UP CLOSE | Influencing policy or ‘wasting time’?

upclosegraphic
Photo by Madeline McMahon.

On March 1, Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry called a meeting of all fraternity and sorority leaders to inform them that their rush procedures would change. Beginning next year, he said, they would no longer be able to hold freshman rush activities during the fall.

The Greek leaders in the room said they were shocked.

“This rule came as a 100 percent surprise to every fraternity,” said Ben Singleton, vice president of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. “We didn’t have an inkling that this was coming.”

Greek leaders and students across campus claimed the policy was misguided, and many felt that administrators made the decision before students could offer input.

Administrators offer multiple channels for students to present their ideas — including committees with the Yale College Dean’s Office and other University offices, cultural centers, the Yale College Council and individual meetings — and they said they feel these mechanisms allow them to accurately gauge student sentiment. John Meeske, associate dean of student organizations and physical resources, added that he meets with students nearly every day about issues pertaining to undergraduate organizations.

Four of five members of Dean’s Office committees interviewed, along with many YCC members, said they play important roles in discussing specific issues when administrators seek their input.

But in terms of influencing actual policy, student leaders said they are unsure to what extent they can affect change.

Meeske said administrators can often predict how students will react before a policy is announced. In cases when administrators know a decision will be “unpopular” but still feel it is a “necessary step” — such as the fall rush ban for freshmen — there is no reason to seek further input from students, he added.

“It’s not profitable for us to form a committee to talk about ‘Should we do a rush ban’ if we’re convinced of what needs to be done,” he said. “It would just be frustrating to everyone [for students] to tell us not to do it, and we were determined to do it anyway.”

TOP-DOWN DECISION MAKING

Jamey Silveira ’13, president of the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity, said administrators did not contact him or other Greek organizations before deciding upon the new policy.

After pledges from the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity were caught shouting offensive chants on Old Campus in October 2010, Yale College Dean Mary Miller formed an ad hoc Committee on Hazing and Initiations. The committee issued a report in April 2011 that included a recommendation to ban fall rush for freshmen, and administrators announced the policy change in March.

“It was a top-down decision, where [administrators said] this is the basic policy and what is going to happen,” Silveira said.

After the rule was announced, Meeske formed an implementation committee composed of sorority and fraternity leaders to determine the details of the ban. Fraternity and sorority leaders began meeting weekly with administrators in March to determine definitions of a Greek organization, rush period and membership recruitment.

But five Greek leaders interviewed said administrators’ efforts to communicate came too late, and they feel that their input will not meaningfully affect the final rules.

“I don’t think you can craft intelligent policy without getting various perspectives,” Singleton said. “The fraternity perspective is pretty important for a policy that is going to exclusively affect fraternities.”

Still, Gentry said the entire student body was invited to apply to serve on the Committee on Hazing and Initiations, which had three student members, so he said Greek leaders were given the option to affect the policy change earlier.

Stephen Feigenbaum ’12 MUS ’13, a member of the Baker’s Dozen a cappella group who served on the Committee on Hazing and Initiations, noted he is as “close to the [Greek] scene” as anybody else who served on the committee, but still said he was “not the best person to represent their interests.”

Administrators said there are certain cases when they must decide upon policy changes themselves, rather by collaborating extensively with students.

One example is the recent change to regulations for athletic tailgates after the fatal crash at last November’s Harvard-Yale football tailgate, Miller said. Announced in January, the new rules banned kegs and box trucks, created a vehicle-free student tailgating area and mandated that tailgate activities end by kickoff.

After such crises, administrators may not have sufficient time to gauge student input, Miller said. Still, she noted that the Dean’s Advisory Committee, made up of 12 students, met in December to discuss the tailgating changes with Janet Lindner, associate vice president for administration.

“Policy may need to be developed by professionals in order to be comprehensive,” Miller said, “and the policy may need to attend to the larger issues of safety — and do so quickly.”

COMMITTEES AS AVENUES FOR INPUT

Administrators said they receive most of their student input from the YCC and the several dozen advisory committees, including the Committee on Majors, the Financial Aid Committee, and the Teaching, Learning and Advising Committee.

