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Op-eds, Opinions

Bielenberg ’20, Smithwick ’20: Students and Decision-Making at Brown: Reflections from a Time of Crisis

By and
Op-Ed Contributors
Monday, April 13, 2020

Crises illuminate how institutional power works. They prompt us to ask: How do dramatic, unexpected shifts impact decision-making? What role do larger pressures and resource constraints play? Who is included in decision-making — and how is input gathered? 

Here at Brown, we have most recently seen these dynamics in our discussions about grading options in light of the recent changes and challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic. These discussions have demonstrated our commitment to the goals of equity and inclusion in University-level policy-making, especially among student activists who organized around the Universal Pass proposal. Yet these discussions have also demonstrated how little most of us know about how rules and regulations at Brown are actually made — and what voice we as students already have. If we want to make systemic changes at Brown, we should take this moment of crisis to learn more about how power is distributed at Brown and commit to an ongoing involvement in the decision-making process. As undergraduate representatives on the College Curriculum Council and University Resources Committee, we write in support of improvements to the Undergraduate Council of Students appointments process, commitments to transparency from the administration and, above all, more profound and sustained student engagement in faculty governance.

What opportunities do students have to contribute to University decisions? At Brown, we are fortunate to have undergraduate student representation on many University committees. The most important of these are the CCC, which deals with curricular programs, including grade options; and the URC, which allocates discretionary funds in the annual budget. These committees are both subsidiary bodies of the faculty, which has final authority over academic matters at Brown, as at most other American universities. Alongside the Tenure, Promotion, and Appointments Committee, the Faculty Executive Committee and the Academic Priorities Committee — none of which have student representation — these committees make most of the decisions that matter to the University. Their charge and statutory membership are specified by the Faculty Rules and Regulations, which alongside Brown’s Charter make up the governing statute of the University.

All these committees have their charge and membership publicly available to anyone with a Brown log-in on the faculty governance website. In addition, most of these committee meetings are public by statute, so anyone can attend a meeting of the faculty. In our experience, student voices — even if they are not appointees — are genuinely valued and actively considered in committee deliberations. If you care about an issue related to governance or decision-making at Brown, you should look up the agenda and write an email to one of the representatives on the relevant committee. And if you care about these issues on a consistent basis, you should apply to be an undergraduate student representative.

We hope that by learning more about faculty governance, students can begin to channel some of the energy we have seen in organizing around UPass into active, sustained participation on University committees. It’s true that much of the work we do on these committees is routine, and even boring. Yet these kinds of deliberations form the necessary, back-end work that prevents problems from escalating to crises. As students, we should participate in these conversations to the greatest extent that we are able. Our voice becomes especially important in the few times per year when committees consider contentious, major issues. This is usually when most Brown students do hear about the work of the CCC, the URC and other committees — for instance, during the certificates approval process, the concentration reform that the Watson Institute undertook last year and, of course, the recent financial, academic and public health-related decisions of the University in response to COVID-19.

We affirm that student organizing and advocacy is necessary in times of crisis. Yet it is equally important for students to join University committees and contribute to their work year-round. During our time at Brown, we have noticed that energy put into organizing doesn’t seem to translate into interest in University committees. For example, in the spring 2019 appointments cycle, there were three spots open on the CCC, but only four candidates applied. We noticed a similar lack of interest in the URC. Even once students are chosen to serve on these committees, many do not complete their full term, or simply do not come to meetings. This should change. Our most effective way to make student voices heard in the University-level decision-making processes — especially around the budget and academic policies — is to commit to student representation on the regular committees that make these decisions. We applaud the many who already do this work, and we urge every student reading this to consider applying to one of these committees.

In order to ensure ongoing, meaningful student involvement in University decision-making, we should also take a step back and ask: Why is student engagement with these committees not sustained and consistent? One reason might be that serving on a committee is making a time commitment — one roughly commensurate to serving on the executive board of an extracurricular organization. Not everyone has the ability or desire to spend their time participating in University committees. Second, too few people know about these opportunities in the first place. The University administration has a responsibility to make information about faculty governance more transparent and easily accessible; the website was only made public last November, and is still hard to find. In addition, policies are not published in a central, easily accessible location. In this respect, we could model ourselves after peer institutions like Williams College or Yale, both of which have public-facing websites with updated, well-presented information about committees, their charge and their membership. Third, the appointments process should be better-publicized. UCS should make sure that committee appointments do not fall through the cracks by making regular updates, improving institutional memory and committing time and energy to the process. After all, the appointments process is the gateway to committees that have real power at Brown. Representation on these committees depends on the diversity of applications UCS receives. In other words, if we want the diversity of our student body to be represented in University decision-making, we need to hold the appointments process to a higher standard.

Our collective conversations around the present COVID-19 crisis precipitated our writing of this piece. But we are also writing as members of the Brown community for the past four years and student representatives on committees for the past two. We want to do our part to advance Brown’s tradition of genuine, impactful student activism — a tradition that stretches back at least fifty years, to the Magaziner-Maxwell Report that started the Open Curriculum. For these reasons, we are making three requests: To UCS, please commit time and energy to improving the appointments process. To the University administration, please make information about committees and policy-making at Brown more accessible. And to students, please take an interest in faculty governance, not just in times of crisis.

Aliosha Bielenberg ’20 is an undergraduate representative on the College Curriculum Council and can be reached at aliosha_bielenberg@brown.edu. Jourdan Smithwick ’20 is an undergraduate representative on the University Resources Committee and can be reached at jourdan_smithwick@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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