A Sad and Insulting Excuse for Student Input

Date: March 28, 2016 6:03 pm
Author: Yechiel Schwab

As consumers of the college experience with a vested interest in our institution’s success, students offer a unique and important perspective on the inner workings of our University. But despite the easy availability of this valuable viewpoint, many decisions in this University are conducted with little or no student input. YCSA President Josh Nagel’s article from two issues ago, “The Yeshiva College Student Senate,” and Shai Berman’s article from last issue, “The Search for YU’s Next President: Exclusion, Priorities, and (Limited) Progress” both discuss the lack of student input in many administrative decisions. In both pieces, the administrators quoted defended their decisions by noting the logistical obstacles involved in soliciting the student voice. But, as they say, where there’s a will there’s a way — the administration’s unwillingness to push and overcome these obstacles displays the limited value they place on student input. Far worse than this undervaluation of student opinion was the presidential search survey sent out by Provost Botman and Chairman Straus, which showed almost zero interest in obtaining a student perspective on this important issue.

Berman’s article mentioned this survey, noting that in an attempt to console students who feel routinely ignored, the Presidential Search Committee would send out a survey to get a feel for what the students expect from their next president. However, the content and manner of the survey did not allow for genuine student input and only served to demonstrate that the survey was most likely sent simply to placate students rather than to sincerely seek their viewpoint.

In terms of the structure of the survey, the form incorporated no built-in verification system, allowing anyone who possessed the link to the survey, even if they had no connection to Yeshiva University, to submit a response. Moreover, there was no limit to the number of responses any given individual could submit, so students, or, for that matter, anyone with access to the survey, could submit as many answers as they pleased. While for student elections the Office of Student Life uses a system which requires students to verify their status and many other surveys prevent multiple responses, it seems that the Chairman of the Board of Trustees and the Office of the Provost do not have access to the types of funds and technological infrastructure available to the Office of Student Life. Or, in less charitable moods, we might more realistically posit that the administration expended minimal effort into this survey since they were not sincerely interested in gathering student input.

The questions on the survey only further highlight the casual indifference that characterizes this survey. Standard surveys offer response options based off the Likert Scale, a five to seven point scale of responses scientifically shown to elicit more accurate results. A simple perusal of almost any other survey conducted at this university, from the class evaluation forms conducted by the Dean’s Office, to the Library Survey, the Writing Center surveys, the Honors Council surveys, and so many more, confirms the ubiquity of the five point scale. Indeed, most of these surveys were created in conjunction with professors at this University who specialize in survey design and analysis. These five-point scale surveys allow respondents to analyze the questions and offer nuanced responses without confounding them with too many options. In contrast, the presidential search survey only offered three options, ranging from a “large extent” to “some extent” to “not at all.” This severely limited the students’ ability to accurately offer their opinion on these questions.

Additionally, the structure of the questions, or rather question, once again demonstrate the minimal effort involved in this survey. The survey used one question, “To what extent should the next YU President demonstrate these characteristics?”, and then offered twelve characteristics allowing students to choose the extent to which the next president should exemplify each of these qualities. If the creators of this survey had bothered to consult with someone about polling, or simply even read the question, they would have known that the formulation of this question is non-conducive to polling and somewhat misleading.  As formulated, the respondent is offered twelve characteristics and chooses the President’s ideal expertise in each area. To respond “to no extent” to one of these questions would then imply that you actively wish the President did not contain this attribute. So for instance, unless you reject the University’s motto of Torah U’Madda, there would be no reason to not respond “large extent” for the President’s academic background, since, in an ideal world, of course our next President would be knowledgeable and scholarly. Presumably, what the question meant to ask was not “to what extent,” but rather “how important is it that the next YU President demonstrate these characteristics?” In that case, students who believe in the importance of Torah U’Madda but think that academia is not a vital qualification for President could express their opinion in this survey. This question only becomes more ridiculous for categories like “alumnus of YU” — what does it mean to ask “to what extent should the next YU President be an alumnus of YU?” Maybe they meant to ask whether our next President should wear his or her YU hoodie sweatshirt every day, or only on weekends. A similar analysis can be performed on most of the other twelve characteristics. Amazingly, faced with the daunting and grueling task of creating one logical question, the creators of this survey fell short.

The current presidential search process will determine the path and the future of our University for years to come. The Search Committee must take this obligation seriously, and dutifully represent all the stakeholders of this University. They should be actively seeking out input from all interested bodies–from diverse perspectives–and not simply from other Board Members. As stakeholders and possessors of a valuable perspective, students have a right to a voice in this monumental decision. The survey sent out by this committee is a sad and insulting excuse for student input. With the future of our University at stake, we must do better.

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This post was written by Yechiel Schwab

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