Administrators Should Follow His Lead

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD

Transparency in the administration is an issue our board has raised numerous times over the past years, yet we still find ourselves writing the same editorial.

In the aftermath of recent discussions that have taken place in community forums and town halls, this issue has been raised again. The question we ask now is, How can administrators improve in order to make community discussions more valuable?

Many students feel that attending town halls and forums is not a worthwhile use of their time because they leave feeling more confused, angry and ill-informed than when they entered. Statistics, financial numbers and linear timelines often are skimmed over, ignored or diverted to examples of administrative successes.

There are significant opportunities for college administrators to exhibit greater transparency when discussing issues pertinent to student life and general operations of the college. Doing so would prompt a more fruitful discussion that leads to the “formation of community” that administrators have consistently called for.

We would like to acknowledge administrators who we feel could be emulated in providing students with transparent dialogue. College treasurer David Provost has provided a stellar example of administrative transparency that other administrators could aspire to when engaging in community discussions.

During a forum on Jan. 24, Provost thoroughly and transparently explained the reasons behind the September closing of college-owned restaurant 51 Main (now The Rough Cut). Instead of falsely painting 51 Main as a successful project, he told students candidly that the restaurant had been a financial disaster that had lost the college $250,000 per year.

Many feel that administrators often divert difficult or pressing questions about mistakes they have made to point out successes they have had. During the forum, Provost did the opposite when discussing issues like student diversity. He was engaging, funny and self-deprecating, answering student questions thoroughly and honestly.

Provost works with financial information that is often easier to disclose than the work of other offices such as judicial affairs, and we recognize that his candid style isn’t appropriate in every setting for community discussion. But aspects of Provost’s honest approach could still easily be translated to many other forums. If more forums are like last month’s, we gurantee more and more students will actually show up.

At the same time, this paper recognizes that complete and utter transparency is not always an attainable goal for every administrative position. The college may be legally obliged to maintain confidentiality when discussing certain topics, and is not always free to disclose details about sensitive issues that students might want to know during community discussions — for example, specific details of judicial cases, which are often bound by Title IX regulations.

The ability to disclose information in student forums depends upon the department of the given administrator engaging in discussion, the particular topic at hand, and a wealth of other factors. The Campus recognizes this fact.

Still, when these constraints around disclosure are present, administrators could provide students with thorough, transparent explanations of exactly why certain details aren’t available to the general public, as well as thorough background information that at least leaves students informed about the discussion they are engaging in.

This is another area in which Provost has excelled. During the Jan. 24 forum, he provided a wealth of background information that students found beneficial. Students who attended said they felt well informed about the topic they were discussing. Provost clearly and patiently provided background information concerning issues that gave the students the knowledge they needed to engage in a productive discussion.

This approach could be seen as a baseline for all administrators leading or engaging in challenging community discussions. When a sensitive question arises about a student engaged in a judicial process, for example, the administrator being questioned could provide as many facts as necessary and allowed. When they find themselves unable to disclose information, this point would ideally lead into an explanation of why certain information cannot be disclosed, rather than diverting the question to a discussion of administrative successes.

This open style of communication is also important because student dialogue and general gossip that circulates on campus has sometimes placed unfair blame upon administrators such as President Patton. More background and patient explanation during discussions would be a step towards remedying this.

Leaning into transparency are the first steps towards creating a community that is empathetic, supportive and committed to change. Time and time again, members of our administration have called for students to take on a role in “building community” and rebuilding a broken campus in which many of us feel isolated and alienated. It would be much easier for students to do this if they felt the respect granted through authentic, transparent conversation in student–administrator forums.

Without this transparency, students are left to draw their own conclusions, leading to false accusations and gossip. We hope this is the last editorial we have to write asking for transparency, and that we can work to fight for the future The Campus has sought to resist — one in which Middlebury dies in darkness.

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Administrators Should Follow His Lead