President Ohle, along with Dean of Students, JoNes VanHecke ‘88 held listening sessions Monday, March 25 and Tuesday, March 26 to invite students to express their concerns to the College’s head administrator. The sessions took place in a small banquet room setting, so all present had the opportunity to voice their opinions, questions, and concerns about academic, budget, and staffing decisions made in recent years.
VanHecke took notes throughout the sessions to ensure students’ voices were being captured and understood, with plans to email each individual following the sessions with their comments in order to reflect the impact of the listening experience.
Seated around a few tables that had been pushed together to serve as a round table, President Ohle introduced Tuesday night’s discussion by speaking to the goals of the sessions, where students were encouraged to speak candidly and could expect to be listened to.
“I think voice is extremely important,” Ohle said.
Junior Political Science Major Kelly Dumais was in attendance and was the first student to speak to the concerns that led her to come to the listening session. Dumais raised concerns regarding budget and resource allocation and reiterated many concerns expressed by faculty members at the December faculty meeting. Ohle responded by attempting to correct what he saw to be Dumais’s inaccurate perception of the institution’s state of affairs. Dumais, however, repeated that she saw the need to address faculty concerns as they directly affected the quality of students’ academic experiences at the College.
“You say you are moving from listening to hearing; so when faculty are coming forward to say our resources are not being properly allocated, how do you respond to that?” Dumais said.
Topics discussed around Tuesday’s table included the senior art space, the College’s operating budget—which was $130 million this year—prospects for future enrollment, the President’s goals, and the interaction between different key sectors of the College. The majority of students in attendance voiced frustration at the President’s lack of action to redress administrative decisions.
“There has been no substantive change, only a minimization of voices,” Dumais said.
Senior Spanish Major Ian Shay broached the topic of the senior art space and criticized the President’s response to student, faculty, and alumni concerns as dismissal rather than acknowledgment.
“I don’t think that diversity of opinion should be used to dismiss legitimate concerns of a community,” Shay said.
In terms of communication between different sectors of the College, the President strongly supported the improvement of these avenues while proudly citing that thirteen faculty currently serve on Board of Trustee committees, which is a step in the right direction.
“The important thing for a college is to have communication between three sectors: Administration, Board, and Faculty,” Ohle said.
A large portion of the Tuesday session was dedicated to examining these relationships and critiquing where there were breakdowns in communication and where there needed to be improvement. The President acknowledged that there were many opinions between the different areas, yet stated a desire to achieve reconciliation, or at least acceptance of viewpoints, even if there was no one solution that could please every party.
“Colleges cannot be run like a corporation. They must learn to accept differences; a corporation doesn’t,” Ohle said.
The session ended with the President summing up the main issue spurring campus-wide discussion as a “gap of understanding.” In order to bridge that gap, he seeks to share information on why decisions are made, so they can be clearly understood. Following the session the President declined to make a formal comment on his plans to address concerns voiced at the listening sessions.
Students, however, were vocal—during and following the session—about the need to rethink the concept of a “unilateral decision-maker.” Instead, they would appreciate inclusion in the decision-making process rather than being passive recipients of administrative decisions that have an extensive impact on the community.
“Decisions like these shouldn’t be made by a singular individual but in consultation with key members of the community, such as faculty and students. They can contribute valuable perspective and knowledge to an important decision as well as intimately understand how it will impact the community,” Senior Political Science Major Renate Willer said.
Other students felt that their questions had been addressed and believed the President had achieved an appropriate balance between informing students and providing those present with only necessary information.
Willer, however, held concerns about the fundamental reason these sessions continue to take place. “We’ve been talking about listening and learning and having these conversations for years, yet people are still having conversations,” Willer said.