Each spring, the YCC requests applications from the student body to fill the openings on the committees, and YCC representatives review the applications and select students. There are currently 33 students serving on the 11 Dean’s Office committees that have student members. The YCC received a total of 97 applications for Dean’s Office committees last year, and students can also apply to committees in other areas of the administration.

Miller said she values input from students on the Dean’s Advisory Committee, citing students’ awareness about the difficulty of academic requirements as an important perspective.

Three students who sit on Dean’s Office committees said they feel their input is valued.

The Global Health Studies Advisory Committee developed a set of potential frameworks through which students could pursue the study of global health, said Helen Jack ’12, a member of the committee. She said she has contributed some ideas that were included in the final proposal, adding that because administrators are designing the course of study for students, “people take a student perspective seriously.”

Rustin Fakheri ’12, who serves on the Committee on Honors and Academic Standing, said serving on committees have given him confidence that administrators have students’ best interests in mind.

“Having been on the committee, you feel a lot more confident that things are being handled well,” he said.

Serving on one of the committees can help clarify the process behind forming policy, said Rachel Wilf ’12, who sat on the Course of Study Committee. She said she thinks administrators should make the policy-making process “more transparent” to students, explaining that her experience on the committee made her feel that administrators represent her interests well.

But David Sack ’13, a student on the Committee on Undergraduate Organizations, said he is frustrated by the lack of influence students have within the committee, citing particular discontent that the committee did not discuss the ban on fall rush for freshmen. He said he has stopped “wasting his time” attending meetings.

“The CUO exists so that the administration can claim student input on decisions that affect the student body,” Sack said.

Meeske said the CUO has met twice this semester, and he said “it did not occur” to him to review the new fall rush ban for freshmen with the committee.

Levin said he thinks interest in serving on advisory committees is “small but reasonable” given that students have many other extracurricular responsibilities, adding that “not everyone here is interested in policymaking in the administration.”

The Global Health Studies Advisory Committee considered attempting to connect with more students by sending emails to students asking them to write a paragraph about what they would want in a global health major, Jack said, but the committee decided against it because they felt students would be too busy to respond thoughtfully.

“You have to really get them to care about the issue,” Jack said.

She said students may only give real input when they are engaged on a committee, adding that if her committee included more students, it would take a “logistical toll” by slowing down “an already slow process.”

ROLE OF STUDENT GOVERNMENT

Fakheri, a former member of the YCC who currently sits on two standing committees, said student members of Dean’s committees and the YCC are similar in that their roles are “advisory” in nature, adding students do not often successfully spearhead initiatives.

But it was not until recently that the YCC had such close ties with the administration, said Yale historian Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61. The YCC was founded around the 1930s, Smith said, but he said the council did not have a significant influence on student policy on campus until the early 2000s.

YCC representatives now meet weekly with Miller, Gentry and Nina Glickson, assistant to the University president, outgoing YCC President Brandon Levin said.

Levin said part of the function of the YCC is to “be the voice of the students,” and the other part is to work on behalf of students to enact policy.

He said because members of the YCC work with administrators on a regular basis, they have a strong understanding of ways to work with administrators effectively and pursue policy changes that are feasible.

Levin acknowledged that he has received criticism that the YCC should try to address more significant policy issues. But he said small changes are often most important to students, pointing to the YCC’s recent success in expanding the number of items students can store in residential colleges over the summer.

“Storage regulations aren’t the biggest thing in the world, but every residential college council made quite a big fit about it,” he said. “That is an activist policy, and it’s dictated by what students want.”

At other Ivy League universities, student governments face similar barriers in influencing policies more significant than minor changes. Amrita Sankar, the vice president of the Student Assembly at Dartmouth College, said she has a working relationship with Dartmouth administrators, but “the student body has really questioned [their] ability to affect change on campus” because the representatives are not always sure of what administrators are “willing to concede.” She added that she thinks administrators consider students as “one class each” who will soon leave the university, while faculty and alumni are there “for the long haul.”

Danny Bicknell, president of Harvard’s Undergraduate Committee, said that the UC has been criticized by students for being ineffective in the past. He said the UC now hopes to help students approach administrators on their own, rather than only reporting to administrators on their behalf.

“Any type of advocacy effort can happen if you mobilize your bases,” he said. “The student government is there to aid in that process and provide support.”

