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Out of Order: A different kind of bubble

For some time now, I’ve been preoccupied with Grinnell’s use of consultants. I think this preoccupation makes sense: in the first place, consultants are expensive, and I’m paying special attention to Grinnell’s use of its money given the ongoing financial aid discussions; and in the second place, Grinnell has retained the services of several consultants, most recently Crane MetaMarketing, in a very visible way over the last few years. 

I mention Crane because it is a recent, recognizable example of a consulting firm Grinnell has hired. But Crane is only one in a litany of consultants who have come to campus over the time that I have been here. We have hired consultants on the website, admissions, Title IX compliance, alcohol policy—the list of consultants goes on.

However, if a Grinnell student wants to actually look at such a list, that student will likely not know how to find that list, or if such a list exists. When writing this column, I certainly didn’t: I sent one email to the one member of staff in the Office of the President whom I know, which wasn’t returned. Eventually, I resorted to asking President Kington himself during his open office hour at the Grill, who told me that there was such a list, but that it was confidential.

Consultants are problem-solvers. They use data from peer institutions to make their case for a solution to a problem that we pay them to solve. What does it say about us as an institution that, when presented with a vexing problem, we would rather hire someone else to solve the problem for us than work on it ourselves? Does it say that Grinnell is short-staffed? Data from Analytic Support and Institutional Research does not support this conclusion. Does it suggest that we seek expert opinions to achieve optimal results? This is a definite, less sinister possibility. Or does it show that, when we have big problems to solve, we would rather not solve them and instead prefer to pay others to do it for us?

However, to turn such a question the other way, what does it say about our institution that I feel entitled to ask such a question? What Grinnellian values are reflected by the fact that I approached the President of the College and asked pointed questions about internal affairs? How could I, a third-year History major with no experience in higher education administration, have the audacity to assume that Grinnell would make public the internal documents that I’ve described?

In my time at Grinnell, I have sharpened my skills in critical thinking, argumentation and reasoning. I have been instructed to ceaselessly question the world around me, not to passively accept statements because I am told they are so. But I have also come to understand the value of my ability to live out those values here. To be hypercritical of the administration, to play a major role in faculty tenure decisions and to be included in discussions on matters ranging from financial aid to alcohol abuse—these are unique opportunities not often found elsewhere, and I appreciate that Grinnell has provided me with a “bubble” in which to live out those values. In these columns, I have grilled everything and everyone from the Office of Communications to the Chair of the Board of Trustees, and I have been allowed and even encouraged to do so. That’s pretty special.

But to return to the topic of consultants: while I have used my ability to question internal affairs as an example of why I love Grinnell, I don’t mean to suggest that I am anything less than serious about such questioning. Grinnell has hired a lot of consultants in recent years, and I believe their hiring warrants inspection. Indeed, I was surprised at President Kington’s very defensive responses to questions I had worked hard to make neutral. The different kind of Grinnell bubble that I’ve described, the one that allows and encourages questioning, is a great thing, but we must not let that bubble’s potential go unused.

Of course, it is possible that in the world of higher education, every college does this. 

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  • G

    grinnell college studentMay 2, 2014 at 10:24 pm

    ya know, if you’re so aware you live in a bubble, perhaps it’s best to not overstep the boundaries that the administration wants you to respect.

    it is the same administration that is constructing and maintaining the bubble. asking for more autonomy than what is allowed in the bubble is a frivolous pursuit.

    but i’m not saying that a Grinnell College student trying to hold the administration accountable is bad or an act that oversteps any boundaries. in some cases, it’s ok.

    the administration’s job is to foster a healthy, happy environment in which every student feels safe. when it comes to res life and academic affairs and issues concerning diversity and safety, the administration SHOULD listen to the students because we know what helps us feel safe, do better in school, and live happier lives. it benefits ALL Grinnellians to have discussions on campus and student groups that represent our needs.

    but let’s not pretend the school or the students here would have benefited from you getting that list of consulting firms.