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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Feven Getachew
Feven Getachew
May 6, 2024
Michael Lozada
Michael Lozada
May 6, 2024
Nathan Hoffman
Nathan Hoffman
May 6, 2024
Harvey Wilhelm `24.
Harvey Wilhelm
May 6, 2024

Self-Gov is love

What is the actual definition of self-gov?

Self-governance is a uniquely Grinnellian tradition, but unlike other philosophies, the real-world applications of self-governance are fluid. Back when the campus housing was separated by gender, students made decisions during dorm councils on topics such as opposite gender visiting hours. While now self-governance is utilized in other aspects, the general idea is still there. “There are, most likely, as many definitions as there are people at this College,” said Dean of Students Travis Greene.

Trying to define self-governance is tricky, but the best way to understand self-governance is in practice. The utilization of self-governance in our daily lives isn’t something students usually notice, but it is everywhere. The fact that the open curriculum allows students to take that amazing painting class regardless of major, having a College president who is willing to talk to students and hear their problems, the fact that Student Advisors aren’t mandated to report students for activites that wouldn’t fly at other colleges, that peers will approach you about turning down the Britney album we all know you are blasting at 2:00 a.m. instead of doing homework, and more importantly the sense of independence that you have in this supporting community—yes, self-governance is in practice.

For SGA Vice President of Student Affairs-Elect Ben Offenberg ’11, self-governance involves “the actions of the community working peacefully, you don’t have to run to someone to solve problems. The biggest tenets of self-governance are respect and accountability.” In addition to determining relationships on campus, self-governance builds on basic values. “A lot of self-governance is common sense,” Offenberg said. “You’re not going light a building on fire and say, ‘Self-governance.’”

President Russell K. Osgood did not see any policy resembling self-governance before coming to Grinnell and it was one of the things that drew him here. “We are kind of a city on the hill, self-governance is not perfect, but we don’t have the problems like peer institutions because students do a good job of taking care of each other and making sure that their fellow students are okay,” Osgood said.

Vice President for Student Affairs Houston Dougharty also emphasizes the uniqueness. “Grinnell is significantly different than 98 percent of colleges,” Dougharty said.

WhoWhatWhenWhereWhyHow: The history of self-gov:

It is hard to precisely identify the beginning of self-governance. Ken Christiansen, Biology, who came to Grinnell in 1956, remembers, “there has always been a great deal of democracy at this institution.” At the opposite end of the instructional spectrum, Leda Hoffman ’09, who is completing a history MAP on self-governance and has read the S&B since its founding, asserts that “self-governance starts in the beginning.”

Hoffman has found references to self-governance in the bulletin language of the first dorms. It was first dubbed “self-government” and has had various names since then.

Inviting students into the residence halls has brought many struggles beginning with curfews and continuing today with alcohol. Back in the day, student boards were established to keep Grinnell classmates from coming home too late at night or having illegal visitation. Violators could earn more hours on their graduation requirements or even a weeklong suspension, depending on the severity of their case and the seriousness of the students trying them. While these punishments may seem extreme today, the process of student-led regulation mirrors systems that still exist on campus such as the Judicial Council (JudCo).

Christiansen, who has seen residence life policies liberalize over the past few decades, adds “students were much more rigorous in their reporting.” Hoffman explains that “students always bought into the idea that we need to regulate our community. For example, the Hall President was not a tool or too loose.”

In the 1960’s, an SGA referendum sanctioned Hall Presidents to declare “home-rule” about male-female visitation—eventually leading the College President to follow suit.

But it was not until the early 1990’s that self-governance achieved its own section in the Student Handbook. While the term had been used in this publication for years beforehand, it was never categorized as a fully-sanctioned College policy.

“The term self-governance floats around student handbooks,” Hoffman said. “It was a philosophy that people talked about happening separately but is not articulated.” Today, students and administrators still struggle to nail-down exactly what self-governance is, but it is important not to forget its’ “timeless existence.”

Students and faculty: self-gov in the classroom:

When discussing self-governance, academics don’t necessarily come to the forefront of people’s minds, but self-governance principles are embedded in Grinnell’s academic policies. “Self-governance also fits with the overall academic philosophy,” Osgood said.

The close student-faculty relationships clearly demonstrate how self-governance appears in the classroom setting. Faculty, such as Max Leung, Sociology, actively seek to further incorporate the communicative and communal aspects of self-governance into their syllabi and discussions. “It’s more than just getting feedback but also allowing students to improve and invest in the course,” Leung said.

Often, students feel comfortable approaching faculty about issues beyond just what they are learning. After a professor wrote student exam scores in a public location, SGA Vice President of Academic Affairs-Elect Joanna DeMars ’10 thought this action was “unnecessary and potentially hurtful” so she went directly to the professor with “the expectation that he would understand this and talk to me about it at the very least.”

Professors are always encouraged to work with students. “It is definitely something members of the College promoted as a distinct feature,” Leung said. “There is a more in-depth introduction to the culture of Grinnell, [and] students came to talk to us.”

Some believe that this connection between self-governance and academics is coincidental, not purposeful. “Self-governance ties to other institutions such as the open curriculum,” Leung said.

