point, there is no assurance that either body has any influence at all.

The administration’s inclusion of only two students on the provost search committee is a dreadful omen of potential exclusionary practices to come. Beginning this spring, a committee will form to review the Student Code of Conduct, an umbrella document for crucial issues like sexual misconduct. Imagine if that committee includes only one undergraduate. He or she would be grossly overextended, trying to both represent a diversity of student viewpoints and defend student concerns against an administration with a reputation of unresponsiveness on such matters.

I challenge the administration to be thoroughly transparent about processes like the provost search and to increase the number of students it involves in such processes. One place to start would be to allow UCS and GSC to review finalist candidates for provost. I understand that applicant anonymity is a factor, but I am certain that if the administration sincerely values student participation in the process, it could devise a plan to properly shield applicants from exposure.

If the administration is willing, it will find a way to keep student interests at the center of the provost search. Doing so requires expanding student participation and administrative transparency. Let’s see a document. I don’t mean some nebulous policy with vague language and few clear directives, but a document that spells out the provost search process from beginning to end. In addition to greater transparency, the administration must recognize that student input requires a significant number of student representatives on the provost search committee and on all committees that form in the future.

 

Maggie Tennis ’14 is not finished with this subject. She will have much more to say about the provost search and issues of student representation as the semester unfolds. 

  • concerned2016

    Thank you for this, Maggie!

  • johnlonergan

    Congratulations Maggie on a needed exposition on the Provost search process. One has the feeling that Christina and co. do not value student or alum input. Lack of transparency and student/alum input reveals an inward-looking, defensive Adminstration.