What were they thinking?

Zach Duffy

On Nov. 18, The Pioneer reported that Whitman College faculty had voted to establish a curriculum committee to address enrollment pressure concerns. According to Andrea Dobson, associate professor of astronomy and general studies and chair of the faculty, the committee will help ensure that courses are more evenly distributed throughout available time slots, that enough courses are offered in both the fall and spring semesters, and that students are provided with more advanced notice of the courses that would be offered in following semesters. But in a baffling decision, student representation on the committee was removed by the upper echelons of faculty governance prior to a vote on the proposal by the entire faculty.

Time to add another decision to the “what were they thinking” list.

All this semester, I have been proposing different ways to improve student life on the Whitman campus. From expanding the O’Donnell Lecture Series in order to provide students with a wider course selection to establishing an academic partnership with Walla Walla Community College’s prison education program in order to reduce community recidivism, most of my ideas would require significant investments of time and/or money to come to fruition.

So I haven’t been surprised when they have been received with little enthusiasm by the Whitman administration and faculty. But including a student representative on the new curriculum committee wouldn’t cost a cent or waste a minute. The idea has been championed by ASWC and certain members of the faculty from the beginning. Neglecting to include students in future decisions on the curriculum without any good reason to do so, at least not for the reasons cited in last week’s issue, seems to me about as wise as neglecting to solicit student input on the 3-2 shift. We all know how that turned out.

Student involvement in the academic and operational affairs of colleges is looked upon favorably by some institutions. Three students: one from each academic division: sit on Grinnell College’s curriculum committee. Three students also serve on curriculum committees at Pomona College, Pitzer College, St. Olaf College and Emory University. There’s actually a law in California that requires student representation on the board of trustees of each community college. The fact that Whitman students have been forced to fight for token representation on Whitman’s curriculum committee in this context is infuriating.

As ASWC Vice President senior John Loranger said in last week’s Pioneer article, students bring a perspective to decisions on academic affairs that professors and administrators often overlook. After all, students “are the ones experiencing the curriculum everyday” and feeling the effects of shifts in academic policies. We’re the ones paying a great deal of tuition to the college in exchange for the promise of a satisfactory academic experience. And we ought to be able to ensure that future decisions concerning Whitman’s academic program enrich that experience rather than diminish its quality, or at least have our voices heard in the process.

While I appreciate the efforts of Dobson and Provost and Dean of Faculty Tim Kaufman-Osborn to address the problems arising this year from enrollment pressure, I’m sick and tired of hearing “we’re working on it” when other institutions seem to have handled the shift to 3-2 in a manner so much friendlier to student interests.

Take Carleton College as an example, where tenured professors decided to postpone the shift to 3-2 for two years in order to moderate the effects of the shift on the college’s academic program. Or Grinnell, which created a curriculum committee with student representation and adopted a student-friendly registration system for entering first-years even though the college has more than enough money to solve enrollment pressure by hiring more tenure track faculty.

Whitman can’t afford to treat its students as half-citizens any longer. It’s time to get this right.