Imagine that you're a top administrator at a powerful university. You're responsible for a multibillion-dollar endowment and a vast annual budget, and you're doing a good job. One day, some "agitators" disturb this idyllic picture. Likely, they're student activists concerned about the way their school -- ahem, your school -- is spending its money or about some detail of student life. They have demands, and they want them met -- even if it costs money or damages your reputation with the government, corporations and individuals who bankroll your institution. What do you do? You can't come out and declare that your hands are tied -- much less that you, as a powerful decision-maker, have no accountability to students who pay tens of thousands of dollars a year in tuition, or to the wider community and world in which your school holds such influence. So, you announce the creation of a committee, divert the attention of the troublemakers -- and let the issue die. If you're thinking of Penn's recent past, you might assume that I am airing a cynical take on last February's anti-sweatshop protest and its aftermath. Since then, wrangling over details by the ad hoc committees has led more than one student to view the entire process as a stall tactic. But in fact, the above is based on my experiences with the diversity initiative and ethnic studies movement at Princeton. There, I saw the collective energy, idealism and intelligence of too many well-meaning students wasted on preparing for committee meetings, only to emerge feeling more disempowered than ever. Confronted by savvy administrators and hostile faculty, they began to question all possibility of change -- that is, change the university doesn't want and won't allow. This tactic also successfully deflects unwanted media attention. Press coverage aided the nationwide movement in the late 1970s for universities to divest their money from South Africa, and the anti-sweatshop campaign of last spring found sympathy even in such defenders of the status quo as The New York Times. But as soon as protests were replaced by committees, the news reporters departed. This pattern symptomizes an unpleasant but undeniable fact about the power structure in U.S. universities: Important decisions are made by the president and a handful of top administrators. But who appoints these officials? Not students, who pay outrageous and steadily rising fees (or, in the case of graduate students, are paid minimal salaries), and not employees. The answer? A board of trustees whose members are unsatisfactorily selected from and voted upon by alumni. In short, universities are not democracies. Thus, whenever a controversial issue arises, they form committees, task forces and other ad hoc assemblages of administrators, faculty and students to preoccupy activists and distract the media. In that way, universities successfully avoid unpleasant PR crises. Perhaps even more importantly, committees provide a veneer of democratic process under which top-down decisions can be justified. Of course, since the administration tends to appoint friendly faculty members and students to these committees, this veneer often stretches very thin indeed. What I find frightening about this technique is its resemblance to the role of democratic bodies in the Third World, where power remains in the hands of a non-elected elite. In such "democratorships," superficial civilian rule and largely meaningless elected parliaments hide a largely unchanged power structure, beyond the reach of ordinary citizens. I doubt that most administrators would be proud of this analogy. Yet if it's unrealistic to expect them not to "table" issues to Death By Committee, what can be done to make universities more democratic? Turn to past cases when colleges reluctantly took steps that went against their economic or political interests. Then, as now, continued pressure and criticism -- especially in the form of protest action -- have been the means by which activists can influence universities to take a principled stand. It worked when they started admitting women and minorities; when they allowed men and women to live, eat and sleep together on campus; and when many removed their ROTC offices during the Vietnam War. And it worked again in the mid-'90s when elite universities, such as Penn and Columbia, finally committed to multiethnic curricula. But progress comes slowly, if at all, when committees take over. In this light, it's no wonder that February's nine-day College Hall sit-in by anti-sweatshop protesters did more than eight months of committee meetings since.Comments powered by Disqus
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