But at some larger, public universities, there exists a system of where students and administrators work particularly closely in designing policies. Harrison Weber, president of Associated Students at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said his university has a “strong emphasis” on shared governance. He said the student government has a committee that lobbies to the state legislature, which control the university’s budget, in order to enact change.

Weber said UCSB’s student government tackles larger projects than many other universities, citing recent efforts to lower tuition and establish student “food banks.” He added that he feels that UCSB’s student government is able to represent the needs of students well because students vote on the council’s priorities when they elect candidates.

ROOM FOR GRASSROOTS IDEAS?

For students at Yale who are not members of student government or administrators’ advisory committees, Gentry said there are still many opportunities to communicate with administrators, such as through individual meetings and emails. He added that he often receives requests from students to meet one-on-one, adding that he usually accommodates them.

“There are layers of student activity and activism that goes on with the way student life is run here,” Gentry said.

But leaders of student organizations interviewed said they experienced difficulty making concrete progress towards policy changes.

Amalia Skilton ’13, an LGBTQ Co-op board member, said students do not have enough access to administrators to have a meaningful impact on policy.

“The administration is interested in listening to people who have been appointed through the YCC and committees and only talk to them,” she said. “I really think Yale seems to have a big problem with shared governance.”

Before Yale reinstated Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) in May 2011 in response to the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Skilton met with the Faculty Committee on ROTC last April to voice her concerns that the repeal of DADT does not eliminate discrimination against transgender and gender-nonconforming people. Because the meeting was optional, Skilton said, only two members of the committee attended, and the committee misstated her group’s affiliation in its final report. Skilton added that she left the meeting unsatisfied with administrators’ ability to listen to students’ concerns.

Kenneth Reveiz ’12 said he and other students approached Caesar Storlazzi, director of financial aid for Yale College, in 2010 with “well-researched” reports arguing that Yale should lower student financial aid contributions. Storlazzi then told the students that “the Yale Corporation makes all of the decisions, and students don’t have much input,” according to Reveiz.

Storlazzi did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Reveiz said his experience with administrators during this period has made him hesitate to engage with them further and suggest policy changes.

“What I’ve learned about the rhetoric of Yale College is that they care a lot about student input, but they’re not actively seeking student input,” he said. “The student input they do see is as uncritical as possible.”

Earlier this year, Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project Director Leah Sarna ’14 said she approached the Freshman Orientation Committee to propose including an educational program about homelessness in New Haven in freshman orientation. Sarna said both students and administrators on the committee told her that she “would have to get [her] act together extremely early, lobby really hard and probably fail.” YHHAP ultimately decided to stop pursuing the effort, she said.

Ryan Mendias ’13, a former LGBTQ Co-op coordinator, pointed to recent extensions of gender-neutral housing as cases when policy changes have stemmed from student efforts.

In early 2008, students from the YCC and the LGBTQ Co-op approached Meeske informing him that they were going to establish a gender-neutral housing committee and begin conducting research on the matter. Since that time, Mendias said, students from the YCC, LGBTQ Co-op and the Yale Women’s Center have presented administrators with protests, reports and survey data to work toward passing new mixed-gender housing initiatives.

“This shows that one of the most successful pushes in terms of a student-lead gain,” he said.

But Meeske said he and other administrators had been discussing the initiative for over a year before students first broached the topic because he had heard a “fair amount about gender-neutral housing at other campuses,” adding that he is “not positive it was 100 percent student-driven.”

Silveira said he hopes that administrators take his voice into account, but he said he has never thought of his interactions with administrators as a “democratic relationship,” and administrators ultimately have the final say.

“It’s not as if we elect the administration,” he said. “It’s not as if we have any say in who they are or what their goals are.”

Comments

  • evd

    I’m an incoming freshman, and to read that the university makes crucial decisions like this without students’ input isn’t a great advertisement for the school. Does this mean that freshmen won’t be able to even go to any parties held by a fraternity? Whatever they’re trying to do just sounds stupid – I’m 18 years old and legally an adult. I hope I won’t be treated like a child just because I’m a freshman at Yale.

    • Jess

      You will probably be treated like a child wherever you go, and Yale is at least better than many other schools in that we don’t have RAs whose job it is to bust you for having alcohol. Prepare to be frustrated wherever you go.

      • xfxjuice

        This. Yalies kick and scream a lot, but relative to many other colleges, we have it pretty good.