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Student committee representatives hindered by lack of training, ASSU tardiness

This article is the second in a two-part series looking at University committees and students’ role therein. Yesterday’s article looks at committees’ role and structure, while today’s piece looks at the committees’ limitations to date.

According to a Faculty Senate report, the University’s system of committees provides “the best place for effective student participation in the governance of the University.” While students can serve on more than 40 committees in total, dealing with issues as varied as investment responsibility and laboratory animal care, their influence is often inconsistent and incomplete.

Application process

Last spring, outgoing ASSU President Michael Cruz ‘12 and Vice President Stewart Macgregor-Dennis ‘13 failed to appoint members to the Nominations Commission (NomCom) before their term expired. This deferral of responsibility has been attributed largely to the Executive’s belief that a revised ASSU Constitution, which included a reform of the committee-nominating process, would be passed.

Under the proposed Constitution, NomCom would be replaced with a new “Joint Nominating Committee” to be comprised exclusively of elected ASSU representatives. The new committee would be accountable for filling all University committee positions for the upcoming year by the end of winter quarter.

When the Undergraduate Senate and Graduate Student Council rejected the proposed constitution, however, the ASSU was left without any mechanism for nominating students to committees for the following year.

Upon taking office, the incoming ASSU Executive — Robbie Zimbroff ‘12 M.A. ‘13 and William Wagstaff ‘12 M.A. ‘13 — opted to push for the formation of an interim commission to ensure that these committee spots would not be left vacant. In the end, this interim commission was only able to nominate student representatives to 85 percent of the committee positions, according to Zimbroff.

In the eyes of administrators, this incident underscored what had already been a noticeable trend: the failure of the ASSU to fulfill its responsibilities in a timely manner.

“The last three to five years, the ASSU has been late every year,” said Nanci Howe, director of Student Activities and Leadership (SAL), at an Undergraduate Senate meeting last May when the issue first arose. “Particularly the Board of Trustees and the Faculty Senate [are] quite unhappy with the performance of the ASSU … I worry about the credibility of the ASSU as an organization.”

Howe maintained her stance when interviewed for this article. She claimed that the student voice is negatively impacted when committee members are not appointed on time, especially since this lateness prevents student representatives from receiving proper training before starting their terms.

“We want to give people on the committees an orientation before they start serving, and in recent years, we haven’t had the opportunity to do that,” Howe said. “I used to do an orientation in the third or fourth week of May, but I have not had it in the last three to four years because the ASSU is never ready with a membership vote.”

“The general practice has been if you don’t appoint people by June 1, or hopefully earlier, then any of the orientations that committees try to do for the new members with the old members still there don’t happen,” she added. “So it’s important not just to select them, but to select them before the end of the year.”

Other University administrators confirmed that they have experienced problems with the ASSU submitting their nominees on time in past years. They were reluctant, however, to blame NomCom as an organization, instead attributing the lateness to a difference between the student and administrative culture.

“There was one year when that happened, but overall, most of the time NomCom has been able to provide us with everything we ask for,” said Ralph Castro, director of the Office of Alcohol Policy and Education (OAPE), who serves on the Alcohol Advisory Board Committee. “I know a lot of students are very busy and doing different things, and that can prove challenging.”

“You know, the rhythms of the administration are different than those of students,” agreed Jeff Wachtel, special assistant to the president. “For us, who have been doing it for a while, we know exactly what the cycle is. NomCom may have new members, and they may not necessarily understand what the cycle is for doing this. Some of them may have midterms, or something comes up, and then what is an important deadline for us just seems to pass for NomCom, and it just doesn’t work out.”

While Wachtel said the NomCom process works “reasonably well” overall, he noted that the system sometimes fails when the need arises throughout the year for students to serve on ad hoc committees or panels. He cited the recent search committees for a new Law School dean and a new School of Medicine dean as two instances where the University has approached NomCom about finding students representatives at an unusual time during the year. He said even with sufficient lead-time, NomCom sometimes struggles to fill these positions by administrators’ preferred deadlines, in part because of the University’s desire for a specific type of student.

Zimbroff, however, maintained that his administration has been vigilant about filling all positions that give students a voice in administrative-level decisions.

