December 12, 2013

A return to transparency

Two UCSC alumni reflect on passage of SG resolution for UCSC advisory board.

As alumni of the University Community Service Center (UCSC), we were grateful to learn of Student Government’s passage of a resolution, effective immediately, to establish a role for students in decisions related to the UCSC. We are dismayed at the opacity of the recent UCSC “restructuring” process, and our confidence in the administration’s ability to maintain an open relationship with students has been drastically lowered. However, we hope that the imminent implementation of this new committee signals the return of transparency and collaboration at the UCSC.

The resolution is important in part because it represents a vital and active student government that is not only responding to the expressed needs of students, but also proactively increasing the channels through which student voices reach the administration. The importance of this can’t be overstated: Throughout our time at UChicago, we were not alone in feeling that decisions related to student life and student well-being were often made with little input from students. When students raised questions about administrators’ decisions, we were advised that it was not the administration’s lack of transparency, but rather our failure to appropriately engage the institution’s decision-making process that kept us on the outside. This year’s SG has done an admirable job of heeding that advice: They have engaged the established process of student representation thoughtfully and deliberately and have used it to create additional pathways for students to participate in decision making. Their achievements thus far set an important precedent for SG and are worth celebrating.

The resolution is also critical because it concerns the UCSC, a department under the Campus and Student Life (CSL) division that has historically focused not only on the intellectual growth of students, but also on their personal, professional, social, moral, and political growth. As former employees of the UCSC, we recognized our workplace as one committed to ensuring that our UChicago education included a set of fundamental skills and questions rarely addressed in the classroom or through the academic and professional advising systems of the University: exploring and building community, thinking concretely about privilege and power not as abstracts but as evident in the landscape of Chicago, and cultivating personal values and commitment to social change. This work is deeply personal, and the UCSC was good at it—not only because of extraordinary adult mentors, but also because of the influence of fellow students. The UCSC for which we knew and worked had a long tradition of employing students, respecting the opinions of student staff, and taking the feedback of students seriously.

For these reasons, we were profoundly disturbed by UCSC Director Amy Chan’s announcement in September that the UCSC was to be dramatically restructured. Job descriptions for new UCSC staff and reduced resources available to social justice programs suggest that the “restructuring” of the UCSC is not merely an addition of new programming in “social innovation” and “philanthropy,” but a fundamental change in character. Whether that change will enable the UCSC to better serve student needs deserves another editorial (or several). The point we want to make here is that barely anyone—certainly not students—was asked what student needs were or whether the UCSC was meeting them. Given the Center’s history and the administration’s professed commitment to open discourse, one might have expected a serious change in the UCSC’s direction to derive from a robust and open decision-making process, wherein the UCSC’s various stakeholders, including faculty members, community groups, alumni with ties to the UCSC, and most especially current students, could voice their opinions about what was needed on campus. As staff, students, and The Maroon attested (“UCSC Shuffle Sparks Outcry,” 10/4/13), nothing like this happened. Even those employed at the UCSC at the time had no idea of what was being planned.

And while no committee can undo the damage produced by the restructuring thus far, which includes the dismissal of beloved staff, and a lost opportunity to engage students in planning for the current quarter, it is possible for the administration to take advantage of the good faith demonstrated by Student Government by taking seriously and—to the greatest extent feasible—acting in accordance with those recommendations  expressed by an advisory board for the UCSC in which student voices have meaningful say.

This would help to reestablish a role for students in this critical center of student life on campus and would go a long way toward preserving the tradition of collaboration and trust that the UCSC we knew and loved nourished. By contrast, the failure to seriously engage with such a board, to the letter of SG’s resolution and as quickly as possible, would be a signal to students and alumni (many of us now being asked to be donors) that the spirit of collaboration embodied in both the UCSC’s history and in SG’s recent actions, is not particularly valued by the current administration of the UCSC and/or CSL. In our view, student life will only truly be a priority at UChicago when student input matters. We hope these administrators share that view.

Sophia Kortchmar (A.B. ’12) was a 2009 Summer Links intern, a 2011 Summer Links program coordinator, and a UCSC Volunteer Referral staff member in 2012.

Kyle Kocher (A.B. ’11) was a 2010 Summer Links Intern and 2011 Summer Links Program Coordinator.