Bhatla, Gourley, Saltzman: Student Voices Matter

By , and
Guest Columnists
Thursday, May 26, 2016
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2016

As Commencement draws near, graduating seniors all over campus are reflecting on our time at Brown. Some memories are common to the Brown experience: all-nighters in the Sciences Library, losing friends at Spring Weekend and post-exam Blue Room muffins (or is that just us?). Increasingly however, we’ve seen our classmates look back on their semesters at Brown and reflect on the incredible amount of institutional change our class has helped create. Brown, like many universities across the country, has been in a constant state of transition and transformation over the past four years, largely thanks to student voices.

Here at Brown, amidst administrative turnover, the class of 2016 has become a crucial source of institutional knowledge, as well as an agent of change. As student leaders of the Undergraduate Council of Students over the past four years, the three of us have seen many instances of students bringing critical issues to the administration’s attention and working hard to make their voices heard in a University governance structure that was not built to listen to students. During our time in UCS, Brown has undergone many changes, from eliminating fees for most suite-style rooms to renaming Fall Weekend Indigenous People’s Day, and from the way the University processes sexual assault cases to the way it treats mental health needs. The common theme throughout the changes we’ve seen? Student voices pushed them all to happen.

Student efforts have consistently sparked necessary University action. In UCS, we’ve hosted roundtables and open forums where students and administrators have engaged in productive conversations. We’ve also watched as Brown has thrived or fallen short in pursuing institutional change, depending on whether students have been involved. Now, at the end of our four years, the most important lesson we’ve learned is that it is imperative for students to have a voice, as equal stakeholders and partners, in decision-making at Brown in order for both the University and student life to thrive.

In the spring of 2014, our sophomore year, students reignited the fight to reform the University’s sexual assault adjudication process. Brown had long since needed to reevaluate its policies around sexual assault (not much had changed since activism in the early 1990s), but this time, students demanded that their voices be heard and channeled into action. Students were the ones who boldly told their personal stories, publicly rallied around their peers, pushed administrators for answers at UCS open forums, researched how our process was failing survivors, made key recommendations through the Sexual Assault Task Force and ensured with their journalism that everyone in the Brown community was aware of how our institution needed to change. Brown’s establishment of a new Title IX Office and gradual implementation of a new unified policy for processing such cases are a testament to these students’ efforts and will continue to be shaped by future student voices.

While students have initiated institutional change on issues like Title IX, student pushback against ongoing University efforts has also shifted the course of change in other areas. Few know that the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan was in development for many semesters before becoming a public conversation last fall. Through UCS focus groups, op-eds, a Blackout protest on the Quiet Green, teach-ins, open forums and a reclaiming of University Hall and Leung Gallery by students of color, amidst many other efforts, Brown students fought for the plan to move from a vision statement to a comprehensive plan with specific accountability measures and ultimately partnered with other University stakeholders to secure a $45 million increase in funding.

In these instances, not only were students the main agents of change on our campus, but they also stood up for other members of our community, including faculty, staff and Providence community members. While our perspective on these issues is limited to our own involvement as UCS leaders, we’ve cherished the opportunity to work alongside our fellow classmates, activists, writers and campus leaders as they have forged new pathways of change when the University left few institutional mechanisms for doing so. Many administrators have supported these efforts, but we need more than administrative support. We need Brown to include and value student voices in University decisions systemically and unequivocally, not just when doing so is convenient.

Every year, UCS conducts a Fall Poll of the undergraduate student body to collect data on a variety of issues we plan to work on throughout the year. This year, a record-high 46 percent of the student body responded. Administrators were astonished that we were able to get almost half the student body to take an online poll. But we wondered why, when so many students will jump to tell you about areas of Brown they’d like to change, do only half of students voice their opinions when asked?

If Brown students are serious about changing our institution for the better, we need to get more people engaged in campus issues and University governance. In The Herald’s spring poll, 80 percent of respondents reported feeling “very informed” or “somewhat informed” about events on campus, but 34.2 percent reported having “no opinion” on how President Christina Paxson P’19 is doing her job. If we truly claim to be “informed” students, we need to show up when it counts.

Conversations around important campus issues often involve the same groups of students, and while we recognize that some students may not feel comfortable confronting institutional barriers, we hope this changes in years to come. If the class of 2016’s four years here have been any indication, student voices do matter and can change the course of a University. 

We can’t wait to see what the next four years hold for Brown. We hope the class of 2016 has inspired classes below us to keep working to create change at Brown, whether through student government, centers, academic departments, University committees, journalism or other forms of activism. Now that we’re graduating, we won’t be able to talk about the student body as “us” any longer, but you can bet we’ll stay engaged as alums and keep pushing for institutional change from the other side of the Van Wickle Gates.