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Guarded Power

News & Features | March 2, 2015

How the functions of the Tufts Administration stifle student voices 

 

Ask Tufts students to define the Tufts administration in an anonymous survey, and their answers will vary: “As far as I know, the Tufts administration has a bunch of departments, and power isn’t exactly distributed hierarchically among them.” “I don’t know how the Tufts admin operates, and they don’t make their organization very accessible to students.” “White guys + David Harris.”

The only accurate response—“It’s composed of everybody from the president and head legal counsel to the dean of students to the director of the Women’s Center”—came from Olivia Carle, a sophomore student activist involved in the Sexual Misconduct Prevention Task Force. If the only students to whom the administration has become less of a vague monolith are students who have had to deal directly with it, then there is a clear problem in the way the administration makes itself accessible—or inaccessible—to students.

For students, defining and delineating the vague concept of “administration” can be difficult. This can become especially challenging for students and student groups who are trying to get their voices heard, and it seems members of the administration are conscious of this problem. Jim Glaser, the Dean of Arts and Sciences, told the Tufts Observer, “Students don’t always know—and there’s no reason why they should—who to go to or who owns what issues or what domain.”

This attitude, that Tufts students shouldn’t need to know which administrators could best help them enact change, reflects larger problems at play in the power dynamic between students and the administration. This lack of transparency actively prevents students from accessing the power of the administration, obstructing the process of communication by keeping itself vague.

Even when students are able to make contact with the correct department or administrator or committee, administrative action often takes a very long time. Andrew Núñez, a member of the class of 2015, explained, “One of the things that the university is capable of doing is acquiescing in a way that creates a very long process; to delay until students graduate and the movement dies.” By initially denying student demands, or by hiring an administrator who spends a year “assessing the university climate” before even beginning to take action, the administrative process creates a cycle in which student movements cannot be self sustaining.  

At times, the most tangible result of students’ attempts to collaborate with administrators comes in the form of a report or in the establishment of a new administrative committee. In January of 2015, Tufts hired a Chief Diversity Officer, describing the role as “the principal resource for supporting the university’s progress with respect to its diversity and inclusion goals.” This comes nearly two years after the approval of a “Diversity Council Report” laying out recommendations for the formation of the position, which in turn came nearly 10 months after the formation of a “Council on Diversity.” However, these developments are more symbolic than concrete, and haven’t led to the kind of change students are demanding. Said Núñez, “[The report] isn’t changing the real climate of students who are being called epithets walking down Pro Row.” Rather, all the reports, committees, and administrative positions give the administration something to point to as a symbol of success and progress.

If this is what happens when students try to levy university power to enact tangible change, are there more productive ways for student voices to be heard? As the student-elected government, the TCU Senate should be a place for purposeful student action and activism. However, the Senate’s relationship with the administration often operates to prevent real, student-driven change.

Michael Maskin, a senior, is in his second semester on the Senate. He told the Tufts Observer, “Senate has given me access to people who I otherwise wouldn’t have had access to.” Specifically, those people are administrators: A look at the minutes from this year’s weekly Senate meetings reveals visits from the Dean of Student Affairs, the Director of Campus Life, and the Dean of Arts and Sciences. Senators should be able to access power via administrators to implement student-driven change—the TCU Constitution states that the Senate’s purpose is “to represent the interests and desires” of the student body. However, Maskin said, “I think right now what we’re seeing is a Senate where people are very content with getting meetings with the administration and viewing that as a success.” Equating meetings with success reflects the same symbolism the administration employs in the face of student demands for change. In the same way that the administration can point to a “Diversity Report” as evidence of a true commitment to diversity, so too can the Senate point to these meetings as effective steps toward getting student voices heard. However, viewing meetings with administrators as a satisfactory end result rather than part of a multi-step process reinforces the lack of productivity inherent to the administration.

Select students are also given access to the administration through membership on student-faculty committees. Kimberly Thurler, Tufts’ Director of Public Relations, told the Tufts Observer that these committees “govern important aspects of academic and campus life,” often via the creation and implementation of policies. Thurler described these committees as one of the “many channels that exist for student voices to be heard.”

