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Musings on On Self Governance

Most Grinnell students consider self governance (or self gov) a core aspect of a Grinnell education. Many faculty members and administrators also consider it essential to a Grinnell education. So, what is self gov, and what effects does it have at Grinnell? Amazingly, no two people seem to completely agree, which is one of the reasons our task force on residential life is considering the meaning of self gov and is recommending that we develop a clear(er) statement on self gov.

But that won’t stop me from giving my own opinion.

At its core, self gov is the concept that we, as an institution, allow Grinnell students to take responsibility for themselves, both individually and as a community. Ideally, that responsibility requires real responsibility, as it were. That is, students must think about the effects of their actions on others, they must consider how they can support their peers (even as those peers may make bad choices), and they must work together to govern their communities.

When self gov works right, it does many things well. It helps our students be part of a real community. It empowers them to lead. It prepares them to be citizens in a broader community. It causes them to reflect on what responsibility means.

Self gov certainly shows itself in many practices on campus, from small to large. Self gov is core to the residential experience. For example, students collaborate to decide whether their bathrooms should be for one sex (gender?) or gender neutral. Students who see friends in trouble because of drugs or alcohol know that they have a responsibility to support them and are generally not afraid to get adult help because we do not punish the reporting students.

Self gov also influences how students act in the broader academic community. I was recently at a speech for prospective students at Macalester, and the president mentioned the awesome startup weekend that they’d just held. At Grinnell, we also have awesome startup weekends. However, those are designed and run by students, rather than by the administration. When Grinnell hosted TEDx, it was because students pushed for it and ran it. I see this initiative and willingness to pursue interesting tasks in so many things that our students do, and the campus support for student initiative is grounded in self gov. Some colleagues who have been at both Grinnell and peer institutions say that our students are much more involved in the overall governance of the College (even though it may not feel like it to our students).

Does that mean that self gov is perfect? No, far from it. The campus bike program was clear evidence of a failure of self governance. Students did not take care of the shared bikes. Some would jump off of them while still in motion and allow them to crash. Others would drive unsafe bikes, putting both themselves and others at risk. Neither kind of action is evidence of students taking on responsibility for themselves and others.

Grinnell’s alcohol and drug culture also shows some failures of self gov. While I appreciate how our students help each other, the student community, as a whole, has not taken sufficient steps to address the problems with alcohol abuse on campus. In part, that’s because too many students seem to think that self gov means I can do what I want without fear of penalty, rather than I have a responsibility to govern myself as part of a community.

Students are saying that self gov is dead. But they’ve been saying that as long as I’ve been at Grinnell. I would say that self gov is less healthy than it’s been at some times. Two forces clearly threaten self gov: First, the students who misunderstand self gov and consider it license to do what they want; Second, the administrators who react to those failings with additional rules and regulations. What can we do? Principles of self governance would suggest that students would teach each other about their responsibilities and, in doing so, they would reveal to the less optimistic administrators that self gov can be successful.

Will that happen? I hope so. Will we have some rules that impinge upon self gov in the mean time? It looks like it. But will we continue to empower students to govern themselves in a wide variety of situations? I expect so.

Ideally, I would have drawn on a wide variety of documents in writing this essay, including the new report from the task force on residential learning. However, it’s finals week, and this is intended more as a rough musing than a careful analysis. Perhaps I’ll return to a more in-depth version in a month or two.

Version 1.0 of 2016-05-16.