Guest Editorial: Transparency at Lawrence

Pete Snyder

As a strong liberal arts college, Lawrence frequently reminds us to challenge assumptions and to think critically. In our classes, professors urge us to question what others take for granted, to rethink common beliefs and to search for underlying explanations. This principle is so central to a strong liberal arts education that Lawrence’s mission statement commits us to a “critical examination of values, ideas, and actions” and to create a community that “supports open and free inquiry.”
Unfortunately, many of Lawrence’s policies fail to live up to the ideals embodied in the mission statement. Faculty, trustee, and administrative policies keep students from large amounts of information that affect them, often without explanation. This forces students to accept information from administrators and faculty unquestioningly and uncritically. Far from creating an atmosphere of “open and free inquiry,” such policies create an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust, feeding conspiracy theories and diminishing a sense of community. This problem is pervasive, affecting student’s academic, social, and financial lives, and these polices ought to be changed.
First, faculty policy bars students from seeing faculty governance minutes, the faculty handbook, voting records, and faculty by-laws. These documents govern how new classes are offered, requirements for majors and minors, and what courses fulfill general education requirements, among many other things. This prevents students from understanding how faculty governance makes these decisions, how particular faculty members voted, and the reasoning offered. As a result, students cannot fully participate in discussions about Lawrence’s academic policies. The scant knowledge students have of faculty governance comes from mass emails and press releases. Without knowledge of the context that the faculty makes these decisions in, students must accept or reject these announcements uncritically. Our professors teach us to privilege primary sources over secondary accounts, and we ought to except the same from them outside the classroom.
Second, trustee policy prevents students from understanding trustee governance. Currently, students cannot see a wide range of information, ranging from the trustee handbooks and conflict-of-interest statements to the trustees’ committee structure and voting records. Without this information, students cannot fully understand how Lawrence operates or what plans the trustees have for the future, lowering students’ trust in the institution and, likely, their future contributions as alumni.
Unfortunately, the trustees seem reluctant to make such information available. Last term LUCC passed a resolution calling on the Board of Trustees to, among other things, make their practices more transparent. In response, the trustees dedicated the next meeting of the Trustee Committee on Student Affairs to discussing transparency and the other issues raised in resolution. By the end of the meeting, the trustees had agreed to 1) increase the number of Trustee Committee on Student Affairs meetings to better address student concerns, and 2) to release their committee structure and membership lists.
So far, the trustees have not honored these commitments. The number of Trustee Committee on Student Affairs meetings has actually decreased. Generally, the committee meets once a term, when the trustees come to campus around reading period. Although the trustees have already visited campus this term, the committee’s chair, Lewis Lofgren, never called the committee together. Additionally, over a term after agreeing to release the trustees’ committee structure and membership, the information is still not available.
Given how central the Board of Trustees’ decisions are to Lawrence’s current and future health, it is distressing that they feel the need to guard their information so tightly. Students need to be able to find out who makes the decisions that affect them and why those decisions are made in order to have confidence that their interests are being protected.
Third, Lawrence policy prevents students from accessing the school’s financial records, including the departments’ budgets and the costs of major construction projects. Since students help pay for these expenses through their tuition payments and alumni contributions, students past and present have a strong interest in knowing how the school spends its money. When dealing with multimillion-dollar projects, such as the new campus center or Hiett Hall, it’s reasonable for students to want detailed knowledge of what costs what and how those numbers were arrived at. Recent controversies over construction costs and no-bid contracts to the Boldt Company could easily be settled if students could see for themselves how the projects are financed. Recently, I contacted Executive Vice President Gregory Volk and asked for such records. He responded by saying that this kind of information is “considered proprietary and is not released by the college.” Rejecting requests for basic information without explanation only adds to fears and suspicions that foul play is involved. If Lawrence wants students to know the school spends their tuition wisely, and for alumni to donate to the school, the school should be willing to share how it spends its money.
Student access to information is important beyond strictly practical concerns like the endowment or major requirements. It affects how students feel about their community. The more Lawrence makes decisions behind closed doors, and the more students are kept in the dark about the school works, the less students feel a part of a “Lawrence community.” Recent decisions about the future of Hulbert House (the current co-op) and WLFM’s FM license, along with student understanding of the serious conflicts of interest among trustees, created more cynical sentiment this year on campus than I’ve felt any time during my time at Lawrence. Students want to be involved in discussions about Lawrence’s future, and in order to do so responsibly, we need access to information about Lawrence’s finances, regulations, and governing structures. If compelling reasons exist to keep certain bits of information secret, then students should know what those reasons are. Unless there is good reason to keep students from learning about Lawrence as an institution, they should be free to do so.
While I have faith that the trustees, faculty, and administration do their best to protect Lawrence’s interests, the school has thankfully done a better job educating me than to let me make important decisions based on faith alone. I expect that other students feel the same way, and I hope that Lawrence will live up to its commitment to critical inquiry by becoming more transparent.
Because we feel strongly about this issue, and expect that other students do too, Mark Johnson and I are planning a number of efforts to increase transparency at Lawrence University. If you are interested in this issue, please send either of us an e-mail and we will get back to you with information on how to help.