Opinion: The Case for Systemic Student Autonomy

The college had a plan. Under then President Kroger, Reed paid a consulting firm, K&A, to produce a plan on student success. This firm established six chief areas of concern where Reed needed to improve, focusing on: Community, inclusion, advising/wayfinding, wellbeing, the Reed “bubble,” and lack of systematic data collection.  

In a few more words:

  • The community was overly demanding and that self-doubt abounded. 

  • Diversity is still a challenge and students don’t experience the community as inclusive. 

  • Some students failed to form close connections to faculty and were missing out on essential learning opportunities unique to Reed; this extended into advising.

  • The titanic task of balancing work with life at Reed cost many students their wellbeing.

  • Students’ transition into Reed was difficult—with many never finding academic or social community— so they struggled to connect to Portland, and many did not feel prepared upon graduating. 

  • Reed—not out of disinterest, but out of a lack of data collection—does not understand the student’s experience while attending. 

An ad hoc—and later standing—committee was established on student success to address these six problem areas with seven specific goals. At some point during the Fall semester of 2020, coinciding with the arrival of Karnell McConnell-Black as Vice President for Student Life (VPSL), that committee was effectively disbanded. This serves as a good example of a long standing trend: when people leave, they take their passion projects and knowledge with them. As Student Life staff has turned over, the most senior members of the department played no role in the development of the student success report, which represented a victory in identifying long standing problems. This seems in line with many students of color’s experiences that Student Life prioritizes the optics of bettering student quality of life rather than engaging in the difficult work of making those optics felt. The report is paid for, folks put hours into a committee, and the ultimate end is an entrenched disinterest in confronting the source of systemic problems facing the college, even when the problems are specifically laid out in language commissioned by the college.

The solution is an investment to a communitywide approach to real—occasionally uncomfortable—structural change that focuses on and centers the most marginalized members of our community.

The current lack of progress on the K&A report represents failures on a wide spectrum of issues, which are defined with almost scientific precision. In many cases, students express their concerns using casual language they use to express themselves in other ways and are met with even less of a positive reception than the above report. I have seen peers feel strong pangs of outrage fueled by a deep need for justice on campus. Before that emotion can be communicated to the institution there is the highly tactical step of translating that rage, or sadness, or disenfranchisement into polished political language before being told “we just hired someone to take that on” or “we’re starting a committee on that.” Many student concerns build to the point of bursting before they are even expressed in language polished enough to enter into a years-long grievance pipeline. These are not hypotheticals:  just over the last academic year we have weathered wildfires, COVID, profound isolation during distanced learning, and various periods of quarantine. These problems build until they feed the beast of mistrust that has and will continue to loom larger over the campus until it is intentionally slain.  The goal of fielding student concern should not be to avoid reproach entirely.  Real community growth emerges from a joint effort to attack our collective inequities together so viciously that when conflict between any campus constituency is met, we have the level of connection and trust that allows us to address real problems quickly, readily, and with a bone deep compassion. That is impossible without measurable student autonomy. 

The list of demands that Reedies Against Racism protested for during the 2016/2017 protests—which predate the vast majority of current students—have made some meaningful differences while leaving behind the same structure that gave rise to their concerns. There is no single superhero-style solution, no silver bullet to the problems above: the problems are within and throughout each of us. The solution is an investment to a communitywide approach to real—occasionally uncomfortable—structural change that focuses on and centers the most marginalized members of our community.

The college seems to, year after year, president after president, deploy an anecdotal approach in attempts to individualize systemic problems. Students with Disabilities Coalition were seen not as bringing up valid complaints about accessibility on campus, but rather misunderstanding policy, or asking for too much. Group after group with entirely valid complaints organize and are effectively dismissed with an apparatus designed to invalidate. Throughout massive staffing changes the institution has proven that turnover is not the solution to problems of systemic stagnation. The solution is the kind of commitment that transcends a single position or goal. A model that understands that placing the square peg of solutions that have worked elsewhere into the round hole of Reed college and its peculiar set of problems will not just waste staff member’s time, but student’s wellbeing, and the campus’s diversity.  Structural changes are the only way to fight systematic white supremacy. 

Student Senate is now as, if not more, diverse than it has been at any point in the past. That diversity does not fundamentally change their role on campus from one of upholding systems that work to envision diversity, equity, and inclusion as things that “trickle down.” Systems which, when working at their most efficient, turn the needs of today into the accomplishments of 2050. The nature of primarily white institutions is that community members of color—few as we number—are consistently asked to further overtax ourselves in comparison to our white peers in the name of “representation” on “diversity initiatives,” the results of which grow dusty besides the promise of 40 acres and a mule. The number of anti-racist webpages swell, while the faculty maintain the biases that make them necessary. 

Students occupy a unique position of engrained temporality during our time here. Every class comes to the institution new and unsure, and most importantly: questioning, and those questions when not met with granular answers result in a productive disagreement. Not to wound one another, but to better understand our beliefs and those of one another. Those Reedies who will follow in the footsteps of the current student body and will forever bind their name with Reed’s should see the product of prior disagreement. Beyond institutionally remembering, but systematically acting on a developed plan. 

There is a Zora Neale Hurston quote that reads “if you say nothing about your pain they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” Students seem to be a kind of white blood cell, decade after decade attacking the disease of dismissal. Versions of this article will appear again and again and again. These words are just another droplet in the waves upon waves that have worn the cliffs of this institution into their present state. The question is one of what that should cost? Extra semesters? Mental health? Financial ruin? It will be paid, and those who pay will be students. 

This is not an admonishment for a single person, but a hope—a case—for the mutually beneficial form of governance I know we can, if we work together, go beyond striving for.

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