That was quite a sight on the front page of The Daily Pennsylvanian last week -- Bob Barchi wearing a sweater, sipping hot cocoa and sitting in front of a fire in Houston Hall. It looked almost as strange as seeing Judy Rodin dressed up as Morticia Addams last Halloween and welcoming student trick-or-treaters into her home on Walnut Street. If you didn't know better, you'd think that the administration was trying to make up for years of inattention to the student body. It would be an understatement to say that student interaction has been a major failing of the Rodin administration. Sure, every once in a while, Penn's president does something like watch Dawson's Creek in a college house or teach a preceptorial. But for the most part, the only times the average student sees her is for Convocation, Hey Day and Commencement. Provost Barchi's role should make him even closer to the student body than Rodin. His job doesn't involve as much off-campus work and, ever since the 1960s, the provost has been charged with running Penn's on-campus life. Yet Barchi is often even more of a mystery to students. Ever since the 1999 death of Michael Tobin -- which came just a few months into Barchi's term and caused a flood of ensuing controversy -- he's been guarded and reserved in his dealings with students. It seems like the former Neurology and Neuroscience professor has never been able to quite gel with the undergraduate community. Nine months ago, a DP survey found that only 19 percent of students had ever met their president, and only 32 percent had even heard of their provost. At the time, aides to the two top administrators were furious and angrily decried the poll and its methodology. But in the months since, it's become clear that both Rodin and Barchi have finally gotten the message. Yes, the results of their efforts so far have been mixed, with some events -- like Barchi's "fireside chat" and Rodin's Halloween extravaganza -- seeming a little phony. (And it's too bad that at Barchi's fireside chat last week, students apparently had to apply through the Undergraduate Assembly to attend. That's not a great way for the provost, now beginning his third year in office, to branch out and meet people beyond the cadre of student leaders he already knows.) But it is a start. It at least shows that Rodin and Barchi are trying to address their problems of accessibility and that they do want to change students' perceptions of them. Rodin, in particular, has made changing her campus image one of her major priorities this year. She even hired as one of her top aides a student from the class of 2000, Leah Popowich. Much of Popowich's job seems to revolve around finding ways to connect Rodin more to a distant student body. Throughout the past seven years, Rodin and her three provosts have badly underestimated how much of their time they should be interacting with undergraduate students. It's the reason so many of us refer to them with such derision. And it's a shame, considering how much the University has improved under their leadership. It's nice to see that they've started to realize that. No one expects Rodin and Barchi to be sitting in the dining hall philosophizing with us on a nightly basis. If that's what we had wanted, we'd have gone to a small liberal arts college rather than the sprawling enterprise that is the University of Pennsylvania. But we do have a right to expect them to have some sort of a presence in our lives. These staged gatherings are one way to show their commitment to that goal, but they won't do the trick if their aim is to convince students that they do care about them. What would be refreshing would be to see Rodin at the Palestra cheering on the Quakers more often, or for Barchi to make an appearance every now and then in the Quad, just to chat it up with some freshmen still adjusting to life at Penn. Until they follow up their promising start with non-scripted events like that, students aren't going to hold them in any higher esteem.Comments powered by Disqus
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