Student representation is key to presidential search

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Through a brief glance at the Carnegie Mellon University main webpage, one will assuredly realize the emphasis that the university places on “diversity and inclusion” as one of its core values for the academic community.

“A diverse and inclusive community is the foundation for excellence in research, creativity, and human development, and is therefore at the core of our mission as a university,” states Interim President Farnam Jahanian, as displayed on the university webpage.

The website also references research supporting its commitment to diversity and inclusion. “Studies show that when diverse groups look at issues they often come up with better solutions to problems, especially complex problems,” it states.

However, while such “diversity and inclusion” is repeatedly stressed in the academic domain, we unfortunately observe a different picture in the community we live in and experience, especially regarding how much voice students have in the major decisions that affect the student body as a whole.

The newly proposed add-drop deadline, for instance, as tackled in the student government column of the last issue of The Tartan, demonstrates the unwillingness of several faculty members and university officials to implement the student input they received. A shortened add-drop deadline significantly and negatively impacts the lives of all members of the Carnegie Mellon student body: the voices of students expressed through their student government and through the open forum were silenced.

As such, with these impending changes to the student experience and the seemingly increasing occurrence of the exclusion of students from major decisions, it is even more important for students to have a significant voice in the presidential search.

“The president of the university plays an unparalleled role in defining and executing the strategic vision of the university,” said Sushain Cherivirala, Vice Chair of the Undergraduate Senate, in an interview with The Tartan. “From establishing groups such as the Task Force for the CMU Experience to spearheading fundraising efforts and directing how funds are distributed, the president's actions echo throughout the community. Finding a president that will support and understand the vital needs of students, balancing them against those of other campus stakeholders, is invaluable,” he added.

Indeed, the next university president must have a comprehensive understanding of the student experience at Carnegie Mellon. The president must be able to empathize with the common challenges that students face and be able to work with all members of the community to enhance the university experience. Such qualities in a president, however, are difficult, or even impossible, to consistently advocate for without representation on the Presidential Search Committee.

Rendering the voices of 14,528 students to a few discussions with student government representatives and two 45-minute fora, the Presidential Search Committee has been opaque at best in regards to the collection and their intended use of student input in the Presidential Search.

“The Presidential Search Committee’s student forums are appreciated but unfortunately, not nearly sufficient,” commented Cherivirala. “While gathering the input of students through fora is vital, the resulting sentiments are often forgotten and overshadowed when the stakeholders in question, students, are not present when highly impactful decisions are rendered… Without our presence, the Search Committee is missing out on having the voice of informed students help guide its decisions, and as I have witnessed many times at both the university and local education level, is liable to making preventable mistakes.”

Such sentiments were the primary points of contention at the 5 p.m. open student forum last Wednesday, Oct. 25. Numerous students, including doctorate, masters, and undergraduate students, repeatedly questioned the Board of Trustees’ decision to effectively exclude students from the Presidential Search Committee. Citing the values of “diversity and inclusion” and persistently expressing the need for student representation on the committee, students demonstrated their unity in the face of a common challenge. At one point, Tod Johnson, the Trustee Co-Chair of the Presidential Search Committee, responded that time would be better spent on listening to what students want to see in their next president rather than debating the issue of student representation. Several students who came up to the mic after Mr. Johnson’s remarks ignored his request, continuing to press the necessity of representation to the trustees and faculty members that sat before them.

As a student body, we must continue to push for student representation on the Presidential Search Committee, for it is the only channel through which our voices will not be forgotten. Representation, as unrealistic as it may seem, is the only true process of inclusion of the largest constituency in the Carnegie Mellon community — the students. As we progress to become a forward-thinking institution, we should first look to our community and see how forward-thinking our administrative procedures and processes are.

"I will add that it is neither impractical nor unnecessary to have student representation on the committee as evidenced by many of our peer institutions," discussed Cherivirala. "Regardless, we should continue working with the Search Committee and Board of Trustees in a non-adversarial manner, demonstrating to them the value of our contributions to this process rather than attempting to force their hand."