Students Dismissed from Faculty Meeting

Students Dismissed from Faculty Meeting

By Claire Abbadi

At the monthly plenary faculty meeting on Friday, Nov. 6, the faculty discussed proposed changes to the Cultures and Civilizations requirement and student participation in the Pass/D/Fail system, but when the conversation shifted to student stress, the faculty voted 45-33 to move into an executive session.

Faculty Moderator and Professor of Mathematics David Dorman did not have an exact figure on the number of times the faculty has moved into an executive session historically, but indicated it has happened a few times in the past two decades.

The decision to move to an executive session was prompted when Assistant Professor of Psychology Robert Moeller expressed his concerns about having students in the room as the faculty discussed sensitive, sometimes privileged information. As mandated by the College’s handbook, the SGA, the Campus and Community Council have a standing invitation to plenary faculty meetings.

Once Moeller’s concern was articulated, a motion was made and seconded to shift to executive session. The vote forced all non- voting members of the audience, including several student leaders, to leave.

“While it was of course disappointing that students were not able to be present for the faculty discussion surrounding stress,” said SGA President Ilana Gratch ’16, “I believe this event has the ability to spark a greater conversation about the dynamics between students, faculty and the administration.”

“I was disappointed by the manner in which we were dismissed from the Faculty Council session, but I feel that this incident can be constructive instead of contentious,” said Community Council member Emma Bliska ‘18. “I think it’s im- portant for students and faculty to interact more in official spaces on campus, and to engage in dialogue about our roles in college decision-making.”

Despite the narrow margin between those in favor of an executive session and those not, there was no discussion against the motion in the open meeting. However, the session sparked conversation, both for and against the motion, amongst the faculty afterwards.

“When the faculty is discussing matters with a direct impact on students’ lives, these conversations should be open and transparent whenever possible,” said Associate Professor of Economics Caitlin Myers. “While there will sometimes exist a compelling need for privacy, we should thoughtfully choose when and how to in- voke executive session. I thought that the way the students were asked to leave conveyed distrust and paternalism, and I was troubled by how it went down.”

Moeller, who first shared his concerns about having students in his room, ex- plained his stance, bringing up two separate issues: how having students – especially the press – in the room changes the conversation and how to respect students privacy, specifically in deference to the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

First, the College is made up of a shared governance system: the Board of Trustees, the administration and faculty, all with different responsibilities. He points out that the Campus does not have a standing in- vitation to senior administrative meetings nor Board of Trustee meetings, so why is the faculty exposed to what he calls “great- er levels of scrutiny” than the other parts of the system?

“What does that do to the power dynamic in a shared governance system?” asks Moeller. “Of the three parts of the system, all parts effect students lives and there shouldn’t be more reporting on the faculty than the trustees and the administration.”

Moeller also expressed his concern about upholding the privacies protected in FERPA. Within a small community, when faculty members are sharing stories about students, especially around grades and issues of mental health, it is easy to figure out who they are talking about. This brings up confidentially concerns that could become FERPA violations.

Lastly, he shared concerns from faculty, especially junior faculty, many of whom are already are hesitant to participate in conversation, that students in the room will have a silencing effect. Moeller shared that several faculty members have expressed unease about the fact that their words could be quoted without consent.

“After last spring we needed to have an important conversation about student stress, and a candid one,” Moeller said. “While students should most definitely be included in those conversations, faculty also need a venue to speak amongst themselves.”

“There needs to be some system to convey the issues we are discussing to students, but a system that takes into account issues of confidentiality, FERPA and the silencing effect that students in the room could have on the faculty,” he added.

Many students in the room have expressed that they want to play a more active role in these discussions and that their presence is not intended to scrutinize, but to engage.

“I believe any discussions about issues facing students should be as transparent as possible, not so students can supervise or criticize faculty members, but so these groups can collaborate more effectively and meaningfully on issues facing the college community,” added Bliska.

President of the College Laurie L. Pat- ton echoed the sentiment for the need for openness and student presence, as well as executive sessions.

“Faculty need to come to their own decisions about governance, and I have every confidence that they will,” said Patton. “I recommended at the meeting that we need to do two things as a matter of course: 1) we need to have regular open faculty meetings, where students and staff can attend, and 2) we need to reserve a space for executive session at the end of those meetings. Many institutions of higher learning use this system of faculty governance, and I can easily see us moving in that direction. When executive sessions are simply part of every agenda, faculty can use them if they want to, but they don’t have to if there’s no business that requires “faculty-only” conversation. The key to this system is that meetings are then always open to the community and executive sessions no longer become a big deal.”