Step 75: Share Governance of a Department

Oxy is in a time of transition – our Dean of Students stepped down not long after I started, and our Dean of the College recently started at his new position at Kalamazoo College. I was asked to be on the Dean of Students search committee, which just concluded last week. The process was time-consuming, with reading the applications, full days of interviews, and the on-campus interviews from the candidates. But it was also educational: I met people who I wouldn’t otherwise cross paths with, and the discussions on institutional priorities were some of the most meaningful, substantial conversations I have had since coming to Oxy.

One topic that stuck with me was a discussion of how Oxy students lack opportunities for leadership. What the speaker meant was that there were no obvious ways for student achievements to be recognized, nor for such students to take on additional responsibilities to guide future students down the same path. The most hierarchical organizations – the Occidental Weekly and the Orientation Team – has a visible impact on campus and do provide a path for advancement, but engages only a small portion of the community. The suggestion was that, as administrators and faculty, we should create channels for student merit to be nurtured, ultimately creating a culture where students recognize and encourage each other’s leadership potential.

The conversation was timely. Since GHC, I have thought hard about how to start a computer science peer mentorship program, especially one that is student-run and sustainable. As a leadership opportunity, I envision mentors coming to a consensus on goals to achieve for the year, as well as to interview and approve new potential mentors. The main reason I haven’t put this into action is that I am not clear on what the aim of such mentorship would be, if it should be network building, or include career path exploration, or extend into tutoring. I am also unsure of the role that existing student clubs should play or, in fact, how to best leverage my position as faculty to foster computer science at Oxy.

I had a second, much more radical, thought after the discussion: what would it mean for students to take partial responsibility for an academic program, to share governance of a department? This idea has been bubbling in my head for a while, from when students invited themselves to the faculty retreat, to earlier in the Dean of Students search process when I wondered why faculty meeting minutes are not available for students. The candid conversations about how the Dean is important to different constituents was not only meaningful to me, but also to the three students on the committee. It’s hard for me to say what exactly they experienced, if it’s simply having a voice at the table, or if it’s seeing faculty and administrators struggle with differing viewpoints. Whatever it was, I think they came out empowered with a deeper insight into how decisions are made at Oxy, and hopefully also more invested in the success of the new Dean.

Compared to Student Affairs, an academic department is one step removed from being directly responsible for and answerable to students, but that does not mean they should not be involved in the departmental decision. Students may not have the expertise to design a curriculum, but they could have a say in future course offerings, or who to bring in as speakers, or the structure of senior comps. In turn, these student representatives are expected to faithfully report the concerns and requests of their classmates and to bring them to the attention of the faculty, and conversely to relay the reasoning of the faculty back to other students.

Going back to student leadership, this role of student-faculty liaison is one that has clear privileges and responsibilities, and provides an obvious goal for students who want to excel and give back. Whoever steps into the role – and I am imagining two students, both to make scheduling easier and so they can support each other – must be respected by the other students, which requires leadership ability. And finally, the whole structure would strengthen student buy-in, while providing additional learning opportunities for students.

As far as I know, this model of departmental governance does not exist. Oxy, as with other colleges, assembles ad-hoc student committees for faculty searches. Students do sit on various administrative committees, but I do not know if they have a defined role; at least, I have not heard of student reports from committee meetings. The most relevant example I know of is for graduate students, but despite the stated responsibilities of the Graduate/Faculty Representative, that person has mostly relayed information out of faculty meetings and rarely provide input. Regardless, I do not know of any undergraduate departments where students participate in departmental affairs.

Secretly, I’m hoping that such a program will take off and help mend some of the mistrust between students and administration. The idea of departmental shared governance seems sufficiently obvious that I may be missing a critical flaw, but I’m not currently seeing one. And if starting a department is not the time to experiment, when is?

Step 75: Share Governance of a Department

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