Give the Campus a Voice

The question of whether the sorority initiative needs to go to a campus-wide referendum highlights our need as a college for an independent, systematic, and statistically sound polling organization. The opinion of the student body at large should have been at the center of the debate—of every debate about campus issues—from the very beginning.While popularity shouldn’t be a prerequisite for any initiative—oftentimes these issues take time to grow in support—it is still a central variable that should be taken into account with any serious proposal.

There are a few rough measurements we can get on the popularity of proposals like the Sorority—through looking at Facebook groups, online polls on the websites of the Daily Gazette and the Phoenix, and gathering anecdotal experience from talking to people—but each of these angles is rife with bias. Online polls and Facebook groups suffer from selection bias (the people who choose to do them are more likely to be involved with the issue), anecdotal information is not strong enough to stand on its own, and email surveys sent out to random students often suffer from nonparticipation bias.

However, a student group that receives college funding could offer compensation for poll participants, drastically increasing participation rates.

As is often the case with politics, the content and tenor of campus-wide discussions is largely set by coalitions on either side. It’s hard to gauge how the actual student body feels about an issue from the articles published in our newspapers alone.

A poll would empower the voice of the “silent majority” of Swarthmore students who aren’t invested enough on any particular issue to speak out, yet deserve a representation. There are issues that affect people’s everyday lives, and they may not feel as comfortable disagreeing openly with their peers as with responding honestly on an anonymous survey. A monthly poll that reaches out to a random sample of Swarthmore students—and offers compensation for participation—would go a long way toward involving every student on issues that affect them.

Not only can polls gauge general student feeling, but perhaps more importantly, they gauge how feelings change, and how specific events factor into that change. Poll data is useful as feedback for both students and the administration, as evidence in discussions, and as interesting things to look at for fun.

Moreover, a poll would provide a sketch of the breakdown of issues on campus, by demographic factors. This could be interesting for any number of reasons, if curiosity doesn’t suffice. It could also be a useful resource for social science and statistical research, both now, and many years in the future. After all, poll data would be archived and available for all future generations of Swarthmoreans.

I would be interested to ask a plethora of questions that fall outside of the realm of current events, as well. Campus dynamics, such as the relationship between freshman dorm rooms and involvement in campus life, can be examined. Or, for example, we can investigate the popularity of different foods at Sharples.

There is an argument to be made that activist groups tend to be more educated on the issues that are they concerned with, and the public is liable to be more apathetic in general, so often the best course of action is to allow special interest groups to lead the discussion and create momentum. However, this and a poll are not mutually exclusive. The presence of a poll would only sharpen our public dialogues, and teach people to conduct them with the entire student population in mind.

Polls are not an end-all-be-all solution. Quantification is not, and should not be, a magical button that will solve our issues for us. However, if used effectively, it can be a powerful augmentation to the already strong debates that are held on campus.

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