Hearing Panel Touches on Themes of Transparency, Engagement

CHRIS BULFINCH ’18
STAFF WRITER
Trinity’s administration has been under something of a microscope for the past several years, and the tension is beginning to show. The contentious decisions of the Jones administration made Trinity suspicious of all administrative action, and whether it deserves it or not, the Berger-Sweeney administration also faces significant scrutiny and criticism for its actions and transparency. The recent spat between this very publication and President Berger-Sweeney herself evidenced the discontent and distrust among students. While very few, if any, students understand every aspect of every administrative decision, the misinformation and misunderstanding on campus prevents reasoned discourse on matters of administrative decisions. While I am certainly not acquainted with the administrative maneuverings behind every policy change, a recent experience exposed the hindering effect of all this mistrust.
I have recently participated in the restructuring of the hearings panels for cases of academic and social misconduct, as well as the implementation of the first offender policy.  Throughout the process, I noted the long-standing detachment students, faculty and administrators. On another – perhaps more optimistic – note, I also saw a new dawn for student engagement just around the corner, largely owing to new administrative energy.  However, in the reconstitution of the disciplinary hearings panels, I saw a microcosm of Trinity’s larger issues.
Three years ago, faculty drafted changes to college policy in hopes of cutting down on academic dishonesty, based primarily on a faculty survey and interviews with select students. They aimed to change the composition of academic dishonesty and social misconduct hearing panels.  Accordingly, the academic panel previously composed of four students and three faculty members has shifted to two students and three faculty members. They also proposed adding two faculty positions to social misconduct panels, where they previously had no voice.  Finally, the faculty suggested a first offender policy, which stipulated that any grade reduction based on suspicions of academic dishonesty must be reported to and mediated by the Dean of Students Office, and any student with no record of academic dishonesty could admit guilt and have their sanction confined to a grade reduction.
 
The authors of the proposal developed these changes largely out of view of the student body, and with similarly unilateral implementation. Several professors and the Dean of Students Office did belatedly inform Trinity’s Student Government of the changes, long after any of the SGA representatives could have affected any meaningful change to the content of the proposed changes. Alarmed, SGA and Honor Council representatives, with myself among them, appeared before the full faculty meeting on March 8th, arguing principally against the social misconduct panel changes. Our arguments swayed the faculty, and the proposed changed failed to pass.
 
The question now becomes: what message, if any, can students pull from this narrative?
 
During the whole process, I watched the Dean of Students Office and the faculty jockey for involve over the student body, who remained passive and unaware of this bureaucratic prizefight. I noticed too the antagonism between both parties, as they presented clearly different agendas while maintaining a cordial appearance.  From what I have been given to understand, this has been a hallmark of institutional relations for quite some time. To the administration’s credit, they did ultimately opt to involve students, and some student representatives did rise to the occasion, demonstrating that we, when properly informed and engaged, can have an impact on college policy.
 
In a larger sense, this episode demonstrates the forward progress of the Berger-Sweeney administration and their commitment campus involvement in policy decisions.
The Faculty and Dean of Students Office have expressed an openness to student views.
However, recent Tripod pieces have made sharp criticism of the administration. The tenor of these articles suggests that  the College leaderships has not lived up to its goal of transparency.  Though the accusations contain a degree of truth, it does not seem entirely fair to attribute the administrative opacity to President Berger-Sweeney. She inherited a system that lacked student input and alienated many community members.  To their credit, President Berger-Sweeney’s cabinet promised to pay attention to the sudent voice; the Design Team Challenge and the Campaign for Community are poignant pieces of evidence to that end. Granted, the Cave is still underneath Mather and our transfer rate is still precipitous, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. None of this is to demonize the administration or side against the Tripod, but when there is a Twitter war going between the president of a college and that college’s newspaper, that’s probably a sign that community relations aren’t at an all-time high; some might argue that such an airing out is ultimately beneficial and that good journalism should annoy someone, but the optics of the current situation are not ideal.
 
As chic as attacking the administration is and has been, there is an uncomfortable truth that students are loathe to confront: engagement. The success that students had in “lobbying” against the addition of faculty to social misconduct hearing panels was valuable not only for its practical effects but its symbolic meaning.  Unfortunately, only a handful of students made themselves heard.  The issue of dishonesty and misconduct panels never came into mainstream conversation for the student body.  Most students showed absolutely no interest. And that is the core of the problem. We have allowed ourselves to be turned into the object of this fight, into the bone over which the metaphorical hounds duel. Previous administrations took advantage of this, acting with almost total autonomy.   Whether the Berger-Sweeney administration is continuing this dubious tradition is up for debate; there are reasonable arguments for either side.
 
So, what is the solution? Is there a way for us to escape our institutional past? I found a clue in my experience with the reconstruction of our disciplinary panels. The administration’s willingness to inform student leaders of prospective changes would be a good start. Giving student publications such as the Tripod greater access to information about upcoming changes ahead of their official announcement would be another great step. Equally, however, students need to claim some responsibility here. Faculty have anonymously written to the Tripod applauding them for their efforts to tell stories that evade the general population of Trinity, and this should inspire other students to keep finding and telling stories – though getting more verified sources on the record would not impair these efforts. Moreover, students should make more of an effort to learn about issues confronting the college and visit student government meetings; they are open to the public and very informative. Good citizenship is something that may not be chic and it may require more work or at the least better listening skills, but it is a challenge that Trinity students can and should take up.

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