In 2015, the administration increased the Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) budget by 50 percent and promoted the position to the VP level as a result of a week-long occupation of the administration building organized by students. Many students who participated faced harsh consequences, ranging from intimidation from members of the Oxy community to severe stress and anxiety. Some couldn’t even manage to keep up with their coursework as a result of what the movement required. Students reasonably expected that whoever would fill this role would at the very least be someone who would resist the status quo and recenter the voices of those who had been pushed to the margins.
In 2018, the CDO at the VP level — whose position is the result of the organizing efforts of marginalized students — is quoted in an article published in The Occidental responding to calls for her resignation, saying: “We’ll always have a difference of opinion as to how people think their job should or should not be done, or what they prioritize and what they don’t, but at the end of the day, I work for Jonathan Veitch, and if he’s uncomfortable with what I’m doing or how I’m doing it, he’ll tell me, and he can ask for my resignation.”
Truer words were never spoken. “At the end of the day,” students are forced to rely on the actions and dispositions of the Board of Trustees, the President of the College, senior-level administrators and Deans of various departments to bring about justice. The current structure of leadership at the College does not hold the administration accountable to the students. Any attempt to engage students so that we can inform decisions is voluntary on behalf of the administration. Students will grant their approval to whoever dares to try new ways of engaging us like adults capable of decision-making.
This reality is frightening. It guarantees the ineffectiveness of partnership in the absence of real voice and voting power for all parties involved. Usually, students are accustomed to being subject to a façade led by those in power when it comes to our level of input and agency. Nice gestures will never be enough. Common decency and basic compassion will never bring about profound change.
We need shared governance. In its simplest form, it is the process by which colleges and universities divide responsibility and decision-making power across stakeholders. Shared governance for students would mean we don’t have to simply be bystanders as decisions around academics, business operations or student affairs are made. Students are affected, without a doubt, by the outcomes of curriculum design and implementation, academic program review, position terminations, college policies and procedures. We should be consultants and deciding members in these decisions. Student unawareness should not be possible at such a small college.
After periods of tension and trauma, everybody can always buy into the idea of a hero. A hero in the context of a lack of shared governance is someone who, while potentially well-intentioned, willingly usurps the power of others under the guise of leadership. This can be the Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) leaders, members of the administration like the CDO or any other stakeholder of the community. They usually are adamant about their ability to speak for others. Heroes are always slipping down a slippery slope. Sometimes people make demands for these heroes to appear and other times they ask for us to recognize them as such.
This quote from the CDO does us a tremendous favor. It highlights the raw and unforgiving nature of a higher education system with leaders who see the interests of students to be on the periphery of their agendas. The reality presented in that statement is not exclusive to the CDO. Rather, it is central to the way in which students experience the campus on a regular basis.
Campus discourses and divisions materialize among students as a result of this confusion. In any given year, we’re almost certain to lead ourselves through another semester of controversy, gossip and discontent. All the while, those with the “final say” effectively manage to refuse students agency and hinder us from having quality experiences.
So yes, Oxy students, many things remain true at the end of the day. Now is the time to approach radical, sustainable and legitimate alternatives to restructuring power at the College. No student deserves to have their college experience determined solely by the outcome of major decisions made by a small set of leaders. Do not be mistaken. Issues of irreconcilable differences and tension are not about people, they are about power.
Current and campaigning student leaders, there is no righteous way to represent the interest of students to the administration. That should not be your priority. Do not be disingenuous with our fellow peers who are routinely silenced and stripped of agency by attempting to amplify their voices; they are already loud and clear. Settling for surface-level engagement with those who hold real power without a constant call for structural change is harmful to us all. Be assertive about actualizing student voting power for major decisions made at the College.
Until students take on a different relationship to power at the college, fairy tales about healthy partnerships will never come to be. We don’t need any more heroes. We need shared governance.
Jacques Lesure is a junior Resistive Education in Theory, Research and Policy major (IPS) and a candidate for ASOC President. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org