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Op-eds, Opinions

Carroll ’21: Brown’s administration moves to control student representation

By
Op-Ed Contributor
Wednesday, September 16, 2020

On Brown’s campus, the administration has increasingly asserted itself as the arbiters of student representation, determining which voices are heard and who gets a seat at the table.

As a recent example, over the summer, the administration founded the Campus Life Student Advisory Board, or the CLSAB. This new board, which will have direct access to Brown higher-ups, exclusively consists of students hand-picked by the administration.

I am not just concerned about the CLSAB, but the broader precedent it establishes: an administration empowered to unilaterally control student representation and well-positioned to leverage small, selective groups of students it favors in making decisions.

The notion of Brown administrators picking and choosing the students who advise and oversee their own offices is clearly troubling. It raises legitimate doubts about the independence of student representation and poses the risk of such a practice spreading to other parts of the administration as the preferred method of “student feedback.”

Typically, similar boards which formally advise the administration on behalf of students are appointed through formal processes conducted by students. This typically occurs through governing bodies such as the Medical Student Senate, Graduate Student Council and Undergraduate Council of Students. The involvement of bodies directly accountable to students offers a natural balance to the administration’s power and a direct connection between these committees and the broader student body.

Existing power structures already put a damper on student voices in campus discussions. How can students freely and openly represent their own views — let alone those of the broader community — when they are directly selected by the administration? Will students act and advocate differently when chosen by the administration than they would have as an independent representative? And if the administration can choose student representatives, does the administration also reserve the power to remove and disband student representation?

Moreover, if administrators get to unilaterally determine which student voices are represented, what is stopping them from either explicitly or implicitly choosing students whose views already confirm their pre-existing beliefs?

Evidence shows that people already seek out news and information that fits their preexisting beliefs and biases. Of course, the administration is not evil, but even well-intentioned ideas can easily go astray with a lack of accountability — which the University’s seemingly preferred process for selecting student representatives seems to lack.

Often when I’ve questioned such practices, the administration has simply told me to trust the system. But do you trust that a system so vulnerable to exploitation will not at some point be exploited? In the case of CLSAB, for example, there are no external structures checking how the administration chooses those who are meant to be advising on behalf of us as a student body.

Even if you may trust the intentions and assurances of the current set of administrators who are creating committees like the CLSAB, these administrators will eventually leave, allowing this unchecked power to fall in the hands of whoever takes their place. We have no assurances about who future administrators will be, what their overall views and goals will be or how they might manipulate a system with so many exploits. This is not a question of trusting individual administrators, but rather of the very structure and accessibility of University governance.

Furthermore, by the time undemocratic committees become a problem, it will be much harder to do something about them, as they will become ingrained into the status quo of the University. Unaccountable to the student body, these committees threaten to further insulate University governance and administration from outside access. Future generations of students and activists at Brown may suffer as a result, as they become powerless to a body established well before their own time. In short, the best solution is to ask for accountability now, rather than later.

It is important to note that the administration already has a plethora of formal and informal advising bodies for student and community feedback, whose advice the administration often turns down. The new CLSAB is intended to advise on campus life. All the while, the administration already has a Dining Council, Residential Council, International Student Advisory Board, a pre-existing Campus Life Advisory Board, three independent UCS committees focused on various aspects of campus life, a variety of student activist organizations and plenty of individual students, all of whom seek to advise on policy.

What do these established student organizations have in common? None of them are hand-picked by administrators. Moreover, many of them, particularly student activist organizations, have expressed to me that they have had difficulty getting adequate responses from the administration about their concerns, thoughts and beliefs.

This is an issue I have observed personally as well. Outside of my capacity as a UCS leader, I have often felt frustrated by the administration’s lack of response to legitimate concerns I have had both personally as a student, as well as some related to advocacy efforts.

If Brown truly wants more feedback and advice from students, it could start by listening to the range of students who have already been trying to have their voices heard, but often hit major roadblocks in doing so.

The CLSAB is far from the first example of the administration hand-picking student representation, but is perhaps the most blatant. Among other recent examples is the Healthy Fall 2020 Task Force, for which the administration did not even put out a public application, opting to pick only one student to represent the entire undergraduate perspective and voice on a 14-person committee.

These University committees often do not work for us as students. Many recent unpopular plans at Brown have come from University committees which purported to have student representation and input. For example, it was a University committee involving students which created the controversial “sophomore meal plan requirement” which sought to fight campus food insecurity by forcing students to purchase one of Brown’s most expensive meal plans. Given how unpopular this decision, and others like it, have been, it seems that “student input” is nothing more than a rubber stamp in many cases.

In my years as a student representative, I have raised my concerns about representation every time the administration creates a new committee or board where they have final control over student representation. I’ve received different and often conflicting justifications for the administration controlling student representation, ranging from the need to ensure diversity, to a board being advisory, to another being non-advisory. But beyond what the administration arbitrarily decides in the moment, there must be actual standards for these committees and external checks on the administration controlling student voice. While I believe that administrators can be partners and have a role in ensuring able and competent student representation, I do not believe that means they can do whatever they want and simply find a justification for it later.

Of course, no advisory or decision-making body can fully represent all students perfectly. However, Brown administration hand-picking the students whose voices get heard the loudest simply can’t be the answer for our school.

Jason Carroll ’21 is the president of the Undergraduate Council of Students and can be reached at jason_carroll@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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  1. Mr. Carroll ’21 makes a strong and reasonable case for student selection of student representation on advisory committees at the University. I have attended other universities and taught at other universities that have nowhere near the sense of community that Brown had when I was there and still has if the atmosphere I detect during my every five year or more frequent visits are any indicator. This sense of community is at the heart of what I love about Brown. From the moment I started as a First Year Student at Brown to this very day, I have felt like a full fledged member of The Brown Community. The Brown ring on my right hand is quiet testimony to that membership. Maintaining student selection of student advisors strengthens that sense of community and fits extremely well with the academic culture of choice (New/Open Curriculum)…. and although that process, like other elements of democracy, can be messy, it does typically result ….as Mr. Carroll indicates, in better decision in the end.

    In sum, I hope that President Paxson will lend her ear to Mr. Carroll’s request, reverse course on the “undemocratic committees”, and continue to strengthen that priceless sense of community at Brown.

    Best regards,

    John Troidl, ’76 and Ever True

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