BERNSTEIN: Limit student self-governance

The University should assign faculty advisors to selective clubs in order to diversify them

Last week, the group United For Undergraduate Socioeconomic Diversity (UFUSED) hosted a panel on representation, diversity and community at the University, mostly a discussion of the barriers that prevent minorities from reaching conventional leadership roles at the University. The panel raised an important question: what can we as students do to combat the often exclusive environment that students who aren’t in the majority face?

The institutional and social barriers many students must surmount are too broad to address in a single column; they include the nepotistic style of acceptance into certain clubs, the financial cost of joining certain groups and the underlying biases of students who make club admissions decisions. But since many of these issues are underlying, and therefore difficult to tackle, the best approach for now would be to limit some of our lauded “student self-governance” and institute faculty advisers for some of these groups.

There is a lot to be said for student self-governance. But student self-governance has been wrongly interpreted at the University to imply a complete absence of administrative leadership in some of our most influential groups (e.g., the Honor Committee). The problem with this, as evidenced by the panelists’ comments, is that leadership roles in these organizations often become a sort of hand-me-down system: students who know other students in certain groups automatically have an advantage when applying.

Panelist Martese Johnson, who now serves as the vice-chair for community relations for the Honor Committee, noted that the typical route for being elected to the Honor Committee consists of admittance as a support officer as a first year, then selection for various committees as a second year, and then elections to the Committee at the end of one’s third year. All this makes the possibility of gaining a leadership role unlikely unless one becomes a support officer as a first year, and this is easier for students who come to the University with connections. Since interviews and admissions into groups like Honor happen early in the school year, awareness about the possibility of joining naturally limits itself to students with prior knowledge of our school.

But even if groups like Honor make a greater effort to reach out to minority communities before the applicant process starts, they might still be met with a homogenous applicant pool. This is because the problem, as panelist Sheridan Fuller, a graduate student in the Batten School and a Student Council representative, noted, is not exclusive to existing, majority-white groups. There are also tensions for minority students in their own communities. Fuller pointed out that if students choose to engage with the more traditional University clubs, their peers in minority communities might unfairly peg them as assimilating and judge them for doing so. All of this contributes to the lack of minorities in the more traditional leadership roles here, and puts unfair pressure on students who feel they have to choose between two groups, one of which is already more difficult for them to break into, making them more likely to stick with traditionally minority-focused clubs.

Of course, the makeup of the applicant pool is not the only obstacle to diversity in these clubs. Just as achieving a position of leadership can require previous experience in the given club or CIO, for first years applying into clubs, high school extracurricular experience can aid in the application process. This inevitably relates to socioeconomic status: students who were unable to engage in extracurriculars in high school because of familial and economic obligations will have shorter resumes than more privileged students. As income and race are often linked, this can mean non-white and lower income applicants are inherently disadvantaged when they do apply to selective clubs, since students evaluating them may be more swayed by impressive extracurriculars than the potential they see in an applicant.

This is the biggest way student self-governance fails our community: though enhanced student involvement sets our University apart, it also sets the many communities within the University apart, enabling self-segregation. To bridge this gap, we ought to sacrifice some of our autonomy by including faculty and administrators in our admissions processes for the clubs that have them. Though this cannot begin to address the plethora of issues with diversity at our school, it is one small, concrete step that could increase acceptance and diversify involvement. If faculty members are able to evaluate our admissions processes into clubs, perhaps our own inherent biases toward those we know or those who are similar to us will be less influential.

We have to realize that we are not always the most qualified judges of our fellow peers, especially since our time at the University is so fleeting, contributing to a lack of understanding of the issues at hand. The undergraduate student turnover rate is astronomically high when compared with the faculty turnover rate; we usually only stay here a mere four years, while faculty members and administrators make careers here, and are able to witness the triumphs and pitfalls of every group. Furthermore, faculty involvement can foster more student involvement: if faculty advisers serve as sources of information for students in minority-focused groups and encourage them to infiltrate majority-white clubs — and advise students in majority-white groups on how to improve their outreach to minority clubs — students will have more of an impetus to diversify their groups.

Student self-governance is a great ideal, but these issues transcend it. Making room for faculty advisement does not necessarily negate our autonomy, and it will make our community more inclusive and give all students a better undergraduate experience.

Dani Bernstein is a Senior Associate Opinion Editor. She can be reached at d.bernstein@cavalierdaily.com.


Published April 22, 2014 in Opinion





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