Note: While writing this article, I used the online S&B Archive as a source for my information.
Why are things the way they are? What were they like before?
These questions plagued me at the start of my second year at Grinnell. The first time I saw a new student I immediately thought to myself how only one year apart, this student’s experience at Grinnell would already be so different to mine.
This is due in part to the fact that Grinnell, like many other college campuses nationwide, has a problem with institutional memory. Knowledge is continuously lost as students graduate and leave, weakening student power and making the already slow crawl of creating positive change on this campus — at an institutional level — transform into a trudge.
Over the course of this past year, the administration has made a number of changes that the student body has rightly accused of being “unGrinnellian.” From dropping Posse and replacing community building SAs to changing the alcohol policies without much student input, the administration has made it clear that it is willing to overlook tradition for preppier aspirations. I came to Grinnell because I was attracted to the values and culture that defined this institution, especially the idea of self-governance. I want to look back at this place in 20 years and be sure that these values still exist and Grinnell hasn’t become a place that a whole generation of alumni find unrelatable. How can we expect a new generation of Grinnellians to understand what self-governance stands for, if the administration continues to undermine student power at every turn? As students we now have a responsibility; we need to demand that the administration does a better job of maintaining institutional memory at Grinnell.
Sacrificing Tradition – Life after SAs
My first year experience at Grinnell was defined by having a Student Advisor whose job was to build community rather than discipline residents. To me, my SA was a source of comfort and guidance, someone I could approach with any concerns I had without fear of repercussions. The Student Advising system under which we lived last year was first implemented at Grinnell in the fall of 1968, after residential recommendations were made to the administration to help improve community on campus. The community-building student advisor served as a symbol of self-governance at Grinnell for almost 50 years. Yet four years from now, the memory of SAs and the ideas they embodied will likely be lost. Although the current CAs continue to hold non-disciplinary positions, there is a push from the administration to convert their role into a punitive one similar to the role that RAs play at most other colleges. Campus culture has therefore been deeply hurt by the lack of institutional memory, due to our failure to transfer stories of the past onto a new generation of Grinnellians.
Diminishing Student Power – The Case of the SRC
In February of 1972, a queer Grinnellian wrote an anonymous letter to the S&B in the hopes of meeting other gay people on campus. In March of the same year, there was a response titled “Gay Grinnellian Seeks Comrades” that likely marked the beginning of a queer community on campus. For years LGBTQ+ people at Grinnell felt unsafe and isolated, but as student protests led to the founding of the “Human/Gay Resource Center” in 1986, queer life at Grinnell changed dramatically. 30 years later, Grinnell is largely a queer-friendly campus, yet the demands of queer student resources like the Stonewall Resource Center are largely overlooked by the administration. A student-run resource center with annual turnovers in staff, the SRC is a victim of poorly maintained institutional memory at Grinnell.
Currently located in Younker Pit, the SRC was moved to different parts of campus many times over its history. After changing locations four times in four years, the SRC staff in 2007 agreed for it to be moved to Younker Pit on the condition that Younker would be made into an accessible dorm and that the SRC would get its own entrance. Now, almost 10 years later, Younker remains inaccessible, and the fight to help the SRC actualize its potential as a community resource continues. But each year, the lack of proper institutional support and rushed leadership transitions slow this fight down. New staff members are regularly forced to go through the same bureaucratic procedures with the administration again and again, as real change continues to remain elusive. 30 years of queer history at Grinnell is forgotten as the lack of institutional memory directly hampers student power in this case.
What’s our Responsibility?
Grinnell College has been actively trying to change its image as an institution in order to attract certain kinds of students to its campus. In doing so, it continues losing touch with the values accrued over its 170-year history. In 1887, President George Gates said “It is 10,000 times better that young people should learn to govern themselves, than that they should be governed in any best way whatsoever.” Yet in 2016, while the institution reaffirms its commitment to these words, it continues to violate the principle they stand for. Discontinuing the Posse program, scrapping 10/10 and changing the alcohol policy – all without any student input or involvement – is a slap in our collective faces. These actions demonstrate that the administration thinks student leaders are incapable of making important decisions regarding their own campus experiences.
Change is good when managed well. Change is great when the voices of those most affected by it are heard before it is enacted. While many aspects of life on this campus can be improved through cooperative change, there are some values which we cannot compromise on, values that are non-negotiable. As students we have a responsibility to make sure that we strengthen institutional memory on campus. We need to demand that the institution better support critical student-run resources on campus so that they can continue to efficiently serve their purpose. It is crucial that we remind those making decisions to ensure their values align with our traditions every step of the way.
But we are students for only four years and then alumni for the rest of our lives. The cultural shift that these recent changes will bring with them will only become more pronounced as the classes of 2017, 2018 & 2019 graduate. So, as alumni, we will need to keep holding the institution accountable to our shared values. We will need to ensure that students at Grinnell College continue to be a part of the decision-making processes that dictate their everyday life on this campus. We cannot let institutional amnesia leave us devoid of power and let our values and traditions be replaced with ones that we don’t agree with.