OPINION: Now more than ever, Pomona students should be in the room for policy decisions

Pomona College’s decision March 11 to ask students to leave campus was unprecedented. For many students, the evictions created an unprecedented level of distrust in the administration.

However, the process by which the administration decided to evict students was precedented. In fact, it is the same process by which almost all important policy decisions are made at Pomona. 

This administrative policy-making process has two flaws. First, students are not in the room for important policy decisions. Second, students aren’t told how or why administrators make their decisions.

The future of Pomona Advocates for Survivors of Sexual Assault, the allocation of mental health resources, the construction of a new athletic building — all these significant decisions about what living on campus looks like were made without students in the room. The decisions to prohibit students from living on campus were made without students in the room.

Beyond misunderstanding student interests, there are further consequences when students are left out.   

The administration struggles to communicate decisions and often chooses not to at all. Students go uninformed. The few student-administrator interactions become conflicts which makes the admin defensive and distrustful of students, while exacerbating the inclination to keep decision processes opaque.

Because student representatives are not in the room, this structure leaves ASPC to challenge bad policies only after they are created. The real work of representing student concerns falls not to ASPC, but to student activists. Ironically, these activists usually have the least bandwidth to do such work, as they are often the students most adversely affected by bad policy (see Occupy Pomona).

The eviction policy, a decision of unprecedented stakes, was the product of this same flawed process. And every day Pomona continues to respond to COVID-19, administrators make consequential policy choices without students present.

But while the problem comes from the administrative policy process, I believe the solution must come from ASPC.

In a post-evictions Pomona, ASPC can no longer merely fight the bad policies while accepting the bad process. We need our student representatives to be insurgents for structural change. 

If this process is going to change, ASPC must work to change it. We can and should target specific meetings for student representatives to infiltrate. ASPC should have student representatives in all significant administrative policy meetings, including the COVID-19 response meetings, strategic plan-writing meetings and weekly administrative staff meetings. 

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These representatives should work to bring mentor groups directly into the policy conversations that affect them. Further, ASPC should work with student media to rehabilitate the relationships between student journalists and admin, so that students can be better informed. 

I know the power of ASPC, as well as the ability to create institutional change in a year’s time, is limited. We won’t be able to solve everything in a year. But we also cannot let the scale of the problem scare us from working to solve it.

I imagine every student has experienced a situation when administrative policy seemed nonsensical and harmful. You might have been at a party that got shut down in a way that put students at risk. You may have been an advocate whose position was put on the rocks. You may have tried to see a mental health counselor and been told to wait four weeks. Or you may have been evicted from your housing just last month.

As a white man, I don’t represent the students most marginalized by poor policy decisions. Those students, especially those in Occupy Pomona, should get the credit for exposing the flaws in the policy-process.

I am well-positioned, however, to articulate the problem and to bring other students to the table to help solve it. There are five experiences that have shown me how much students are excluded from policy conversations. 

As a sponsor, I spent a good chunk of my sophomore year fighting an unjust disciplinary decision that hurt my sponsee. I have seen how the athletic department makes hiring decisions and sets norms for athletes without consulting students. In the writing center, students come in every week who have had academic accommodations withheld and do not understand why. 

As part of the Claremont Christian Fellowship, I’ve seen inaccessible therapy resources shift the burden of mental health labor to student mentors. And, as a member of the Academic Affairs Committee, I saw how hard it was to lobby faculty and administrators for the adoption of shadow grading, even though it was something over 70 percent of voters wanted.

Yet, this advocacy also showed me the power of students who were involved in the conversation from the start.

When students are in the room, administrators and their staff actually get to know individual students. Communicating policy is a significant challenge; having students in the room makes it easier. Including students in the process lends much-needed credibility to administrative decisions. Student civic engagement grows when engagement is actually normalized. 

Let’s be clear. What we are asking for would radically change the relationship between ASPC and Pomona administration. But it is also basic. We are asking for students to be included in the meetings, working groups and administrative structures that create campus policy.

These are crazy times. But they are also times of massive change. If we can create precedent for student input into the college response to COVID-19, we have the chance to cement student input into college policy for years to come. 

We can grab this moment. And we can put students in the room.

Peter Heckendorn PO ’21 is a guest writer from Andover, Massachusetts. He is running for ASPC president and you can find out more about his bio and his plan to put students in the room on his campaign Facebook page or his campaign platform. You can vote in the ASPC elections April 12-14.

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