The February 27 BeHeard Forum with President Lori Bettison-Varga was chaotic, to say the least. The Forum began with a palpable feeling on the part of the students crowded into SCORE of wanting to make progress and come to some sort of understanding and agreement about student power on campus. This hope soon turned into confusion and anger, with many a face-palm, upset murmurings, and, by the end, downright shouting on both sides. LBV snapped on more than one occasion. So did the students. By the end, I personally left so rattled that I no longer even knew what I was feeling, let alone thinking.
Still, I do believe that this particular BeHeard Forum needed to happen. Though most students left upset — as I’m sure LBV did, as well, judging from her outbursts of obvious frustration during the Forum — at least we know where we stand, roughly. No, of course where we stand is not ideal. To many, it’s not even acceptable. But at least from here, we can figure a way out. Hopefully.
In this article, I’ll hit a few of the key points brought up in the forum, and will illustrate some instances of the circular talking that happened repeatedly throughout the hour-long meeting. The steps forward I suggest at the end are a call to President Bettison-Varga and others in power to let us work with them. I think it’s safe to say that the Scripps student body doesn’t want to impede the progress of the LASPA Center or to hurt Scripps in any way; we simply want to be a significant part of the decision-making. After all, the decisions being made will affect us. Surely there must be a way for LBV and the Board of Trustees to not just hear our voices, but actually use them so that we can all attain our common goal of an even better Scripps College.
The first bit of circular talk arose when addressing the hiring process for the director of the LASPA Center. While President Bettison-Varga needs to hire someone that meets the qualifications for such a center, the scope of the center is, as LBV put it, too broad and vague to hire someone yet. There are simply no definitions that the people in charge of the development of the LASPA Center agree on, despite a 2011 “white paper” document that defined the goal of the center in broad terms such as “social justice.” Interestingly enough, President Bettison-Varga stated that many surveys and student opinion polls were carried out during 2010-11 to create these definitions. Yet apparently those student voices did not create real change, as confusion and ambiguity still abounds. So, now, who is to define the goals of the LASPA center after being hired based on a vague conception of LASPA that is too vague to hire someone for? Why, the director, of course! The director, says President Bettison-Varga, will work with a steering committee with representatives from different sections of the Scripps community to define the center as it’s being created.
Now, there are a few dangers here that come immediately to mind. First, if there is no clear goal of the center, there is a very real danger that the center will be weak, unstable, and inefficient. How can a center without a purpose accomplish anything of significance? How can a center grow in different valid directions around an idea too vague to even talk about?
The other problem is that, even if the director and steering committee do come up with clear goals for the Center, there is no guarantee that these goals will be what students either want or need. If student representation on the search committee for the LASPA director had no real influence in the decision-making process, this doesn’t exactly make me feel all warm and cozy that students — or faculty, for that matter — on the steering committee will have any power at all. We need to figure out some way to ensure that the LASPA Center gives us what we need. If it doesn’t serve the students that it was meant to serve, this entire process will have been for nothing. We students must have the power to influence decisions that affect us here at Scripps College.
The obvious way to get this power, of course, would be through a democracy. But President Bettison-Varga has made it very clear that this is not a democracy. She said that she hears our voices, and that our voices inform the outcome of her decisions, but that “We disagree. I made a decision you don’t agree with. And I’m okay with that. […] I want your voices as we move forward.”
Now, to me at least, this also is confusing. If LBV is okay with disregarding our voices, and seemed very frustrated — even angry, at times — with what students were saying at the forum, why would she want our voices moving forward? One potential and depressing reason is that she wants us to feel like we have voices so that we shut up. Despite all her assurances that “I hear your voices,” LBV left me, for one, with the sinking sensation that she doesn’t really care about what we have to say, nor the extent of the illusion we have in terms of our actual affect in decision-making at Scripps — for, as she said repeatedly, “This is not a democracy.” Yes, Scripps students are promised two elected representatives on the steering committee for the LASPA Center “so that you feel like there are people on the committee who represent your interests,” but this statement was followed by the worrisome fragments of speech that if we want student and faculty representation, “Sure! It doesn’t really… Whatever works!” Although LBV clearly stated that we don’t have a democracy here, this last statement also makes it clear that she will continue to foster, in some sense, a false conception of our power and influence. She doesn’t mind what representation we have, because she has the power to make decisions we don’t agree with, and, as quoted earlier, she’s “okay with that.”
When it comes down to it, all we can really do in our current position is talk. That might satisfy some. But I demand that our words have real power. They should not be made empty by bureaucracy.
Where can we go from here? I, personally, demand transparency—and I am not alone in this demand, as the BeHeard Forum made very clear. And while I understand very clearly the meaning of President Bettison-Varga’s statement, “I don’t define transparency as being able to share confidential information with you [the student body],” I do insist upon other types of transparency. The student body needs to have a very clear definition of what LASPA is. We need an updated, explicit description of the criteria for who the LASPA director whenever this information changes. We deserve to know exactly how LBV will come to a decision about hiring the new director. (No, I am not referring to confidential information about the candidates. But surely we should be able to know who our President will consult, how much sway these various advisors will have, etc.)Finally, I demand transparency in terms of where we students actually stand in Scripps College politics. No word games. No fudging the truth to pacify us.
Where do we have the most say or influence? Really, I would find it very hard to believe that President Bettison-Varga, the Board of Trustees, or the students want anything less than a better Scripps College. Let’s work together to define “better.” And then let’s get there.