Students and policymaking: A call to action

By Joe Hogan | 4/9/14 6:39pm

Allow me to begin by stating the obvious: when we students arrive at Grand Valley as freshmen, we certainly are not overwhelmed by our own power on campus. That is to say, we don’t feel a strong sense of agency, of the possibility that we might be movers and shakers at GVSU. Instead, we often feel small, perhaps even isolated, and likely overwhelmed. This feeling is by no means bad; in fact, it is just the natural result, at least in part, of the fact that we feel a bit disconnected from the people who, in our eyes, do make the decisions around here.

When we take our first classes, for instance, we identify professors as the clearest and most present “authorities” on campus—they give out the grades. Then there are administrators, with whom most of us students rarely come into contact. For this reason, each admin appears simply a member of the greater “administration,” some all-powerful monolith that makes the big decisions and allocates the big money. And then there are the trustees and major donors. We all, of course, know that these people exist. More significantly, we know that, due to their major stake in the university, they are likely given some say in university policy. Nevertheless, we are, in general, ignorant of their influence. Further, because few of us students know or even see the people who, in our view, “own” and “run” the university (we’re not even sure if these descriptions are accurate), we feel disconnected from university policymaking, and thus disenfranchised.

But last week’s town hall meeting about donor relations with Shelley Padnos and Kate Pew Wolters bridged the gap between students, administrators, and trustees. During the open discussion, Padnos’ and Pew Wolters’ candor and clear goodwill established that, above all, they are willing to engage students in conversations about donor recognition, and assumedly about anything else important at the university, for that matter. The result of this honest discussion: Padnos and Pew Wolters have, for students, become personable, approachable, no longer distant. This is in all ways a good thing. Foremost, the meeting with Padnos and Pew Wolters made clear that student opinion could have an effect on university policy. Though to trustees, this fact may not ever have been in question, their willingness to express it—especially while discussing a topic that has been quite divisive—clarified to students that we do indeed have a voice and ought not feel disenfranchised.

But, in the end, it is the responsibility of us students to claim our place in any and all discussions of university policy. The editors at the Lanthorn, in their bold coverage of the donor recognition question, set a distinct standard. That is to say, by voicing an argument that was not likely to be well received by those who, in the eyes of us students, “run” the campus, they took a risk. That move paid off and gave rise to a discussion that ought to continue. We, as students, should thus ensure that it does continue. But that goal necessitates a certain kind of confidence: one that, above all, forces us not to shrink from power but to engage it, challenge it when necessary, and support it when it is aimed at the good. In our case, that goal demands we claim for ourselves a more direct relationship with university policymakers and a stronger voice in policymaking. Still, whether we students will leave this situation having claimed a greater place in the conversation will rely on one thing: that we actually have something important to say and possess the guts to say it.

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