Larger than Campus Life

When planning to cut the endowment avail by an additional $8.5 million for 2010-11, senior staff and President Schapiro should take a long, hard look at the Office of Campus Life. As an office, it has failed to live up to the College’s standards of efficiency, creative vitality and dependability. The recent 20 percent budget cut and the elimination of the residential life coordinator (RLC) position have been both fiscally prudent decisions and appropriate steps towards downsizing that should continue, so that the office can achieve the kind of excellence and productivity that the staff are capable of and that students deserve.
Some have cited Campus Life’s mere six years of existence as the reason for its continued struggle to find its place on campus. In the past few years, Campus Life has reshuffled and restructured repeatedly, but at some point, we have to ask whether these are just pails of water thrown over the deck of an already sinking Titanic: temporary flashes of hope in a big picture of futility.

Many of Campus Life’s problems are troublingly glaring. In a Record article several weeks ago, (“Campus Life: Evolving role, uncertain future,” March 4, 2009), Paresky information center employees who do secretarial work in Campus Life reported that often there are no staff in the office; they are on long lunch breaks or a mid-semester vacation or have gone home early. Students who work with Campus Life often complain of unnecessary frustrations and alienation from the concerns of the student body. It is often unclear how precisely each member of Campus Life spends his or her time, with the entire Office receiving a broadly vague mandate.

Additionally, even the Dean’s Office acknowledges the Campus Life budget as prime for cuts: Unlike critical functions such as Health Services and Campus Safety and Security, many Campus Life appendages are non-essential to actual student life at the College.

While disconcerting, this evocative image of inefficiency also presents an opportunity to imagine the ideal Campus Life that we would like to see. The economic downturn and the budget cuts that necessarily follow from it provide the incentive to translate this dream of organization and efficiency into a new reality – a well-oiled machine that genuinely works towards an ideal life on campus for students.

Working in an office that is under yearly restructuring, Campus Life personnel have demonstrated flexibility and the ability to absorb new responsibilities. For the 2008-09 academic year, the office consolidated its four campus life coordinators (CLC) positions into one student activities coordinator (SAC) and one RLC, so that the rest of the staff absorbed the work of two employees. The elimination of the RLC position after the end of the current term this summer will be another step in consolidating the work done in the office to create a less bureaucratic, more useful and capable campus tool.

Often office personnel spend their time pointing students towards the right form to fill out in order to plan an event or apply for a position. If all of this information were available on the Campus Life Web site, then employees would be able to play the role of active advisor and stop being merely helpful arrows. The task of booking rooms for events, too, could be relegated to a computer with only marginal human oversight if the online EMS system were actually functional, reliable and always up-to-date.

Campus Life’s problems, of course, are not necessarily a comment on the people who fill the positions. Campus Life employees are on the whole an enthusiastic, kind and invigorated group of people. They mean well and want to help but are repeatedly constrained by systemic problems.

Those problems notwithstanding, Campus Life does serve some vital functions. A lot of the best work that Campus Life personnel accomplish is offering guidance and suggestions to students for event and party planning. The work they do to coordinate housing is also absolutely indispensable. An incremental downsizing in staff over the next several years would realize this ideal dynamic of student autonomy and close managerial oversight. With one staff member focusing on student events and party planning, one person managing housing, and one person managing Paresky, forms and room assignments (non-student, administrative functions), the Office of Campus Life might stop looking like an office, but it would also lose the hot air and wasted entropic energy that is currently in the atmosphere and stop being a place where too little work is diffused over too many people.

This weekend, when the perennial moon bounce appeared once again on the Frosh Quad lawn for the Spring Fling picnic, the real fruits of the Office of Campus Life exhibited themselves in full bloom. They give us inflatable plastic castles – and no one is in a position to pooh-pooh that – but beneath that veneer of fun is a lot of inefficiency caused by the office’s structural problems. In more ways than one, we can no longer afford to pretend that the Office of Campus Life is working.