Students play a vital role in College’s decision-making process
In a room full of people, Professor Jefferson Singer tosses out a question: How many courses should there be in Connecticut College’s general education program?
It is Curriculum ReVISION Week on campus, and the entire community has been gathering in small groups and larger town hall-style forums all week to discuss what the Connecticut College curriculum of the future should look like.
In response to Singer’s question, one professor says science students who plan to go to medical or graduate school need a certain number of courses within their major. An administrator agrees, and suggests that is true for graduate programs in all disciplines.
Senior Julia Cristofano, one of several students in the room, speaks next. Flexibility needs to be built into any future program, she says, so students who switch majors or choose to double major can still take electives to explore other areas of interest.
The faculty, staff and other students in the room nod and the discussion turns to how to incorporate flexibility into the various models that have been proposed during the week.
At the conclusion of the discussion, Cristofano remarks on the novelty of students having the opportunity to participate equally in such an important decision-making process.
“This is shared governance in action,” she says.
A unique commitment
At Connecticut College, students, faculty, staff and administrators are committed to a system of governance in which the perspectives of all groups are considered in the institution’s decision-making processes. It’s a system of mutual respect and collaboration that goes hand-in-hand with the College’s nearly 100-year-old Honor Code, which creates a community of trust and shared responsibility.
In practice, “shared governance” means that representatives from each group serve on major committees on campus, including committees that help determine the College’s budget priorities, consider educational changes and manage sustainability. Campus decision-makers also make an effort to consult with others and consider all perspectives whenever possible.
“The sense of purposeful inclusion that permeates this campus is a unique and distinguishing characteristic of our community,” President Katherine Bergeron said after the conclusion of Curriculum ReVISION Week. “It is invigorating to be part of such an open and engaging dialogue at this critical moment in the College’s history.”
Each year, the president of the College, the president of the Student Government Association (SGA) and the chairs of the faculty and staff representative bodies — the Faculty Steering and Conference Committee and the Staff Council — reaffirm the commitment to shared decision-making with the signing of a Shared Governance Covenant.
The Covenant reads, in part:
“Shared governance is a system in which separate constituencies are all represented fairly, each by a governing body that can address the concerns and policy issues facing members of the shared governance community. Shared Governance does not entail equal decision-making power for all bodies, but it does require an inclusive view of the decision-making process. Where it is feasible and practical, decision-making power should be shared. Where it is not feasible or practical, all efforts should be made to promote transparency and inform relevant representatives in a timely manner of the decision and its reasoning.”
A skill-building process
Working with faculty, staff and administrators to develop creative and inclusive solutions equips students with collaboration, team work and negotiation skills that translate well in the workplace.
Having a seat at the table with faculty and staff in positions of authority teaches students how to present their ideas and perspectives and incorporate others' ideas into their own, says SGA President Evert Fowle ’14. It instills a confidence in one’s own ability to contribute to a broader discussion, something students will carry with them throughout their careers.
“It’s about finding that middle ground and learning to understand someone else’s perspective,” said Fowle. “By going through this process, students are much better prepared to go out into the world and make an impact.”
A voice for every student
Fowle says the College’s commitment to shared governance is part of what drew him to the institution. He remembers that while he was touring the campus as a prospective student, his guide mentioned that each residence house has an elected senator.
“I thought ‘senator’ sounded pretty cool. I got the sense that this college was a little different,” he said.
Senators represent in SGA the students in their residence house. Each senator meets with the students in their residence once a week, and they report back to SGA.
“That’s where we get a lot of our ideas from — small, informal meetings over brownies and cookies,” said Fowle, a government major and economics minor who served as the senator of his residence as a first-year student and has held several leadership positions since. “This process gives every student a voice.”
In addition to participating in community discussions, students can run for leadership positions in SGA and be appointed to various committees. Each academic department also has a student advisory board, which helps make decisions on programming and curricular changes.
Roger Brooks, dean of the faculty and the Elie Wiesel Professor of Judaic Studies, says he encourages students to get involved, because the more they are invested in the way their community operates, the better their experience will be.
“The best way to get people invested is to give them a say in the process,” Brooks said.
Making better decisions
Shared governance ensures that more perspectives and points of view are considered whenever a decision is made, and that inclusiveness benefits the whole campus.
“You don’t leave information on the table,” said Brooks. “It leads to better decisions.”
Fowle agrees. He says that having conversations with different constituencies can sometimes slow the decision-making process down, but does so in an intentional way that leads to better outcomes. “When we do make decisions, we are much more likely to make the right decisions,” he said.
Brooks has seen the process play out throughout his career, first as a faculty member and now as an administrator. He believes strongly in the vital role that faculty, staff, students and alumni play in partnership with the College’s administrators and trustees.
“Open and transparent communication between the multiple constituencies on campus is crucial in propelling the College toward its goals and in building upon its current momentum,” he said.
‘Walking the walk’
Singer, the Faulk Professor of Psychology at Connecticut College and one of many faculty members who participated in Curricular ReVISION Week, said the College’s approach to the important topic of reimagining the curriculum is a testament to its commitment to shared governance.
Senior Gabby Arenge, who serves as the SGA’s chair of academic affairs and helped planned Curricular ReVISION Week, agrees.
“By participating in collaborative brainstorming and conversations in the dining halls, classrooms, coffee shops and common spaces on campus, all sectors of the campus engaged in the process and acknowledged their responsibility in our efforts to make a curricular and cultural shift,” Arenge said. “We ‘walked the walk’ of shared governance.”
That’s important to students like sophomore Andrew Shaw, who participated in several of the week’s events. He said that he has completed all of his general education requirements, but wants to see general education become part of a more cohesive curriculum for future students. Plus, he said after the final event of the week, students should take advantage of the opportunity to have their voices heard.
“I like the ability we have here to work with faculty and have an impact,” he said.