February 9, 2011

Gauging the student voice

Sitting in the Gizmo on a Tuesday afternoon, chair of the Presidential Search Committee and trustee Richard Riddell ’72 appeared incredulous.

“I don’t get it,” he said. “I really don’t. If students had ideas, we wanted to hear them.”

Throughout the search for Knox’s next presidential candidate, the search committee had been accused of marginalizing students and not providing them with opportunities to participate in the selection process. The number of hands that shot up at the first on-campus interview with a finalist candidate clearly indicated a desire to make up for what many students viewed as lost time.

Riddell, on the other hand, pointed to emails asking what students wanted in a candidate, updates sent to the student body throughout fall term and the two students selected to sit on the committee itself. Opportunities for involvement had been presented, he felt. Yet the vast majority of students had chosen to let the search be until the finalist interviews. Given that, was all of the complaining really merited?

The presidential search is hardly the first instance in which Knox students have believed that their voices have been stifled. Nor is Riddell’s confusion unique. The disconnect between what the administration feels it is doing and what the students feel they deserve is an ongoing issue encompassing a variety of administrative processes. Throughout it all, one thing remains constant: a low level of student involvement, on average, in institutional decision-making.

Searching for Interest

In May of 2010, Riddell sent out an email inviting students to informational sessions about how the presidential search process would proceed. Of the approximately 1,200 students on campus at the time, only one chose to attend.

In January of 2011, Riddell held another on-campus session to discuss the search’s progress. Attendance tripled to three students (not counting a reporter from The Knox Student).

Given this trend, one would expect that the on-campus finalist interviews would be equally poorly attended. Instead, about 50 people showed up.

“Clearly, having the candidates come to campus was a trigger,” Riddell said. “Students want to be involved but maybe did not see a way to get involved beforehand.”

Still, 50 is a relatively low portion of 1,200. Junior Erin Duff offered an explanation.

“There are opportunities to get involved [with the search], but it’s not easy,” she said. “I wish they had a little update in the paper every week.”

Sophomore Josh Gunter nodded.

“I wanted to go the [January] panel, but I couldn’t. I had class,” he said. Gunter did attend the finalist interviews.

Riddell said that a lack of communication about how updates would occur could be a cause of this frustration.

“There may have been a lack of understanding from the beginning that there wouldn’t be weekly updates,” he said. “There were times when there was nothing to update students about.”

For students who were unable to attend the search updates, Riddell pointed to the search’s website, which has been updated whenever a major development has occurred. A survey was also sent out at the end of last year asking students what qualifications and characteristics they would like the next president to have.

“There were opportunities to think about the criteria and opportunities to get updates,” he said. “Look back at the updates—you can see that we let people know when the next update would be.”

Senior Katie Johnston agreed that the lack of student interest was not the committee’s fault.

“I felt that the volume of emails we were sent about the search process showed some effort on the part of the administration to keep us updated and informed,” she said.

The problem, then, may lie not with the administration, but with student initiative.

The Student Voice

Many students groan when course evaluations are made available at the end of every term. The format of every evaluation is the same and ranking the difficulty of a course may seem arbitrary. Despite these shortcomings, Dean of the College Larry Breitborde stresses the importance of completing these evaluations.

“This is the principal avenue of student responses [to faculty members], and they’re taken very seriously,” he said. “That’s the student voice.”

Data from course evaluations compiled over a professor’s teaching career plays an important role in the decision about whether to grant tenure, which is made in a faculty member’s sixth year at Knox. Still, many students do not complete the evaluations.

“If 60 to 70 percent of students complete their course evaluations, we’re having a party because the number is so high,” Breitborde said.

Some schools have tried to incentivize students to complete evaluations by withholding grades until they do so.

“It works, but we don’t want a system based on coercion,” Breitborde said. “People may get tired of doing [the evaluations], but it’s part of the responsibility of being a student.”

Breitborde speculates that some students choose not to do the evaluations because of a sense of futility. After all, the written portion of the evaluation is only seen by the faculty member, not the Faculty Personnel Committee or others reviewing him or her for tenure.

