On Shared Governance and Student Rights
My senior year has so far been characterized by feelings of being “over” the whole college thing, and intense nostalgia for a social scene that has ebbed ever since freshman year. I think to a certain extent every member of the class of 2013 feels this way, which is perhaps why we reacted so violently last semester to the cancellation of Fishbowl.
The uproar affectionately named “Fishbowlgate” caused a major controversy over the College’s core tenet of shared governance. The cancellation of Fishbowl, frankly, wasn’t surprising. For a new administrator unfamiliar with our school’s traditions, a naked, drunken run across campus most likely appeared disgusting, barbaric and most importantly, dangerous. Fishbowl was a lawsuit waiting to happen, and the College seized the opportunity to put in motion a plan to abolish the event – a plan that, in all honesty, has likely been in the works for years. The impetus and authority to permit this change were just not available until the arrival of Dean Denard.
The blatant disregard for student input in this particular decision, however, was astonishing. It made me question the value of shared governance entirely – is it just another flashy slogan for admissions propaganda? How much do students actually influence decisions and to what extent is mutual respect functioning between students and administrators? Ideally, shared governance relies on mutual respect, which stems from not only communication, but also consultation.
The idea of respect is central to Connecticut College’s Honor Code. In a recent email conversation with Dean Sarah Cardwell, she told me that following matriculation, students are expected to behave with “integrity, civility and respect.” Administrators, however, don’t sign the Honor Code meaning that technically, they are not bound to uphold the three values stated above. This was a common critique brought up by students and alumni in assessing whether or not Dean Denard had the right to cancel Fishbowl. The bottom line is: yes, as an administrator, of course she has the right to overrule shared governance at any time. However, because we as an institution regard the tenet of shared governance so highly, it seems only fitting that students and administrators alike should be held accountable to the same school laws and values.
Furthermore, we are not simply governed by the Honor Code; the Honor Code actually replaces certain rights that we would be afforded if we attended a public institution. Because Connecticut College is private, the rights of students are liable to limitations or alterations.
Consider the following case in the context of that information: a case that occurred around the same time as the Fishbowl cancellation, and invokes some of the same concerns about mutual respect and shared governance.
Most members of the community are aware of rumors that the Connecticut College Swim Team has been undergoing investigation for hazing charges. An incident related to the investigation that occurred in early December is, by now, also fairly common knowledge. After a college investigation cleared the team of hazing charges in October, the team was, without notice, summoned to a room in Blaustein for questioning. The team members were not informed of what they were being accused nor of any rights that they were afforded; they were unable to speak to each other while waiting for individual interrogations, stripped of all electronics, escorted to and from the bathroom and advised that the Honor Code prohibited them from speaking to their parents or coach about the night’s events. The interviews were recorded without student consent. Some team members were held for over ten hours.
Clearly, outside the Connecticut College bubble, this type of practice would have been considered an infringement on basic legal rights (the 6th amendment, anyone?). At a private institution, however, students relinquish certain rights especially as they relate to disciplinary proceedings. This fact is by no means kept secret; on page 16 of the Student Handbook the College admits that: “[The Honor Code, Student Code of Conduct, Student Bill of Rights, and Adjudication Procedures] are not based on, nor are they intended to, mirror the rights or procedures in civil or criminal court proceedings.”
Normally, this system benefits Connecticut College students because the College generally punishes offenses on a smaller scale than would the New London police (especially in relation to alcohol offenses). However, as the Honor Code governs disciplinary situations for students, it is again troubling that the administration doesn’t sign a similar pledge to govern its own actions when overseeing disciplinary cases. Of course no administration pledge could eradicate the inherent power dynamic between students and administrators. But shared governance can hardly be shared if both parties are legally bound on unequal footing. If we assume that other instances like the swim team interrogation have occurred in the past, and that unilateral administrative decisions, like the cancellation of Fishbowl, may occur again in the future, it is time to re-evaluate the rights that we are afforded and the reciprocal nature of those rights.