Last Thursday, the University Board of Regents selected the members of the Presidential Search Advisory Committee. Their task is to produce a shortlist of candidates from which the board will select the University’s next president. Disappointingly, they didn’t select any students — a bizarre omission given that the committee set up for 2002’s search included two students.
I have to agree with Michael Proppe and Bobby Dishell’s sentiment expressed in a recent letter to the Regents that “students are very important stakeholders in the process” of selecting a new University president. Indeed, one would have to hold a pretty warped view of a university’s function to contest that modest claim. One wonders then, why the Regents deem it expedient to exclude students from the committee. Were the students in 2002 disruptive in meetings? Did they smell bad? Both facetious questions, but facetiousness comes naturally in the face of absurdity.
I applaud Regent Larry Deitch’s intention to “reach out to the campus community to solicit feedback on issues facing the University and qualities to seek in a new president.” But that this merits applause already suggests a degree of democratic deficit — conditions in which students operate at the mercy of distant administrative decisions, grateful when these are made conscientiously.
This deficit became manifest recently when the University’s athletics department decided — with apparently no student input — to overhaul football game seating policy. Associate Athletics Director Dave Ablauf justified the decision like so: “We … decided to change our policy to create a culture of arriving early to provide our football student-athletes with a home field advantage prior to kickoff.” Wonderful, Dave. Unfortunately, decisions handed down as edicts run the risk of alienating those for whom the decision is made. Student upset following this decision suggests the risk was realized in this case.
It seems uncontroversial that, ceteris paribus, those a decision most impacts should be included in making that decision as much as possible. We can even give that principle a name —oh, I don’t know — “democracy” perhaps? A process falling short of this principle is to that extent undemocratic. Of course, even autocracies can be benign. And I don’t doubt the regents wish to do right by all. But the only way to even approach ensuring that all relevant people’s concerns are justly weighted is to represent those concerns as well as feasibility allows. Regents should take this democratic principle very seriously. For the consequences of excluding students — and interested parties more generally — go beyond inconvenient seating policies.
To see how, consider the current state of financing for higher education. Millions of U.S. students must now opt for a life of debilitating debt to educate themselves in an economic structure that punishes those who don’t. Student debt has just topped the $1 trillion mark nationally, exceeding even consumer debt. This only stands to worsen as states — including Michigan — further reduce their higher education budgets and increase real tuition, while the federal government allows interest rates to rise on federal student loans. The situation would be laughable if it wasn’t so acutely tragic.
Returning to our central thread, it’s hard to believe that this sorry situation would have arisen had legislators really heard student concerns. This is why including students on the search committee is important. The office of the president provides a significant, if modest, platform to address issues such as higher education funding — an issue likely to be more important to students laboring under debt than to relatively wealthy faculty and administrators. I acknowledge that some regents — e.g. Mark Bernstein and Denise Ilitch — have expressed concern about this issue. Still, students shouldn’t have to rely on the benign possibility that some administrator shares their concerns — they should be guaranteed a meaningful voice. To deny students their legitimate role in the selection process is not only unfair, but politically irresponsible.
Nils-Hennes Stear is a PhD student in the Department of Philosophy.