Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
I’m Ben Hattem, and I want to be your next Student Council President.
As StuCo Financial Policy Representative this year, I have gained substantial understanding of the workings of the College and the administrative decision making process. But most of all, I have learned how much work there is left to be done to ensure a vigorous student presence in the management of the College. Even after years of students voicing concerns over insufficient student power and oversight, major decisions are often made without student consent or input – our only real role in the process is to validate decisions after they are made. This was especially apparent to me in my work on the College Budget Committee. This committee is ostensibly tasked with reviewing and providing input and recommendations for the budgeting process, but in practice its function was merely to receive a cursory glance at budgets that had already been created.
Much of the problem here is the way that decision making processes are institutionalized. Something I discovered as I worked on the Rollover Initiative this year is that students have extraordinary leeway over the management of our own funds and institutional structure. That is, we have immense freedom to spend the Student Activities Account as we like and design the student-led committee structure as we see fit. It took me longer to realize, however, that this freedom granted to students is partly a way of separating almost entirely student institutions from administrative ones. We have total control over our budget; in exchange, we have no control over the College’s.
As Student Council President, I will act to redefine and reinvigorate the committee structure by pushing administrative committees like the College Budget Committee, Committee for Investor Responsibility, and Student Advisory Committee to the Dean of Admissions to meet more frequently and allow for a greater student role in setting the agenda of the committees. In addition, I will pursue the formation of a Financial Practices Advisory Committee to review and publicize financial decisions made by the College and to respond to student concerns about these decisions. This would be an extension both of the Employment Practices Advisory Committee recommended by the Living Wage Committee in 2004 and of the recommendations of the currently active Committee for Purchaser Responsibility. The committee structure could be a great space for student involvement and increased transparency in the creation of College policies and budgets, but it needs serious reworking.
Furthermore, students must be more involved in the Strategic Planning process. Implementation of the strategic plan begins next spring, so students have little time left to significantly influence the near future of our school. The Strategic Planning process has been distressingly opaque to most if not all students; apart from the handful of student representatives selected by administrators to sit on the various working groups, almost all the conversation and information generated through the process has been kept from the student body. The Strategic Planning blog is a frustratingly inadequate way of supporting student participation. As President, I will press those involved in Strategic Planning to open up the process by critically evaluating what information needs to be confidential and what can be disseminated to the student body. With more specific details about the decisions being made, students will be able to give precise feedback on the process. In addition, I will push for more communication between the working groups and the student body so that students can see the direct results of their contributions.
This is an ambitious agenda, and it’s worth asking whether these reforms are achievable, especially given the inability of Student Council to significantly impact the functioning of the College in the past. I believe that much of what has hampered StuCo up until now is that its members generally see the council purely as a mediator and liaison between students and administrators. StuCo members feel that they have to advocate to students on behalf of the administration as much as they advocate to the administration on behalf of students. What we forget in doing so is that we are simply students ourselves, and that positions on Student Council are only titles that allow access to broader communication mechanisms and give StuCo members face time with administrators. The responsibility of Student Council is to the student body and student concerns, and it does its constituents a disservice by striving at all times to maintain positive, concordant relationships with administrators – relationships often built by moderating and diffusing student concerns.
Student Council should be willing to engage in broad campus organization and action around initiatives of importance to the student body. We come to the negotiating table in a much stronger position if we are comfortable backing up our requests with a cohesive, organized student response. This doesn’t mean that we should burn bridges, but it is possible for us to have a working relationship with the administration while maintaining the understanding that we are willing to exert uncomfortable pressure on the College if our concerns are dismissed or trivialized. That StuCo has not been able to function in that way this year is something I regret about my tenure as Financial Policy Rep.
Moving forward, I will continue to work with administrators to make the changes seen as necessary by the student body. I understand the importance of cooperation and compromise, even if I believe we must sometimes eschew the bureaucratic methods of achieving our goals. To that end, I have been heavily involved this year in the creation of two pieces of long-term policy: the Rollover Initiative and the Responsible Purchasing Guidelines. The Rollover Initiative, spearheaded primarily by me and current President Simon Zhu, is designed to make funding through SBC easier to get, less arcane, and more efficient, and to open up a self-renewing $100,000 fund to be allocated by a student committee for the development of student projects. The Responsible Purchasing Guidelines, written by the Committee for Purchaser Responsibility on which I’ve served since its foundation last spring, reiterate Swarthmore’s commitment to spending its money in a socially responsible manner through the establishment of new College policy defining acceptable and unacceptable purchases. Each of these pieces of policy was created in coordination and conjunction with Swarthmore’s staff and administration, and helped to build the strong working relationship I enjoy with many of the College’s administrators.
In short, I believe that Student Council has extraordinary potential to be an aggressive force pursuing student initiatives. But we have a tendency to hamstring ourselves by assuming that our only role is to mediate discussions. At times, StuCo has to be just another student group advocating student concerns – concerns which can be at odds with the interests of the administration. Frankly, that kind of conflict is a healthy part of the development of an institution like Swarthmore. Administrators will push one way; students, often, another. When our interests align with the administration, cooperation works well. However, Student Council renders itself pretty ineffective and incapable of successful negotiation when it forgets whose side it’s really on.