Decision-making process at AU unfair

In The Eagle's staff editorial last week, it was argued that AU's move to implement software that can block file sharing was the latest in a long string of decisions made by the University without student input. It's not a new complaint. It was the same one I heard from seniors at Ultimate Frisbee practice during my first week as a freshman almost five years ago. But it only occurs to me now, as a graduate student, that the reason this problem has been so chronic is not that AU is run by inconsiderate or incompetent people (as students often conclude). Rather, the problem is structural: University administrators do not adequately appreciate how even small decisions that are routine for them can have enormous implications on students and can arouse powerful emotions.

Although AU can certainly improve its decision-making process and be more inclusive of students, another root cause of student and alumni frustration with AU can be more immediately and easily addressed. The University needs to do a better job communicating with its stakeholders, whether students, staff or parents.

Every year The Eagle argues, as many students do, for increased administration consultation with students before major decisions are made. But these pleas do not do the issue justice. The fact is that the University will have to make unpopular decisions from time to time, sometimes in secret - decisions that, in the short term, will hurt some, even many, of its students. At the risk of sounding cynical, my belief is that if AU has resolved to make a certain unpopular decision, it would be wise to lay better groundwork for informing students than it has in the past - or to, at least, present a fa?ade of having considered student views. At present, though, it seems that decisions are made by departments, which, like any bureaucracy, spend months planning to do something that seems logical to them and then, when the time comes, just make an announcement.

This is why, year after year, issue after issue, AU painfully finds itself trying to sell students and their families on plans only after they've been announced. Decisions are made, students are blindsided, and administrators, assuming the students' anger will fade, move on. But, of course, rather than passing, the anger becomes frustration, which becomes resentment, which silently but corrosively endures. This can only occur because administrators see students as transient and therefore not deserving of real seats at the table. They do not make the connection that, elementary as it seems, today's students are tomorrow's donors. This failure of foresight is why AU alumni feel less connected to the school than our friends at other schools do, and it is why AU draws less in alumni donations than other do other schools.

In the future, AU needs to focus more on selling its plans to its stakeholders, and it should dedicate resources to that end. Every day that AU goes without this capability is another day that students and alumni assume that decisions are always made with an eye on the bottom line. In fact, students and alumni often complain that AU is run like a for-profit business. But it's not - because for-profit businesses understand that customer satisfaction cannot just be assumed, as AU seems to do. This trend will only increase as AU becomes more selective in admissions and draws students with greater capabilities, expectations and senses of entitlement.

Although the results of this lack of vision are clear to most students today, the administration seems to be lagging behind the curve. If the University does not come to terms with its failure to take communication seriously, it may continue to generate alumni who, though proud of their education, refuse to become donors. Though I have given some money to AU, most alumni I know laugh at the thought of giving back. No matter how great our education was, many AU students will spend the rest of their lives silently dwelling on how they were hurt by decisions that were routine for AU administrators. For me, it was when AU hiked the parking permit rate by a few hundred dollars my sophomore year and I didn't have the cash. For my roommate, it was when the Office of Housing and Dining made excuses for paying him less than minimum wage for his part-time job. For a friend, it was when AU shrunk diploma sizes without telling students. (I know because I broke the story in this newspaper, including the vice president of Campus Life's defense that students were not consulted because it didn't occur to administrators that students would care.) For you, it may be soon having to pay more for cell phone service or having your top-ranked team put on the chopping block.

It's not that AU necessarily made bad calls on all of these issues. But it's a painful irony that in Washington, a city so focused on currying favor with key constituent groups, AU has still not learned that nine-tenths of any issue is perception. Surely, AU can do better - after all, we're paying it to.

Evan Wagner is a graduate student in the College of Arts and Sciences, and The Eagle's former Managing Editor for News.

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