Who’s Got the Power? (Not Us.)

I tried a few times to write a different post for this week, but I keep getting stuck on this one. I was mostly inspired by this excellent post from another student at my college. Strap in, folks, it’s going to be a long one.

There is a lot of tension on my campus right now. Here’s the SparkNotes version:

  • About a month ago, there was a Halloween-costume-related racist incident on campus that many students felt the administration neglected to handle properly. After a string of e-mails from deans and our College President, most of the campus was still left deeply unsatisfied with administrative response.
  • This semester, Greek life (especially fraternities) have come under serious administrative pressure. Several sororities and fraternities have been disbanded or banned from social life.
  • Earlier this week, the junior class received a hasty e-mail that off-campus housing was being eliminated for the next school year. The administration said that a four-year residency requirement had always been the school’s goal, and the addition of a new dorm would finally provide enough beds to accommodate all Dickinson students. Students countered that they had been promised a chance to live off-campus through the existing lottery system, and this policy put unnecessary financial burden on seniors who would be required to purchase a meal plan and expensive on-campus accommodation. There was an “open forum” at which students felt ignored and disrespected.
  • There is an ongoing lack of access to mental health services at my college. This includes everything from standing visits to crisis response. I had personal experience with this when I tried to schedule grief counseling appointments after a sudden death in my family a few weeks ago, only to be told that I would need to wait until next semester because they were fully booked. This has been a problem for years, but a number of recent, expansive, construction projects on campus have recently raised questions about the college’s financial priorities.

What do all of these have in common? There is a major disconnect between the administration and students at my college. Students, including myself, feel as though every action they take to question administrative decisions is just shouting into the void.

Although I have not been actively involved in many of the incidents this year (I’m not in Greek life and I am graduating before the off-campus housing ban), I have copious personal experience with the frustrating and unwieldy process of working with our administration. During my sophomore year, I was the Director of the Dickinson College Dog House. I spent much of that year being ignored and shot down by the administration as I worked to expand the club, so we could accommodate an influx of new members. Meanwhile, the school featured our club on every tour and admissions booklet. It was beyond frustrating.

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Student-run in Oxford: This week-long ski trip was run fully by students, for students.

So, what does this have to do with transitioning back from abroad? Well, the student-administration relationship at Oxford is practically opposite. Granted, it is hard to compare the University’s treatment of social life, because 99% of students are of legal drinking age from the time they enter university (that’s a whole other issue that I could talk on for hours).

But, nearly every student organization is operated independently by students, for students, funded and overseen by the Student Union and their college Junior Common Room (akin to student government). At a college level, the Junior Common Room provides a direct link between administrators and undergraduates that holds actual sway in college decisions. Major college decisions (i.e. the new dorm at Mansfield) are discussed extensively with the Junior Common Room and, by extension, the students. It’s far from a perfect system, but administrators treat students as collaborators.

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Social Life at Oxford: vibrant and largely ridiculous

This even holds true at the University level. During a tutorial in my second week of classes, I mentioned to my tutor (AKA professor) that a lecture I attended the week before was unbearably cramped. There were so many students that I ended up sitting on the floor between two rows of chairs filled with strangers. I had no view of the lecturer and barely had enough room to take notes. My tutor said I wasn’t the first person to tell him this. He told me I should say something to the English Faculty, but must have seen my hesitation. He said “Seriously. They won’t listen to me, I’m just a professor. It’s you guys, the students. You’re the ones they listen to.” What? But it’s true. Oxford recognizes that the students are the ones who they need to please. And it’s not for some sentimental sense of justice: the students are the ones funding the University with tuition and donations.

Don’t get me wrong, Oxford has it’s fair share of administrative scandals. It’s the response to those scandals that differs. Students meet controversial moves with debate and public protest. Often, that protest gets real results. Two weeks after that awfully cramped lecture, they doubled the size of the lecture hall because of student complaints. For a more serious example, students were recently outraged by an Oxford don who was allowed to continue teaching despite multiple rape allegations. After student protest, the University put this don on a leave of absence. In both cases, student opinions were treated with respect by the University administration. Student actions got an active response from the administration, instead of a string of e-mails meant to smooth over issues.

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Protest: Empowering students to make change at the University can encourage larger-scale social action.

This leads me to the crux of the issue: Who has the power? At my school, it’s certainly the administration. At Oxford, it was undeniably the student body. We were treated as adults with worthwhile ideas and input. That included hefty responsibilities and consequences, but gave us the benefit of respect. Maybe that’s a lesson that the Dickinson administration should take to heart.

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