Kevan Duve: Perceptions matter for GW administration

Unless you work in Rice Hall, you’re likely well-acquainted with GW’s unofficial reputation – the campus vibe, so to speak – a muted variation of boisterous ANC declarations which gets circulated in our corridors, classrooms and offices. It’s a wink-wink, nudge-nudge mentality almost universally shared among students and faculty alike, so ingrained that it usually need not be made explicit. Of course GW operates as a business, not a non-profit. Of course they’re more concerned with frills than they are with academics.

It’s a perception, though, that does not have the advantage of being completely accurate. For example, GW’s construction of three new academic buildings in nearly as many years is not the hallmark of a greedy trusteeship, the proposed Town Center on Square 54 notwithstanding. Also, the recent debate about the credit structure is the sign of an institution beginning to insist that world-class academics accompany its world-class tuition.

You wouldn’t know it, though, from hearing chatter across campus. You wouldn’t know it from reading this newspaper. Why? The University has done little to deter the negative conceptions percolating about its intentions; in many cases, it has itself fueled such attitudes. In order to prevent further undercutting the sense of purpose faculty and students bring to their endeavors, however, the University must be more forthcoming and unambiguous about its future positions and plans.

The planning process for the Square 54 proposal seems indicative of how the University tends to bungle its public relations operation. The Media Relations office continually informed us that GW was meeting with community interest groups to solicit their opinions regarding the proposal. Largely, these meetings took place in hopes that these groups won’t raise hell once the plans are finalized (wishful thinking).

However, the implicit message sent – unintentionally, no doubt – is that these community groups had a much larger “vote” in the eventual outcome than did anyone directly affiliated with the school. From my understanding of the process, this isn’t necessarily true, but you wouldn’t know it from reading the press releases.

GW is able to make its position clear, though, when it wants to. Vice President Michael Freedman’s lucid, thorough e-mail sent regarding the status of the 2006 Commencement should be used as a model for all future communications coming from University officials. Freedman patiently explained the University’s situation, discussed the available options and outlined how the University would proceed to reach its final decision.

I’m still waiting on the e-mail explaining how the University will proceed with the Square 54 plans. I’m also still waiting on an explanation of why we are exploring a four-by-four curriculum; I personally know why, but most students and faculty haven’t a clue. Doesn’t Vice President Lehman recognize that his proposal has utterly no chance of being debated on its merits if the community doesn’t understand why it is being discussed to begin with? Lehman disseminated the committee roster and then let idle speculation fill in the details – perhaps imperiling the very project which would best combat the present academic malaise.

There are two reasons why the University ought to care more about dispelling its negative image.

The first is in order to garner respect among peer institutions. The prestige of any university is relative to the respect afforded it by its fellow universities. Obviously, most institutions are going to look down on a school which is reputed for projecting itself as a business – perhaps this might account for GW’s perennially low Peer Assessment Score in the U.S. News rankings.

But there is also a more fundamental issue at play here – a question of morale. The last thing the University should want is to engender a sense of intellectual apathy. Yet, by allowing a business mindset to permeate the climate, GW has permitted – indeed, invited – students and faculty alike to question their very participation in this nominally academic enterprise.

Obviously, years of accumulated perceptions and assumptions cannot be washed away overnight, but there are some practical, immediate solutions.

The following memo needs to be sent to all departments: students are not “customers.” Referring to them as such only reinforces the business mentality – as if we are mere clients purchasing a service.

Also, officials should use e-mail more often to update students and faculty on general University concerns. Believe it or not, there are some students who care more about the status of GW than the status of “Crossfire.” Or at least they ought to.

-The writer, a sophomore majoring in English, is a Hatchet columnist.

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