Last Friday, Columbia College Dean James Valentini and School of Engineering and Applied Science Dean Mary Boyce announced a number of changes regarding the organizational structure for undergraduate student life. Rather than hire a permanent dean of student affairs, Valentini and Boyce have chosen to eliminate the position and rework the bureaucracy, so that all the offices that currently report to Interim Dean of Student Affairs Terry Martinez will report directly to them. The Office of Community Development will be renamed the Office of Student Life, and a search process for the dean of this new office will begin.
While we are optimistic about these changes, the fact that students—who were initially part of the search committee for the new dean of student affairs—were not a part of this decision is concerning. None of the four students on the search committee were made aware of these administrative changes before they were announced.
While this redesign, and the email itself, seem like a lot of administrative mumbo jumbo at first glance, they will bring student-life issues under the direct purview of Valentini and Boyce, representing a much-needed administrative attempt to structurally address issues in the undergraduate experience both inside and outside the classroom.
With the offices that previously reported to the dean of student affairs now directly under Valentini and Boyce, the deans will be in a position to directly discuss and deal with undergraduate issues like mental health, sexual assault, and the ever-elusive “community.” Mental health at Columbia is obviously related to the availability of psychological services and advising, but it is also intertwined with issues of course weighting, credit caps, and grading policy.
Recently, the deans were criticized for their lack of participation at the first sexual assault town hall. This new structure would require deans to address issues like sexual assault—issues their offices had only dealt with tangentially. Our lives are not neatly divided into alternate roles as people and as students, but are rather a constant balance between these two. It only makes sense that the administrative structure would mimic this connection, and that our deans would be as aware of this reality as we are.
In a February editorial concerning the search for the now-defunct position of dean of student affairs (“What we want to see in the next dean of student affairs,” Feb. 5), we called upon members of the search committee to look for candidates who would understand Columbia inside and out. We would like to reiterate this need. The integration of academic and student life, which these administrative changes promote, only increases the importance of selecting administrators who understand both these elements of undergraduate life. We want someone who, like Martinez and former Dean of Student Affairs Kevin Shollenberger, knows the difference between ABC and SGB, but also someone who gets what it means to take University Writing and understands what it takes to conduct original research.
It's worth noting that this increased responsibility may prevent the deans from devoting much time to these matters, and it's still unclear how this new structure will work with the new University-wide position of executive vice president for student affairs.
To make such significant administrative shifts without student input, though, seems to run counter to the very principle underlying this decision—that student concerns should be a priority in larger administrative conversations. Going forward, students on search committees should be part of discussions like these, especially since the committee had already devoted significant time to the search for the new dean of student affairs. More importantly, the exclusion of students' voices is particularly concerning because the planned changes will certainly alter interactions between the administration and the student councils.
This lack of transparency hopefully does not indicate future exclusion of student opinions, since these are the people whose “affairs” are most at stake here. We hope that both schools will use this opportunity to break down the barriers that separate our academic and nonacademic lives on campus so that we can make the most of both.