“The comments about the course and how it could be improved are what help the teacher improve the curriculum,” sophomore Mollie Phillips said. “But if it’s about a teacher’s actual ability to teach…then higher ups should see those comments.”

That only the faculty member in question should see students’ written comments was decided upon by the faculty at large, not the administration.

“The written comments are more developmental,” Breitborde said. “If something [about a faculty member] is not good, it’s going to come out in the departmental evaluation of the candidate.”

Still, that their role in the tenure process consists of a set of rankings is frustrating to many students. When Assistant Professor of Computer Science Don Blaheta was denied tenure in the fall of 2009, students plastered campus with “Save Don’s Job” posters, reached out to alumni via Facebook and wrote personal letters to President Roger Taylor. Despite these efforts, the decision was not reversed.

“I don’t think the administration listened to us at all last year,” Andrea Johnston, ’10, who was active in the “Save Don’s Job” effort, said. “If anybody can judge whether or not they’re good at teaching, it’s the students. The whole point of hiring professors is to have people to teach the students.”

Breitborde disagrees, pointing out that tenure is based on scholarship and institutional involvement in addition to teaching.

“Students have a particular perspective, which is the effectiveness of classroom teaching,” he said. “The faculty want to see a potential to develop in the classroom and develop further in a field. The institutional evaluative process is broader than the student perspective in the classroom.”

With completion rates for course evaluations being consistently low, it is difficult for students to argue for more involvement in tenure decisions.

“There is a select group of students who are really passionate about what goes on at Knox and who really desire a great deal of transparency from the administration…but these efforts are often frustrated by the lack of interest in the student body in general,” Katie Johnston said.

“I do not think an average student cares enough to share their concerns,” senior Shruti Patel echoed.

Taking Responsibility

Two years ago, Knox published an institutional self-study in preparation for the re-accreditation process in the fall of 2009. Rather than confining the results of the study to the accreditation process, the college wanted to review and utilize them for school-wide improvements and created focus groups to address certain aspects of the study. Two students were to be a part of each group.

A lack of interest from students, however, thwarted this idea.

“It’s a tough call,” Breitborde said. “I think there are people who just go about their business and maybe don’t see this as something to learn about.”

Katie Johnston, who spent two years as a student Senator, echoed Breitborde’s sentiments.

“People who wanted the campus to make changes…couldn’t spread the word effectively because most people are more concerned with their everyday lives than larger administrative issues,” she said of her time on Senate.

Some students provided a different reason for apathy: a lack of interest on the part of the administration about student opinions.

“I think they care more about the issues that could get them sued or affect the school as a whole rather than specific issues about students,” Phillips said.

Concerning Blaheta, Andrea Johnston recalled the volume of letters written to Taylor by current students and alumni contesting the tenure decision.

“I think it’s ridiculous that a professor whose students almost universally loved his classes and respected him as a teacher could be fired on the recommendation of a group of faculty not from his department and the President,” Andrea Johnston said.

Breitborde said that the Blaheta controversy is typical of the student voice at Knox.

“I think a lot of it is issue-oriented,” he said. “When something happens that bothers someone, you hear about it. It’s different to be concerned about something that happened on campus versus the future of the college.”

“I know it’s bad and that I should care, but my non-involvement in administrative decisions has never really affected my Knox experience all that much,” senior Krista Ahlberg said.

While there are clear reasons for some groups, such as seniors, not to be overly concerned with the presidential search process, this cannot explain a lack of involvement from underclassmen who will spend two or more years at Knox with the new president.

“I personally haven’t been paying much attention [to the search], and I feel kind of bad because the decision does affect me,” freshman Alyssa Gill said. “But I think that students do tend to be apathetic.”

If students are going to insist that their voices be heard, Breitborde stresses that they must first be involved, whether it be by participating in focus groups, attending presidential candidate interviews or simply filling out course evaluations.

“To be a member of a community does have benefits,” he said. “But it comes with responsibilities.”

Anna Meier

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