System Stymies Progress
Published: Friday, September 14, 2012
Updated: Friday, September 14, 2012 00:09
Back in 2007, nearly one in seven water fountains on Georgetown’s campus was broken. One student saw this as a problem that could easily be solved by a meeting with the Department of Facilities. A “Reimagine Georgetown” grant, an article in The Hoya and a GUSA resolution later, Karen Frank, at the time vice president for housing and facilities, and her colleagues still stonewalled repairs, citing “student vandalism.” It took several months before the fountains were finally fixed.
This minor issue represents a larger problem at Georgetown. The school is characterized by a bloated administration with a culture and mindset that impedes innovation. In a 2007 study, the Goldwater Institute researched 200 universities and reported their administrator-to-student ratios. The combined average was 8.4 administrators per 100 students. Georgetown’s ratio was 12.8.
Along with this immense bureaucracy, Georgetown’s administrative culture seems to further impede student-driven change. Students and alumni alike are often met with a boilerplate “no” when they put forward new ideas, like the proposed Healy Pub or a recently scrapped project to convert historical parts of campus into student space.
Frank, who recently retired, was infamous for her steadfast refusal to compromise with students. Along with the water fountain debacle, she’s remembered for her reluctance to participate in student roundtables. Instead, she designated a proxy to deal with student concerns.
As a member of the executive team in charge of the Solar Street initiative to install solar panels on university townhouses, I can speak firsthand about such bureaucratic inertia. Since I joined the project a year ago, I have encountered constant pushback from university administrators at all levels, despite the project’s proven payback and financial resources from funds recently freed up by SAFE reform. Representatives from facilities, legal counsel, housing and other departments constantly tell me, “This won’t work because of ...” instead of exploring ways to make it happen.
What makes things even more frustrating is that American University and The George Washington University — with the backing of their respective administrations — have installed much larger renewable energy systems in a fraction of the time.
Georgetown must ask itself: “How can other universities be so in touch with student-led innovations and bring them to fruition efficiently?” The problem lies in a culture that is unwelcoming to change. Glacially paced bureaucracy and an obsession with maintaining the status quo have prevented Georgetown from capitalizing on cutting-edge opportunities time and time again. And in this case, the inability of all parties to be on the same page could have disastrous consequences, as we face the possibility of losing funding when our award expires at the end of the year.
The future is not totally bleak, however. The ongoing planning process for the New South Student Center is a good example of how the university can interact on a positive level with students. Students are participating in design meetings, and there was even a chance for students and alumni to meet with the project’s architects in New York City. Students have been treated as if they actually have a stake in the NSSC, which is appropriate — after all, they are paying for almost $2 million of it.
Some administrators successfully interact with students and strive to put Georgetown at the forefront of innovation. More administrators should follow their example and encourage the sort of collaboration and transparency that have been integrated into the NSSC design process. As the university searches for a replacement for Karen Frank and other retiring administrators, it is necessary to seek candidates who are forward thinkers and realize the potential of student-led initiatives on Georgetown.
Student influence and inclusion on projects that affect them are essential to creating a vibrant campus community and learning environment, but institutional bureaucracy and a culture that favors the status quo endanger future progress. If this trend continues, Georgetown will squander opportunities to lead our peers through cooperative innovation.
DAN MATHIS is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. He is an executive board member of Georgetown Energy.