Open communication key to admin/student engagement

Correction (Friday, April 20): The Intensives Curriculum discussion was led by Christopher Bjork in the Education Department, not Dean of the College Christopher Roellke.

In 2016, the Campus Master Planning Committee of the Board of Trustees set out to create a framework for making decisions about campus renewal over the next 10 to 15 years. As part of this ongoing process, Dean of Strategic Planning Marianne Begemann held forums in dorms and at a VSA Senate meeting, and sent out an electronic survey to engage with students and gather feedback. This allowed students to offer input to an administrator in how the College will prioritize structural improvements that need to be made in the coming years. The inclusion of a feedback page on the Campus Master Plan website and the invitation for further participation in this project create potential for an ongoing conversation between students and Administrators.

President Bradley has also made it a mission to keep students consistently informed about new hires and to keep open the metaphorical doors of the administration. Her community- wide email updates on new administrative hires include a short list of the person’s qualifications for the role and a helpful description of the duties of the position. This easily digestible, important and concise information is the kind of transparency we would like to continue to see.

While the inclusion of student opinions in the creation of the Master Plan may have been successful, this open communication between students and the administration must remain ongoing. The VSA Senate was created for the purpose of facilitating discussion between students and the administration, yet it is rare that any students, apart from members of the VSA and The Miscellany News, attend these meetings. This suggests that the VSA Senate may not be the most appropriate forum to gather student feedback to bring to the administration, which raises the question of what more effective ways of bridging the gap between administration and students would look like.

Incentivizing student engagement may be one fruitful option. President Bradley advertised the Engaged Pluralism Initiative Campus Community Survey in her two most recent Sunday emails, hoping to generate responses from students, faculty, staff and administrators regarding ways to improve the environment at Vassar. The survey is tied to a raffle to win prizes, such as a dinner at the President’s house or a pound of chocolate.

Based on past experience, the result of such campus-wide surveys could be more effective if the feedback were posted in a more timely manner. In Spring 2017, Vassar conducted its second “What Happens Here” survey, investigating sexual assault and harassment on campus. The survey began in mid-April and ended on May 2, yet the result was published on the Office of Institutional Research website on Feb. 28, 2018. If we are continually asked to participate in surveys to supposedly improve the quality of student life or the operations of the College, we should be able to see the results promptly—not to mention proof that the administration has processed and integrated student thoughts, experiences and responses into their resulting institutional Policies.

Although student surveys can be an effective way for administrators to gauge campus climate, face-to-face engagement with the student body is equally important. The VSA held a forum on Sept. 10, 2017 with the newly inaugurated President Bradley and invited students to attend and address questions and concerns to her. According to those in attendance, the result was overwhelming and not particularly helpful. As she was relatively new to the position, many of the questions were not necessarily best directed toward her. A college has different deans and administrators for a reason; each deals with different aspects of student life and functions of the College. A solution to inundating one administrator— that is, in this case, President Bradley— with questions, complaints and worries could be to hold more frequent forums with other administrators. The forum with Bradley proved that this format is one that students respond to, so it could likely be successfully replicated with other administrators.

Furthermore, a forum with an individual dean, perhaps advertised in a VSA email with the intent of the forum and/or a short description of the appropriate types of questions to pose to that particular administrator, could clear up some of the confusion students have about communicating their problems and concerns. For instance, Dean of the College Christopher Roellke recently hosted an open meeting on April 12 in the Old Bookstore, inviting students’ input on Vassar’s revised curriculum, which will begin in Fall 2020. The Intensives Committee intended to inform and include students in the decision-making process, but unfortunately, the notice wasn’t delivered to students until the same day of the meeting.

With the sheer number of administrators employed by the College and their bureaucratic job titles, a student may not know which dean, associate dean or assistant dean to reach out to. The governance documents that describe the way the College runs and includes each dean’s job description are made available to the public, but they are dense, officious texts. Furthermore, due to the interdependency of different offices and the very particular responsibilities of each administrator, students often find themselves going in circles as one administrator refers them to another, and that administrator to another and so on, in search of the correct person to contact.

It is important that the College expand its efforts to make information easily accessible to all members of Vassar. Disseminating documents at Orientation is one way to provide first-year students with immediate and necessary information regarding the structure and resources on campus, and it is crucial to sustain these efforts throughout students’ time at Vassar. More readable and accessible documents, and more frequent forums and meetings, would be steps in the right direction. If the information exists in an accessible way, students will find and use it. We at The Miscellany News encourage the administration to work toward creating positive relationships with the student body. Let’s put more faces to the names we see in our inboxes; we want to know and be able to converse with and depend on the people that make up the leadership of our college.

–– The Staff Editorial expresses the opinion of at least 2/3 of The Miscellany News Editorial Board.

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