Fireside Chats Installment I: Transparency

Beginning on October 30, 2014, the Echo will release a monthly installment featuring an interview with President David A. Greene. Each interview will cover a particular topic or issue related to the Colby community. Fireside Chats is aimed at keeping the Colby community, both on and off campus, informed about President Greene’s ideas for the future of the College, as well as to provide a line of communication between Echo readers and the Administration. The editorial staff of the Echo welcomes any topics, issues, or concerns that the Colby community may want President Greene to address. To send suggestions, e-mail Features Editor Carli Jaff at crjaff@colby.edu.

Echo: Tell me about your ideas for transparency and how you think that you might want to make the administration more transparent with the student body in order to make a more collaborative decision making process going forward.

President Greene: I think that’s the key. The key for me is: do we have a good process for engaging our community in decision-making? That’s probably the most important thing for transparency. When people understand how decisions are made, when they have a voice in decisions—they tend to feel better about those decisions even if they don’t agree at times with the outcome. And there are always going to be decisions where individuals don’t agree with the outcome, but if there’s a chance to really weigh in on it, and if there’s an opportunity for people to truly be heard, then I think it makes for better decision-making. And it leads to a transparency in the process that, I think, brings a lot of buy-ins into where the institution is going.

E: Do you think, even though you weren’t here, that there was a problem with transparency previously?

PG: I don’t know because I wasn’t here. I’ve never been at a place where there wasn’t a call for more transparency, so I don’t think that it’s unusual for institutions to always struggle with issues of collaborative decision-making. It’s hard to get it right. That’s the reality of it. But taking shared governance seriously is an important part in all of it.

So, one of the things that we’ve just done with approval of the faculty and student government is created this Committee on Mission and Priorities. The idea of that committee is to have a representative group of students, faculty and staff who are working together to think about the long term needs and opportunities for the College, so that it’s not just me doing that, or just some very small group doing it, but a representative group that’s thinking in a nuanced and challenging way about where can the College make key investments, how should it allocate its resources, and where are the most promising opportunities for the College going forward.

That, I think, will be a very important committee and it’s one way of being more transparent. Now in reality, it will maybe have a dozen to 15 people on it, so it’s not the entire campus. So, part of the challenge of transparency is: how do you have this representative system where others who are not the representatives still feel like they’re part of the decision-making process? And that’s a challenge. So I think we’re going to have to think about how we communicate the work of that group.

Another group I’m trying to set up right now is what I’m calling the President’s Staff Advisory Council. And the idea there is to make sure that staff have direct access to the president and that staff is involved in decision-making in important ways. And so, creating that is another way of trying to be more transparent. But, that too will have 15 members, so it’s not talking to the entire staff. But I hope that the group will host meetings of the entire staff so that we can have conversations about things and just keep working at it, keep trying to find venues for us to have conversations about issues at the College, where things are going, how we can strengthen our community, and so forth.

E: I think a lot of people are curious about the definition of transparency… How would you define transparency?

PG: It’s a tough one. It’s fair for people to ask. For me, it’s about collaborative, shared decision-making at the College, and open communication about things. There are always going to be issues that are sensitive and should be kept confidential, and not everybody can have access to all of the information at the College. And that creates a tension around issues of confidentiality and openness and transparency. I think that’s a tension that will continue to exist, and we’ll have to continue to work through it, but in the end, I think the best way to be transparent in the way that I understand people calling for it is being true to our principles of shared governance. You know, really engaging students, faculty, and staff in decision-making at the College and sharing a lot of information about why we’re doing what we’re doing. And I think if we do that, it will help. But that tension is likely to continue to exist at some level.

E: How are you hoping that being transparent as the administration will hopefully trickle down to the Student Government Assciation (SGA)?

PG: I take the work of SGA very seriously, and the leadership of SGA that I’ve gotten to know is terrific. It seems that we have very strong leadership there, people who are very concerned about the College, and people who are really trying to do the right thing. So that seems to me a real plus. And I do think that my relationship and the administration’s relationship overall with SGA is really important in this, in that there should always be the case for SGA leadership—and for students in general—to feel like they have a way of getting their opinions heard on issues and being involved in decision-making in very real, meaningful ways. So that piece I’m very committed to.

The way I think about this overall is that many of the decisions that we make as an institution have no particular right or wrong answer—there are lots of different ways that we could go. And, some are ultimately better than others for sure, but which direction we should take and which one is going to be the best direction for us in that moment is probably determined best by having a lot of different perspectives involved in thinking through that decision.

The more opportunities we create for individuals with different perspectives and different experiences to be able to work through issues in a candid way, the better decisions we’ll make. They won’t all be perfect. Some of them may end up being bad decisions. But, most of them will end up being much better than they would have been had we left it up to one or two individuals or a small group to make. So, that’s the way I think about it. I think that just as a means of operating in an ongoing way, it’s really important to me that we keep finding ways for individuals to be engaged, to share information, and ultimately, to do the hard work of deliberating and focusing on issues and deciding on a particular outcome.

Groups have different responsibilities at the same time. One of the questions that came up last year last year when I was up here for a meeting was transparency with the Board of Trustees. It’s always important to remember that the Board has a very particular role in all of this from a governance standpoint. The Board is really focused on long-term strategic issues of the College and Board members have a fiduciary role to ensure that the College is healthy going forward. The Board, however, is not involved in day-to-day decision-making at the College and hiring and firing. So there are a lot of things that I think that students look to the Board and say, “We want the Board to be more transparent about ‘X,’” when “X” is an issue that the Board really isn’t engaged in. And that’s often an issue that the Administration is engaged in.

So, I think trying to make sure that we are clearer about roles and responsibilities of different groups, whether it’s the Committee on Mission and Priorities or the Board of Trustees or SGA or the Administration or the faculty, I think that is actually going to be helpful as well in terms of helping people to understand what transparency might mean for us to be able to have a more helpful discussion around these issues.

E: How do you hope to be transparent with so many people that aren’t on this campus, such as parents and alumni, that want to have a say and want to know what’s going on?

PG: When I came here on July 1st, I wrote to all members of the campus community, including alumni, parents and others and said that I would be interested in hearing their perspective on any issues related to Colby. I received hundreds of e-mail responses; it was great. I responded to all of them. And I continue to receive responses from parents and alumni all the time. I received several today about various issues.

I’ve been on the road—I was in Boston and New York, I’m going to San Francisco, Chicago, Portland, London, Washington, D.C. and Denver, and I’ll be meeting with alum throughout the country and in other parts of the world. And I will say the same thing to them there: I am open to hearing their perspective. I want to—it helps me understand Colby as an institution better. The thoughts and experiences of this community are very important to me, and it helps me understand them when I hear from people.

So, one of the things I’ve been doing is just really trying to open that up. I’m also trying to get my opinion out there in various ways. So, one of the things I’m doing is writing a piece in the Colby Magazine each time that it’s published as a way of hopefully provoking some more conversation about issues.

I think that the openness is important. The other piece I find very helpful to me is just being visible and available on campus. The office hours have been great—students have come in with a lot of interesting issues. But, I learn as much when I go to a volleyball match or a football game or walk into the dining hall as I do from structured meetings because people come up to me and just talk to me and I go up to people and I just talk to them, and people share their thoughts.

I think the way that we engage with one another—sometimes through formal structures, but a lot of it is through the informal interactions that are often the most genuine interactions—is another form of transparency and a way of creating an environment where we can have conversations about things.

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