Similarly to in student life, self-governance in academics does not mean endless freedom. “You cannot decide to not have a major or go abroad for three terms,” Osgood said. Still, only having one required class is a lot of freedom.

The shared approach to school work also embodies self-governance. “At Grinnell, I do not feel competitive with my fellow classmates and we really value working together,” Demars said. “Helping each other out is not necessarily a governing thing but the sense of community that comes out of that.”

While the overlap of self-governance and academics is very direct for Hoffman, she has found that all Grinnellians can gain intellectual development from self-governance both in and out of the classroom. “There has always been the idea that self-governance is important for education so that they can learn about governing themselves,” Hoffman said.

Self-governance and the law:

One of the common misconceptions about self-governance is that you can do what you want, when you want, regardless of state and federal policies. In reality, these rules must be remembered and respected despite the flexibility self-governance allows our community.

Many discussions about self-governance revolve around the campus’ alcohol policy. Since parties are student-supervised, either by fellow partiers or ACE Security for larger affairs, self-governance is necessary to keep everyone safe and happy.

Former SGA President Chris Hall ’07 worked closely with the administration on the alcohol and drug policies while serving on SGA. “A lot of the strengths of Grinnell’s alcohol and drug policy is that it is not in writing,” Hall said. “You don’t want something written in black and white in the student handbook.”

Regardless of the flexibility that self-governance allows, laws still exist for the college and state; “The law understands that there is some discretion especially when no one is in danger,” Osgood said. Our community decisions must be mindful of laws. Thus, making the legality of self-governance is extremely complex and situational.

Two years ago, students, administrators, and police held discussions about an in-house drug policy. “The overall intent of the policy is never to liberalize our drug policy completely—it would only consider pot and only in small amounts. We agreed to one-eighth of an ounce or less,” Hall said. “[Former Vice President of Student Affairs Tom] Crady and I worked closely with [Chief of Police] Jody Matherly in order to not offend anyone outside of Grinnell. GPD [Grinnell Police Department] was there for pretty much every step of the discussion.” The policy never got passed the college lawyers, but was an interesting discussion.

The College has some discretion on when to trigger the law in alcohol-related incidents. “If an RLC sees a student with one-third of a cup of beer, I think it’s okay for them to tell them to just pour it out, but on the other hand we couldn’t let a minor with a 100 gallon keg walk around Mac Field, that’s a problem,” Osgood said. He added that the law understands there is some discretion when an offense is minor and no threat to public safety.

Not everything functions in terms of legality, but instead, in terms of safety. An example is weapons. The College is liable for allowing someone to have a weapon and if someone gets hurt. The College has obligations that rest on top of self-governance, like banning weapons. Still, when anyone, student or staff, spots a dangerously inebriated person they have at least a moral obligation to step in, no matter their age, and offer help, but not to “report” them. “We live within a lot of gray,” Dougharty said.

Self-Gov: where do we go from here?

Self-governance is surely not dying, but there is often concern that self-governance is somehow withering away. “No one is trying to snatch away authority from students, it is simply not true though there seems to be a lot of paranoia,” Osgood said. “The thought of the College regulating your every decision is simply not feasible. I think that college is a time of independence.”

“Over the years I have seen self-governance less emphasized than it used to be from student to student,” SGA Films Chair Jeff Sinick ’09 said. “Upperclassmen used to present and use the philosophy of self-governance to new students. It used to be more pressing then it is now, but some of it has to do with the College transitioning and less institutional memory.”

Despite the changes and evolution of self-governance, students, and administrators continue to promote self-governance and help students at-large to utilize self-governance to the fullest.

A student committee has updated the GrinnellWiki with a guide on self-governance, which is more a structure than a series of guidelines about self-governance. The handbook was written in order to address lack of information, and to empower students to use self-governance.

Work is underway on providing more self-governance information to incoming students during New Student Orientation. “We are working on doing a better job to help students understand self-governance,” Dougharty said.
Dougharty explained that the administration is keeping self-governance in mind when picking RLCs. “We are trying to focus our attention on finding candidates that help foster self-governance and helping them visualize how a self-governing community works,” Dougharty said. “We then get candidates like Andrea Conner from Bard College who was drawn to Grinnell because of self-governance.”

Dougharty said students who believe self-governance is dying should get more involved in SGA committees, to apply to become an SA, and in general take advantage of opportunities on campus to have your voice heard and to promote self-governance.

“Self-governance is not dead. Self-governance is always changing, and students could be doing a better job not landing in the hospital for alcohol poisoning, which is an individual and community self-governance failure that injures the trust in ourselves,” said SGA President-Elect Harry Krejsa ’10. “This common misconception that self-governance is dead is destructive. “That is why we need to provide education of the resources and continue to build our system based on trust.”

In his role as an SA, Ragnar Thorisson ’11 tries to make self-governance as non-hierarchal as possible. “I view myself as another student on the floor, but when it comes down to it, SAs are there for when self-governance ultimately breaks down, there are times that there needs to be a mediator because of perceived authority someone might listen to us over their roommate or another,” Thorisson said. “It’s a big privilege that we get to define our own community here at Grinnell and that involves active engagement from everyone for that to work.”

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