“That’s one of the things that we take a lot of pride in … making sure that there is not a vacancy where students could be,” Zimbroff said.

“This is one of the things that other students don’t realize when they complain about whatever aspect of ASSU is bothering them at that time,” he added. “There’s a lot of stuff that happens behind the scenes that we don’t need to toot our horns about. We don’t say, ‘You know, we filled a position on some ad hoc committee this week.’ We try to get it done, and we try to be really organized about it.”

Training

Both students and administrators agreed that student committee members could benefit from some form of orientation or training before the start of their terms. With the exception of Board of Trustees committees and the Judicial Panel Pool, there is no formal training mechanism when students are first appointed to serve on committees.

When asked about the training students receive for presidential committees, Wachtel responded, “Not much.”

“All committees are staffed by somebody, so hopefully they will get an orientation from that staff person, but I couldn’t tell you,” he added. “There isn’t a uniform method of training to get people prepared. It would be something worth considering … I think something we can do better is maybe working with the ASSU, making sure that we’re doing consistent orientation.”

Chinyere Nwabugwu M.S. ‘10 Ph.D. ‘14, a graduate student in electrical engineering, has served on four different committees during her time at Stanford: the Registrar’s Student Advisory Group, the Career Advisory Board, the Judicial Panel Pool and the Committee on Graduate Studies. Nwabugwu said that, while she learned over time how to make her voice effective in these venues, it would have been helpful to receive training at the beginning.

“Quite honestly, I think that’s an area of improvement,” she said. “Judicial Panel had very good training for the panelists, but that might be the only committee that I’ve gotten trained for. The others ones were kind of, ‘jump in, look around, and watch what other people are doing.’”

Charles Mbatia ‘13, who has served on the Registrar’s Student Advisory Group and the Committee on Academic Computing and Information Systems, agreed with this assessment.

“I don’t recall receiving any kind of formal training,” Mbatia said. “I was just chosen to be on those two committees, and then got an email about what times we were meeting, and went to fulfill that function.”

“There should be some sort of training that we offer for students who interested in serving,” he added. “Knowing what your powers are and what your limitations are would have been useful.”

Current committee members said this lack of training makes it difficult to advocate effectively for the student body. Oftentimes, students might not be well-versed enough to know where their peers stand on a certain issue or might not know enough about the mechanics of the committee to make a case for this student perspective successfully. The issue is also renewed each year as committee memberships turn over.

Brianna Pang ‘13, a member of the Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility and Licensing (APIRL), said she feels the quality of her input has increased over the course of the year as she has become more familiar with the committees and the issues they address. She asserted that the NomCom should play a greater role in providing some sort of institutionalized memory to ensure that previous work students have made in the committees is not lost each year during the transition.

“For example, I’m graduating this June, so the next student, [should have] the knowledge that I gained in my one year on the APIRL, or on the Board of Trustees Special Committee on Globalization, and be able to pick up where I left off,” she said.

The desire to provide student committee members more training was part of the reason why the ASSU appointed members to NomCom earlier this year, according to Zimbroff. He said the recruiting process this year aims to find the best students, but also to give these students an ample amount of time to prepare for next year.

“That’s why we are trying to have our bill submitted well ahead of the deadline for the absolute latest date that we can do it, so that [committee members] can get any training, reading materials, etc.,” Zimbroff said. “If they need to read the SUES [Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford] report in order to understand what they are going to be talking about on, say, the Breadth Governance board, then yeah, they should have some time to be able to do that.”

Zimbroff said his hope moving forward is that the ASSU Executive will make sure to appoint all members of NomCom by the beginning of winter quarter. The ASSU Joint By-Laws actually states that the ASSU President must submit their nominations of students to serve on NomCom “no longer later than the end of Autumn Quarter,” and subsequently, that the NomCom chair must present a timeline for filling all University committees to the two ASSU Legislative branches “before the middle of Winter Quarter.”

York confirmed that NomCom would be working with Howe this year in order to hold a general orientation in May after all committee appointments have been made.

Attendance

Once appointed, student committee members currently have no means of enforcing accountability to the peers that they have been appointed to represent.

The ASSU Joint By-Laws do state that “the President shall meet with the Association representatives on University committees, along with interested members of the Association legislative bodies, on a periodic basis to discuss and route issues and action items.”

