Standing committees’ impact is unclear

Some of them have the ear of the administration and at times their recommendations can be the impetus for significant changes in University policy. They are the Yale College standing committees, and although students often feel the effects of their work, many are not even aware of their existence, much less the nature of the work they do.

There are nearly 50 of these committees that meet to discuss University policies on issues ranging from health care and dining services to financial aid and crime. But each committee operates on its own schedule, meaning that some meet weekly and others only meet once or twice a semester, if at all.

They are composed of faculty members, administrators and students who are appointed by the Yale College Dean’s Office each summer. But students who wish to serve on the committees must first obtain the recommendation of the Yale College Council, which plans to circulate applications for the committees in the next few days.

Once appointed, the committee members make recommendations to the administration on subjects such as financial aid, the Yale Health Plan and the Yale Police. The committees’ recommendations have prompted administrators to make substantial changes in University policy in the past.

“I think they’re quite influential,” said Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg, who chairs the Advisory Committee on Undergraduate Organizations. “The students are treated as equal partners in the discussions.”

Trachtenberg said the suggestions of her committee brought about changes in the guidelines that groups must follow to obtain funding. Occasionally, the committees’ recommendations even reach beyond the University. Earlier this spring, the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance submitted a report to Congress and the Department of Education that contained recommendations for making aid easier for students to attain, including simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid for students from families with incomes of less than $25,000.

But other committees are far less active. Take the Dining Hall Advisory Committee, for example. In a year in which dining hall transfer restriction policies have caused a stir on campus, the committee has not convened once, member Jose Ramirez ’07 said. Since being selected to join the committee last summer, Ramirez has not received any communication regarding the committee this academic year.

Both YCC President-elect Steven Syverud and Vice President-elect Marissa Brittenham ’07 said some committees accomplish far less than they could, and that by making students on the committees report to the YCC on their work, the council could spur them to action.

“We want to make sure that they report back to us on what they’re doing,” Syverud said.

But sometimes a lack of activity is not the fault of the committee members, but the administrators they report to.

“It definitely depends on the standing committee itself and the relationship the administrator they report to wants to have with it,” said Brittenham, who serves on the financial aid committee.

Few students polled said they knew what such standing committees are, and none said he or she knew of any changes the committees had helped bring about on campus. Some of the committees’ obscurity is due to the nature of their deliberations, said some committee members.

Rawen Huang ’07 serves on the Advisory Committee for Yale College Programs in China, a committee that is helping the University develop a yet-to-be-finalized study program in that country. Deborah Davis, a sociology professor who serves with Huang on the China committee, said the committee ran focus groups with students from several academic departments in order to make their recommendations representative of student needs.

Still, because the plans for the program have not been completely developed, the committee cannot make its deliberations public.

“Students don’t even know about it,” said Huang

Other committees such as the Executive Committee and the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility also keep their deliberations confidential. But some are more open.

Jacqueline Collimore, a representative of the Yale University Women’s Organization, serves on the Health Plan Advisory Committee and publishes a monthly newsletter that chronicles the committee’s work.

Trachtenberg said most of the standing committees are as transparent in their proceedings as possible.

“The lists are published, students can talk to anyone on the committee,” she said. “There is no secret about any of this.”

All of the committees are listed on the Yale College home page, but only some list their members’ names. Last year, the students on each committee were named on the YaleStation online portal, but the data have not been updated this year. The lack of publicity is probably the reason most students are not aware of the standing committees as a possible resource for bringing about change, Brittenham said.

She said the financial aid committee has done a lot of work this year in bringing members from various offices together to discuss aid issues. But Brittenham said the lack of openness in the committee is one of the ways in which it is “lacking.” She said the YCC hopes to help ameliorate this lack of publicity next year, perhaps by updating YaleStation to include more information about the standing committees.

YCC President Andrew Cedar ’06 also said he thinks the committees could afford to communicate more with the student body.

“I wish they were more visible so students knew what was happening,” Cedar said. “If a student cares about an issue and thinks no action has been taken, we tell them to go to a standing committee, and they find out there’s something already happening.”

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