However, University bylaws require that there always be more faculty members than students on these committees. The Committee on Student Life, for instance, has 16 members, only four of whom can be students. All of those students are TCU senators. The Budget and University Priorities Committee, the Educational Policy Committee, and the Equal Educational Opportunity Committee each only have three Senate representatives. What appears at first to be a forum for student empowerment is, in reality, another symbolic gesture—students are always outnumbered on these committees, often by a ratio as large as three to one. When these committees enact policy, there are no student-centered mechanisms that could hold them accountable.

Núñez, who previously served on student-faculty committees, attributed this disparity to “a sentiment among faculty that the reason [for the disparity] is because students here cannot look beyond their four years here, that students are selfish.” Yet, Maskin described a common pattern for students attempting to enact change, saying that students could “work four years on a project and not see it come to fruition because you’re met with so many challenges.” Clearly the faculty perception of students’ commitment to long-term change does not align with the reality of student-driven movements. Núñez had a similar perspective, saying, “The work that I’m doing I’m never going to see here. I see it not for me but for the next generation of Tufts.”

All of this—the slow-moving responses, the formation of committees, the small number of students given access to administrators—serves to perpetrate the bureaucracy inherent in the Tufts administration. This tactic of decentralizing power and slowing processes of change enables the university to protect both its power and its interests.

Senior Kumar Ramanathan is the Policy and Special Projects Assistant in the Dean of Student Affairs office. He told the Tufts Observer that what permeates the administrations is “…not so much malice as dysfunction. And that’s not to undermine the pain and the suffering that a lot of students experience here, but in some ways it’s more chilling that the structure literally just doesn’t care.”

This malaise is not limited to the structure as an entity, but rather is perpetuated by individuals within the administration who lean on the bureaucracy as an explanation for their own inaction. Núñez cautioned, “Blaming bureaucracy, blaming process, actually removes culpability from a lot of administrators and power holders at this university.” Administrative bureaucracy simultaneously enables individual administrators to dodge responsibility and deny complicity in the inaction of the structure at large. For Maskin, “to have them say ‘our hands are tied’ is really frustrating. Because you know the truth is [they] can do something if [they] really wanted to.”

Dean Glaser sees bureaucracy differently. He told the Tufts Observer, “Bureaucracy means you have consistent rules, it means you can apply those rules consistently across everyone, it ensures fairness, it insures people don’t get something just because of who they know or who they are.”

But for many Tufts students, that fairness does not feel like a reality. In an online survey conducted by the Tufts Observer, a freshman who identified as multiracial black said that the administration “erases students of color’s experiences (a prime example was the systematic washing off of chalking after the Michael Brown Decision).” One sophomore felt that “they [the administration] work for all students equally,” but a junior believed that “the administration works in the interest of profit, and in the interest of students of privilege who don’t challenge how Tufts operates.” Olivia Carle, said she felt that “even though the concept of a school is supposedly about facilitating learning equally for all students, the administration has made sure to cater to other interests, like image and money.” A freshman said, “In its best moments, I think the administration is still only putting on a show of working with students. They will make nice with student organizations and activists, but won’t make any real changes based on those conversations.”

The disparity between the administration’s perception of student life at Tufts and the realities of students’ experiences is demonstrative of the existence of an asymmetrical power dynamic. If an administrator like Dean Glaser can say, “I’ve been on faculty at other institutions and what we have in place here is very excellent” at the same time that students are calling Tufts “an oppressive institution” and “an inherently racist institution,” then this power dynamic has created a concerning disconnect. Tufts students should be able to access the power of the institution to create concrete, necessary change for themselves and generations of students to come. However, by keeping itself vague and decentralized, the Tufts administration prevents this from happening.

It’s hard to conceptualize how to tackle a problem that is, quite literally, institutionalized. Individual administrators do make efforts to enact change and legitimize student concerns; Tufts has taken steps forward over the many years of its existence. But the very nature of bureaucracy means that for an institution-wide change to be made, each individual moving part needs to acknowledge the need to reform itself. As students, we must continue to make the administration aware of that need by disrupting its complacency with critical interrogation and action.