In the past, however, these meetings have not always happened, producing a lack of accountability perhaps evidenced best by poor student attendance at committee meetings.

“That’s an issue, where students don’t show up for meetings,” Wachtel said. “You can’t participate if you don’t show up, and you can’t have meaningful participation if you don’t prepare. Some of the committees only meet once a quarter, so if you miss the first meeting, then you are just behind.”

The Alcohol Advisory Board Committee has also experienced times where student members missed meetings, according to Castro. While there is usually full attendance when the committee takes up an important issue, he added that, when more routine items are being discussed, attendance can drop as low as one student out of seven.

Zimbroff acknowledged that this poor attendance is a problem, especially at a time when students increasingly demand that administrators involve them in policy decisions.

“These student representatives are some of the most important jobs that students can have on campus,” he said. “You know, the argument loses credibility if students say, ‘We need to have more voice in the administration,’ and then administrators go to meetings where students should be, and [the students] don’t show up.”

“We need students in those spots,” he added. “We need students who are going to show up all year even when the meetings are boring or too detailed or whatever. We need to make sure that they are there.”

Student participation may be partially handicapped by committee-meeting scheduling, with some meetings — such as those of the Registrar’s Student Advisory Group — scheduled at 9 a.m.

“We were encouraged to share our opinions on some of the changes they were proposing, and it was a really good forum for students to express any reservations or improvements to the administrations, but the meeting times were a barrier,” he said. “It’s hard to get 100-percent attendance when it’s so early in the morning.”

Mbatia recommended that the administration consider moving these meetings to a time that is more convenient for students. If this wasn’t possible, he said that NomCom should clearly advertise the times that these committees convene during the recruiting process in order to find students who would be prepared for these early meeting times.

Other committees have been more accommodating to students’ schedules. The Alcohol Advisory Committee, for instance, often conducts votes through an online polling system, which allows students to participate even when they cannot physically attend a meeting. Board of Trustees committees often have a call-in option, according to Pang, that has allowed her to participate in a meeting even when she was off-campus.

Alex Kindel ‘14 said that involving students in the planning process might also be a way to resolve this problem. As a member of the Undergraduate Housing Advisory Committee, he said he has been able to push for meetings to be scheduled on Friday afternoons, where students would be less likely to have class and less likely to be stressed about having to show up.

Communication

When University Registrar Tom Black proposed an overhaul of course scheduling, which would have started some classes as early as 8:30 a.m. and prohibited enrollment in overlapping courses without a waiver, he approached an advisory committee of 12 students appointed by NomCom. While these committee members did not see the proposal as something that would meet much resistance, students quickly mobilized after The Daily ran an article in March about the proposed changes.

A petition on the ASSU Undergraduate Senate website, calling for the proposal to be “retracted immediately,” has gathered 1,789 student signatures to date. The Faculty Senate has since delayed a vote on the proposal until May, which means the changes, if approved, would not go into effect until the 2014-15 academic year.

The incident has called into question the amount of communication between committee members and the students they have been appointed to represent.

As a member of the Committee on Graduate Studies, Nwabugwu was one of the students the University approached about the scheduling proposal. She said student members within the committees had generally viewed the proposal as a beneficial reform and thought the controversy may have been stemmed from students failing to understand exactly what would change as a result of the proposal.

“Right now the earliest class is 9 a.m., so I mean 30 minutes earlier?” Nwabugwu said. “I really feel that 30 minutes earlier people can handle, and it would help the scheduling be a lot better because right now [classes] are all over the place.”

“It’s not like you can never take overlapping courses,” she added. “It is possible to get an exception… It is not going to be impossible. It just won’t be automatic.”

While he did not participate in discussions about the proposed changes, Mbatia, who has previously served on the Registrar’s Student Advisory Group, said he is not surprised that the proposal met very little opposition from student committee members. He said that since the proposal would only change class times by 30 minutes, it would probably not have proven very divisive.

He argued that the proposal struck a nerve with students primarily because of its timing.

