In classic Earlham style, I arrived five minutes late to the January 29th senate meeting. Even with my late arrival, it was clear that the circus-like process that I’ve come to call the “EC Admin Telephone Game,” had begun in full swing.
Students were making their feelings known, with statements about the value of theme and friendship houses to the community, and why the administration’s move to phase out this housing option would have damaging effects on student life. We had been primed for a fight; in the days leading up to the meeting, many of us in the community had come to believe that Residence Life was considering the phasing out of campus theme and friendship houses.
The administrators in the room consisted of Bonita Washington-Lacey, Interim Vice President of Student Affairs and Registrar, and Shane Peters, Associate Vice President for Student Life. The response from these members of administration was that the students did not understand the scope of the issue. They said that given the budgetary challenges associated with the already poor maintenance of the houses, the school simply wanted to know how they should move forward with deciding how to relocate students from specific houses with structural integrity issues.
But why didn’t students understand the question? I do not think it is because Earlham students are dumb, or too lazy to research appropriately. However, if someone from outside the community had been present at this senate meeting, I imagine that they would assume that Earlham Students do not do their homework before meetings, do not come prepared, and are overly reactionary to statements from the administration.
What is concerning is that we as students were not prepared for that meeting. But it’s not our fault. The factors that contribute towards this stem from poor communication within the administration, and how it interacts with the community at large. Students didn’t come prepared for the meeting, because they were not provided with the right tools to prepare.
One explanation is that the EC administration, being made up of people with individual intentions, visions, and values, struggles to effectively communicate its plans. This creates a perfect storm, where student input becomes easily lost.
I spoke with Alumni Arish Mudra Rakshasa 19’, who served as the Student Government (ESG) president from 2017-18. Mudra Rakshasa, who worked to hold the administration accountable for the problematic implementation of the campus-wide smoking ban, cited the challenge of institutional memory as a 4-year college. He said, “Decisions are obviously made over the course of many many years, usually strong policy changes. And so typically, students usually come and go while those decisions are still in process.”
He went on to say, “From what I understand, [the decision-making] process doesn’t take into account that current student opinions change as cohorts change.” Decision making is done with the consultation of students, but not with any regard for updating how the current students feel about the issue.
For the EC administration to be dishonest with the community, they don’t have to launch a conspiracy to misinform students. All they have to do is play a game of telephone, letting the disorganized flow of communication take over. This forces students to rely on word of mouth, memes, and our principles and values to stay engaged. This ultimately makes students less organized, less informed, and less capable of pushing back on policy change.
Jace Grissom, 20’, worked with ESG last semester (Fall 2019) to pass a resolution calling out Residence Life on their “room walkthrough” policy. Discussing activism on campus, Grissom cited instability as a challenge for students who want to be part of changes to existing policies, saying, “I’ve had four presidents in four years. […] The abnormal has become our normal.” Grissom went on to say, “It’s made people apathetic because we feel like we have no control over anything because we don’t, they don’t ask us anything.”
Now that Bonita Washington-Lacey is seeking our feedback, we have the opportunity to give the administration another chance. In the spirit of collaboration, I look forward to the administration’s continued support with any resolutions introduced by ESG to work with CLAC and Residence Life on decision making about houses.
But how do we know that we’ll be heard? I am appreciative of the joint ESG-Administration statement on housing sent out last evening, but this is not enough: We need to be sure that the feedback student-life is receiving will actually factor into policy implementation.
This is a direct call to action for the Earlham Community: Please write letters to the editor of the Word. It’s vital that we take this conversation to a public and community-wide level. This will ensure that our opinions (in writing) are made clear, ensuring that our voices are not lost in the process.
I also want to invite any member of administration to respond to these letters with your opinions and plans. This will help us know that you are acknowledging our voices through your actions.
I have hope for us as a community. That being said, for the “heart” and the “business” priorities of Earlham to come together, the current administration’s game of telephone has to end.