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Student voices welcome on policy changes

Mills College students issued a call for transparency and a voice in campus decisions following unexpected staff layoffs last semester. At the beginning of this semester, the Division of Student Life (DSL) notified all students of 14 behavioral policy changes and invited
their feedback.

This invitation marks a shift in DSL’s commitment to include more student input on the Student Handbook, which details Community Standards all students are responsible for knowing and following.

“What I really want students to know,” Dr. Angela Batista, Associated Dean of Students, said, “is that the Dean of Student Life and I are really committed to making sure students are informed, part of the process and really have the opportunity to offer their feedback, to share their concerns. I’m hoping that a lot of students will really take the chance to read the new and
updated policy.”

Policy updates and additions run the gamut from weapons possession and dorm parties, to nude sunbathing and stalking. In a Jan 18 email, all students were asked to review the new standards and email Batista with feedback or questions.

In the month since, Batista has only heard from one student about a single policy change.

“Students are always welcome to give feedback,” Batista said. “Whether students feel comfortable going to an ASMC meeting, sending an email, calling or coming by my office — I’m happy to talk to students about what they
think. Absolutely.”

Senior Jessica Naimark read the Jan 18 Student Handbook email last month, but didn’t feel the need to provide feedback. She didn’t have a problem with the policy changes.

The new Dining Hall Policy, for example, prohibits dining area “disturbances,” like throwing food or destroying property.

“The fact that they needed to say that is a little bit worrisome. I personally haven’t experienced any students throwing food,” Naimark said laughing, “especially since we’re an environmentally and socially conscious school. Wasting food unnecessarily seems kind of  against our whole ethic.”

The Fireworks/Firearms/Weapons Policy update — “No person, unless excepted as described, shall carry any rifle, gun, knife, weapon or ammunition of any kind on Mills College property” — also seemed a bit surprising to Naimark.

“Is that really an update?” Naimark said. “Was that ever really allowed here?”

Policy changes aren’t necessarily made in reaction to actual campus problems, though. Batista said policy-making is actually a more proactive process.

“We are proactively looking at what are the things that could come up and how do we best set the community to be on the same page about our expectations and how we support each other,” Batista said. “And that’s really what the standards are about. I really don’t want people to feel, ‘Oh, these policies are in place. It must be that things are happening.’ Not at all.”

The policies are standard on most college campuses as well, Batista said. More often than not the updates and additions mean that the College is simply aligning itself with state and city requirements, as is the case with the Weapons Policy update.

Having heard Batista’s explanation, Naimark said that the College’s move towards standardization is very important. She was also happy that DSL is becoming more intentional about considering students’ voices.

The challenge, Naimark said, lies in bridging the communication gap between students and administration.

“I think there’s definitely a disconnect here at Mills,” Naimark said. “I think it’s been difficult, especially through all these transitions. I don’t honestly think the administration was trying to do anything wrong. They were making some necessary changes, and I think because of this disconnect it looks a certain way to the student population.”

Email might not be the best vehicle for meaningful student-administration communication, Naimark said.

“Mills students are so busy. They don’t read email anymore. They don’t,” Naimark said. “I hate bringing social media into this, but I know I get a lot of my information on Mills through Facebook these days. So maybe some sort of page that would invite students to give their feedback would be a good idea.”

Naimark is the Mary Atkins Lounge Community Assistant and can empathize with DSL’s attempt to gauge the needs of the student community it serves.

“Sometimes I worry about how good of a job I’m doing,” Naimark said, referring to her community assistant position. “It’s hard for me to get enough feedback and know whether I’m doing a good job. So I can definitely appreciate that the administration’s doing their job and we’re doing our job here as students. Sometimes it’s hard to find the time and means to bridge that.”

Sophomore Brenda Gonzalez has made it her mission to bridge that very gap. As ASMC Judicial Chair, she serves students as a liaison between them and the people who write and enforce behavioral policy.

Gonzalez is working closely with Batista to bring more student voices to the campus conversation about policy — and she said she is intent on encouraging input from students not already on the ASMC executive board and senate. She has already begun brainstorming outreach efforts like student news posts and fliers. And, although a more systemic opportunity for student feedback is just getting organized, Gonzalez has been having informal conversations with classmates about behavior policy complaints and questions since last year.

Students might have been too busy to review this semester’s policy updates, but Gonzalez said it is important for fellow students to be proactive and aware of what is going on with their education and campus services.

“It’s also important for students to provide feedback and input on the services that they receive,” Gonzalez said. “There might be a policy that could affect a student’s academic and personal life. It’s important that we give chances for students to speak up so that they can receive better opportunities to succeed at Mills College.”

Gonzalez remembers well the students’ demand for transparency last semester.

“We are trying to break these barriers between the higher authorities and the students,” she said. “Last semester we had a big issue around transparency. I’m trying to help with that as well. I feel that student voices should be heard. We’re trying to provide better resources so that students don’t feel hurt. We don’t want what happened last semester to happen again. We’re trying to ensure students’ voice in the Student Handbook because policies are big issues. They’re what make up Mills College.”