“When the issue came up, it was the same time that students were in conflict with the University over Suites and other things,” Mbatia said. “Maybe that set up [the idea that] the administrators weren’t really listening to students. But I honestly don’t think it’s that big of a deal. I honestly just think that it’s the timing.”

Zimbroff said he believes administrators have respected student feedback during the recent controversy over the scheduling changes, citing Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education Harry Elam’s willingness to talk with students about the proposal since it has become a large issue amongst undergraduates. He said that it was “selling the process a little short to say that students weren’t heard.”

“You have to take a step back to see what are all the factors that go into any decisions, and usually, they are a lot more complicated than the way that they got made,” Zimbroff said. “I’m not including the Suites Dining stuff in this because I’m fully behind the movement with Suites, but with the scheduling changes … I haven’t done all the homework on how they came to the 8:30 decision, but I trust that there were students given solid input into what the pros and cons were to starting at 8:30 a.m.”

York said that he has “a lot of faith” in students who serve on committees.

“We appoint people to committees because of the experience and background that they bring,” he said. “So we’re not asking people to go out and poll the student body, and report on that. That’s not what it entails.”

He added, however, that he hopes that this incident galvanized a broader and more diverse group of students to apply on the committees this year.

Executive slates

Both slates running for the ASSU Executive said they would make a conscious effort to ensure more communication between committee members and the student body if elected.

“They clearly did not reach out [to students],” said Elizabeth Patino ‘14, a vice-presidential candidate, about committee members failing to anticipate the student response the scheduling proposal ended up generating. “I’m just saying. Because as soon as people heard about it, there were a thousand signatures within a week.”

Patino, along with her running mate Najla Gomez ‘14, said they would require all committee members to submit a quarterly report — or agree to a quarterly meeting — if they are elected next week.

“That’s where we come in,” Gomez said. “These students are our ambassadors, and we can ask them to report to us. Not only that, but if they refuse to meet with us, then we can reappoint them. Yeah, we have to go through NomCom, but we have this power to say, ‘Hey, you didn’t submit a quarterly report. You should reconsider your position on this committee.’”

“If you are not committed, and if you are not actively pursuing the demands of the student body, then why are we allowing you to serve on this committee, and basically allowing this position to go waste?” she added.

Currently, in order for a student to be removed from a committee, the ASSU Undergraduate Senate and the Graduate Student Council must both agree, by a two-thirds vote, that a representative is not “regularly attend[ing] meetings of her/his committees” or “otherwise fulfill[ing] her/his obligations to her/his committee,” according to the ASSU Constitution. In addition, this can only go to a vote “after the Nominations Commission recommends her/his removal.”

Despite the potential difficulty in actually removing student representatives, Patino and Gomez said they hoped these routine check-ups would make committee members more accountable to the student body, as well as allow the ASSU Executive to provide more support to students serving on committees.

They also disagreed with York’s assertion that student representative should make decisions based on their own experience and knowledge instead of gathering feedback from peers across the campus.

“I don’t think this expertise can be teased out in an application that has to be done in a really short amount of time about a relatively low amount of people,” Gomez said. “For you to say that this person is an expert, and therefore, we should only listen to them … I don’t think so.”

“I don’t think there is an expert in anything,” Patino added. “You can’t expect one person’s experience to reflect all others because this person is biased no matter how open they try to be. They will still have a biased opinion.”

Dan Ashton ‘14, who is running with Billy Gallagher ‘14, also argued that the ASSU Executive needs to play a greater role facilitating conversations between committee members and the student body. He added that this is especially important when issues deal with academics and residential life, two areas he said affect students “in very tangible ways.”

Gallagher is a Daily staffer. Ashton is a member of The Daily’s Board of Directors.

“Just the fact that we have the committees show that administration is willing to listen to students and take actually student voice seriously,” Ashton said. “I think [the committees] are relatively effective, but when it comes to larger scale issues, I think there are cases where the greater student body should be consulted as well. Because you can’t expect a few students to speak for everybody on campus.”

To accomplish this, Ashton said he and Gallagher would also mandate that committee members meet with the ASSU regularly. He referred to the process right now as a “one-way street,” where the ASSU legislature either confirms or rejects the nominees put forth by NomCom with little subsequent discussion.

