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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Tocqueville and Numa: Using Summer Fellowships to Inject Students Into Long Term Decision-Making

< the weeks of this term we have argued for greater conscious dialogue about governance at Carleton with a distinct place at the table for students in these discussions. We have addressed many important issues, but we are painfully aware that there are many more issues worthy of serious attention. We also feel that our column has been theoretic and short on specific proposals. Today therefore, we are going to offer one concrete framework to help inject more students into the governance process on a continual basis.

We believe that one way to increase meaningful student participation in Carleton’s governance would be to create summer planning fellow positions.

Carleton students have done some of their most impressive work, contributing to the governance of Carleton when they have been able to focus on big issues, outside the framework of the day-to-day. In 1978, a Carleton professor and three students spent the summer charged with crafting a divestment strategy for the College’s South African investments. After travel and significant research, the strategy they crafted broke ground among our peer institutions and across the country. The 21st Century Report—a long term steering document that called for familiar things such as a “Center for Modern Languages,” a “Center for the Arts,” a reevaluation of need sensitive admissions, and the establishment of the Education and Curriculum Committee among other things—had deep and useful student involvement. The wind turbine, an unprecedented purchase at the time, came out of significant student work in an ENTS class project.

Two features of these successful student projects stand out. First, in each case the work occupied a major portion of the students’ time. These were not contributions that came from serving a few hours a week on a committee. Carleton students are perennially busy. They do their best work, however, when they are given the chance to focus more time and creative energy on a single project. Sometimes this has meant funding summer research, sometimes it means integrating College policy into a class, sometime is simply relies on the determination and intense interest of certain Carleton students. Of these options we think that the first is the most sustainable model for future student projects.

Second, students appear to have been the most successful when it is a self selecting group of highly interested students who undertake a project. One explanation for this phenomenon is that highly interested students are those who are likely to spend the most time on their projects. Another explanation is that highly interested students are more connected in the campus constituencies who are likely to be affected by the change. They have social capital with student groups. Therefore, when they are in dialogue with administrators and faculty their constituent groups are assured that their perspective is being adequately represented.

There are any number of projects and questions that could fruitfully occupy an entire summer of student work. We envision these questions being matters that are important, but cannot be fully dealt with in the normal cycle of administrative business. They could range from innovative ways to use the College Council, to how to use the new spaces created by the Arts Union to integrate arts programs, to improving long-term financial models, to better understanding future technological infrastructure needs. These questions we are envisioning are multi-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary. Of course, the possible questions do not end there.

Clearly, such positions would benefit Carleton’s governance, planning, and thus the whole community. The questions these fellows would address are important ones for Carleton, but certainly there would be great benefits to the individual fellows as well. We envision a close, mentoring relationship between the fellows and the relevant administrators, faculty, and staff. It would be a summer of thinking critically about very concrete problems and the limited resources that can be brought to bear to ameliorate them. In many ways, these fellowships are akin to the lab fellowships Carleton already offers but with broader questions and more independence on the part of the fellows. Planning fellows would contribute to Carleton’s long-term success, while benefiting from a better understanding of the challenges faced by many institutions—corporate or not-for-profit—and being mentored by individuals with expertise in their area.

Most importantly we believe that a student planning fellow program would most effectively inject student opinion deep into the long term and paradigm setting decisions of the College. We understand that some might be skeptical of the ability of a few unelected students to adequately represent the whole student body. Our argument is that these students would serve the College not as student representatives, but simply as students. They would have no more claim than any other decision maker to represent the best interests of the students. They would, however, approach problems from a student perspective, doubtlessly bringing with them the insights, prejudices, and preferences of students. We believe that the whole Carleton community could not help but benefit from the serious inquiry that these fellows would provide.

As always see more at

–Peter Fritz and Tommy Walker are Carletonian columnists.

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