On August 15th, an email was sent out by the Office of Communications to Goucher students in which President José Bowen formally announced the results of a Program Prioritization Process (PPP). The email included important links to a list of future program changes and an FAQ page. While this newspaper had announced that a program prioritization process was taking place on May 18th of this year, for many students it was the first time that they had heard of Goucher’s plans for Academic Revitalization. In our Sep. 14th issue, The Quindecim reported on the town hall meeting that had occurred on Aug. 27th in response to these changes.
The town hall meeting was met with a huge turnout of more than fifty students in the small dining hall space, and within 24 hours The Quindecim‘s live video of the event had garnered more than 400 views from students, alumnae, and professors alike. “I’m impressed and very proud to have seen such a high turnout,” said Isabelle Turner, ’20, a student sitting on the Academic Affairs Committee of the Board of Trustees. “I’m not surprised, though, because when it comes down to it, I think students care deeply about this place. “It implies a sort of camaraderie that – at Goucher – is rarely expressed overtly.”
Turner and several other students had been meeting and organizing a coordinated, student response to the PPP before the fall 2018 semester had even started. Aidan De Ricco, ’20, and Oonagh Kligman, ’20, both Residential Assistants (RA’s), had been sharing their feelings with one another about the announcement between trainings and talked about organizing a student led protest. “It affected me personally, it affected a lot of other students, and I wanted to be informed,” said De Ricco.
De Ricco and Kligman quickly connected with other concerned students on campus who felt a need to organize: Zoë Gilmore, ’21, India Fleming-Klink, ‘21, James Williams, ’19, Isabella Favazza, ’19, and Turner. After exchanging information through Facebook, they gathered in person and discussed the possibility of protesting Convocation. After feedback from other students they realized that such a move might alienate others affected by the PPP announcement, and that they needed to establish a space for wider student dialogue. Two meeting dates were set up to maximize availability: Sat., Aug. 25th and Sun., Aug. 26th. They were advertised on the Facebook class pages.
Both meetings saw more than 20 attendees, foreshadowing what would be an even more well-attended town hall meeting that Monday called upon by the student organizers. Those who showed over the weekend, including representatives of Goucher Student Government such as Samuel Anderson, ‘21, were asked to introduce themselves, then the opportunity was opened for emotional expression. The goal, organizers explained, was twofold: 1) to offer a space for healing and the practice of mutual care and 2) to offer a space for people to release their reactive energy ahead of the town hall so that they would subsequently ask clear, informed questions.
While the two-hour-long town hall meeting shifted tensely between measured, informative exchange and frustrated, accusatory outbursts, both student organizers and administrators saw its value. “We got to hear each other and what our needs are, and now we need to [address them],” President José Bowen said. “Needs are important, and if those needs are not being met, we need to work on that.”
Turner, impressed with the way in which Faculty Chair Micah Webster and Internal Review Team member Michael Curry addressed the crowd, saw their dialogue as a model for future conversations between administrators and students. “I think it was both moving and effective to speak to students with the respect and empathy and emotional intelligence that they did. They did a wonderful job of achieving the relational transparency we so need between student body and administration.”
Relational transparency was a key theme that came up throughout student organizing and the town hall meeting. Students expressed mistrust of the administration’s motives, feeling that information was being withheld from them for the sake of Goucher’s institutional reputation and survival. They felt left out of the changes happening at Goucher, particularly when it came to decision-making processes. Many wondered if the PPP had been necessary. “I think we needed the story of this process to be told to us completely and honestly,” Turner said.