“Basically, right now, once someone is appointed, there’s no other interaction that they are required to have with the student body or the elected student leaders,” Ashton said. “I have never seen the ASSU [reach out] to students once they are on committees. That outreach has to come from the ASSU Executive or it won’t happen,” he added.

In order for students to successful on committees, Ashton said that students must draw from both their own expertise and from feedback collected from other students.

“Speaking from being a part of the Committee on Finance, it’s so complicated, and it would take years for even committee members to understand,” he said. “It’s definitely difficult to solicit student feedback on issues when it’s so complicated.”

“If there’s something that would fundamentally change something about Stanford, and I don’t have every perspective, then I would want to [reach out] to students to see what their opinions are,” he added.

Types of committees

There is no formal standing committee focused on Residential Education (ResEd), the University office responsible for some particularly controversial recent decisions. These include the decisions to revoke the lease of Chi Theta Chi last February and to contract the operations of Suites Dining to an outside vendor this January.

The closest committee to dealing with these issues is the Undergraduate Housing Advisory Committee, which Kindel said occasionally will meet with ResEd administrators to discuss initiatives. Still, he added that these issues have not been addressed within the committee, which has been more focused on housing renovations.

“I wouldn’t say that the committee necessarily talks about things that are current issues,” Kindel said. “It’s more like future planning, so those sort of things we haven’t necessarily talked about.”

“The goal of the committee is to give undergraduate students the opportunity to raise issues, give input on these issues and propose recommendations regarding: housing operations and policies; housing assignments and policies; residential programs; quality of life issues; and to serve as a source for staff members,” reads NomCom’s description of the Undergraduate Housing Advisory Committee.

Kindel said that while this committee generally works well as a mechanism for gathering student input and advice, serving on the committee is “not a position with much say.” He cited the fact that Student Housing and ResEd often have a longer timeline for implementing changes, which makes it difficult for students to see what impact their feedback ends up having.

“One example of this is the renovations that are happening to some of the Row houses,” he said. “A lot of the feedback that those renovations are based on was gathered five years ago, so there’s a lot of … lag time between the feedback and implementation phase I would say.”

He said some of the recent student frustration with Student Housing might stem from the fact that students and administrations operate under different time frames.

“In a given year, if something in the house doesn’t work, they [administrators] will prioritize fixing that,” Kindel said. “But then, a couple of years down the line maybe, different students might think that that system works pretty well. So what changes get institutionalized is very dependent on continual year-to-year feedback.”

Kindel admitted that this is not ideal, and puts the burden on students to keep some sort of sustained records or institutionalized memory, so they will know what has been discussed in these committees in previous years.

Making this committee more influential in setting policy would require the attendance of high-level administrators, according to Kindel, which may be improbable.

“At these meetings, the heads of ResEd and Housing are pretty rarely in attendance because they have pretty busy schedules I would imagine, so we mostly meet with associate deans,” he said. “I think to be able to make those sort of decisions you would need to have higher-up people there.”

Zimbroff said that while there might not be a formal University committee for ResEd, administrators have been open to meeting with students informally, especially in the aftermath of the recent student discontent over Suites Dining.

“I don’t know if there’s a standing committee to talk with them,” Zimbroff said. “But in the interim, in that moment, in whatever capacity ASSU had, we were trying to be effective communicators, advocating that we believe that students should have a student-run, student-operated Dining Society, which shouldn’t get contracted out to a third-party vendor when it could be a valuable educational experience.”

Miles Unterreiner ‘12 M.A. ‘13, a Daily staffer credited for helping such issues gain traction among the student body after writing a long-form article about the end of Suites Dining’s student management, has tracked the progress of these discussions through a series of Daily opinion pieces, recently calling ongoing talks “very promising.”

According to Unterreiner, one goal going into these conversations was to “establish a student advisory panel within ResEd that has real power and represents student interests as a permanent nexus point between students and ResEd.”

Howe said that these recent issues might prompt students and administrators to look at whether committees are fulfilling their intended purpose.

“Maybe, it’s the time to look at what the landscape should be for committees,” she said, “because I think a lot of people support these enterprises and take student opinion really seriously.”

  • Anna

    I vote we appoint Nanci Howe as ASSU overlord so she can fulfill her duties as a Dolores Umbridge clone.