Unfortunately, the question of how to tell a story becomes complicated when a college is responding to the needs and interests of multiple stakeholders. In an interview, Bowen said that “there is no financial crisis, but there will be if we don’t prepare.“ He added, “the Board [of Trustees] did mandate that we needed to have this year’s budget closer to balanced.” In a 2013 article, The New York Times states that “colleges have been on a borrowing spree […] nearly doubling the amount of debt they’ve taken on in the last decade to fix aging campuses, keep up with competitors and lure students with lavish amenities.” Consequently, as stated in a report published by the American Association of University Professors, “an administration contending with serious financial problems is likely to resist the wide circulation of budget figures. If bad news is lurking in the numbers, the institution’s situation might get worse if information becomes widely known and affects enrollment decisions and alumni giving.” “Nobody wants to air our dirty laundry,” said Bowen.
Reflecting a nationwide trend, Goucher has had to find creative ways of saving money while still aiming for gradual growth, Bowen explained. Facing increasing cost and a smaller pool of college-bound 18 year olds, administration identified four longer-term options: raising tuition, lowering financial aid, adding students, or subtracting services and programs. Since the board had pledged not to raise tuition above inflation, the first option was ruled out. The second option was not possible given Goucher’s commitment to diversity and inclusion and its need to attract more students. The third had already been attempted but had hit a maximum. The fourth option was left. As a result, the PPP was initiated.
In making these budgetary calculations within the context of a competitive system of higher education, the Board of Trustees had played its role — ensuring intergenerational equity at Goucher and the institution’s long-term well-being. However, summarized by Bowen, “as a trustee, my focus is ten years from now [but] as a student my focus is now.” As Goucher announces and begins the process of phasing out majors, it must consider a number of different parties — students, prospective students, faculty, staff, administrators, and alumnae — all of whom are invested in Goucher and an integral part of the community but whose immediate interests can be at odds.
With the PPP, students felt that their own needs and interests had been overlooked, sowing distrust and bitterness about the administration’s motives and their plans for the future. With the town hall meeting, student organizers attempted to bring student needs back to the forefront of administrative discussions. On their end, recognizing student blowback, administrators sought to repair a broken relationship.
Both parties agreed that the town hall meeting had limitations in achieving these objectives. Turner pointed to the often lengthy responses of panel members. Student organizers were unable to get to all of the questions that they had crafted for the panel. Those questions sought to uncover information that students felt had been withheld or obscured from them. “Relationships are harder to build in a town hall,” Bowen admitted. “It doesn’t allow for more in depth conversations. This has to be ongoing.” Student organizers, recognizing the necessity of more long-term and engaged conversation, concluded the town hall by demanding a follow-up meeting on Sep. 12th.
The Sep. 12th meeting was a pivotal moment in what has become an ongoing dialogue between student organizers and administrators to resolve student grievances. While the town hall had established an important precedent to conversation, the Sep. 12th meeting, held between seven student organizers and nine administrators, faculty, and staff members, unearthed a larger, systemic issue: the lack of an effective feedback structure between campus bodies. As a result, the PPP had come with significant miscommunication.
“More transparency at the beginning of the process would have been better,” Bowen admitted in the meeting, “but if person hears costs have to be cut, will there be more certainty or more fear?” “Goucher students can lean into uncertainty if they feel included,” Turner responded. All attendees, however, were unsure of exactly what that process of inclusion should look like. “In some ways, we thought having a student on the committee would resolve this issue,” Bowen said. Yet in a separate interview, Turner had claimed, “I have never been invited to speak to student morale at Trustees meetings.” Typically, GSG is relied upon to represent students and communicate information back to them, but over the years it has suffered a decline in student involvement and buy-in. “Students don’t get involved in these things because they don’t see anything coming from it,” said Webster.
Current GSG leadership recognizes their past shortcomings and hopes to make significant changes in the future by calling on students to rebuild and rebrand their structure. In the meantime, student organizers continue to seek to represent students as best as they can and push forward changes: better advertising of faculty meetings, better advertising of and more opportunities for student input in the Revitalization Process, and full disclosure of Goucher’s history in relation to slavery. Many more demands — outlined in a petition which garnered 481 student signatories — still need to be addressed. As Dean of Students Brian Coker put it, “higher ed is built on process.” This process may very well determine Goucher’s future.