Self-Gov is alive, but it’s on life support. How can Grinnell renew its organizing principle?

By Aaron Mendelson and Joe Wlos

The Crane Review and Reflection paper, parodied on the front cover of this magazine, reports that Grinnellians lack “a shared definition of self-gov,” which has been our college’s organizing principle for decades. In Grinnell’s online catalog, the college openly admits that self-governance is difficult to define, but it strongly suggests five guiding values: responsibility for the community, accountability for choices, respect for others’ rights, communication, and the discussion of important issues.

Grinnell Student Analytics Small LogoOver the past several years, dozens of incidents have forced Grinnellians to discuss this vital question: Is self-gov dead? From alcohol hospitalizations to student vandalization, self-governance has certainly seen better days. The positive aspects of self-governance, which are inherently more difficult to express and consider, are easy to dismiss, especially in the face of heavily publicized shortcomings.

The Grinnell Student Analytics group was formed to answer compelling questions about the college, using student insight and opinion to reshape and redefine our understanding of Grinnell. Our polling results indicate that self-governance is alive, but it is on life support. Grinnellians still support and cherish self-governance–several poll respondents mentioned that “self-gov is love,” and they still love self-gov–but students view its implementation as half-hearted, at best.

Who is to blame for this failure? One of the poll’s most surprising findings is that the majority of Grinnellians blame other Grinnellians’ habits for self-gov’s shortcomings. While close to a quarter of respondents blame administrative policies for the perceived collapse of self-governance, over 65% believe that alcohol and drugs or other students are the primary culprits.

Question 1

This makes sense, given the poll’s other significant finding: 60% of Grinnellians do not believe that they are most accountable to the campus community. Instead, they are most accountable to themselves.

To redefine self-governance and recommit Grinnell to this essential component of our identity, this report suggests several changes to college policies and student attitudes. First, because self-governance plays such a critical role in the lives of Grinnellians–three quarters consider it important or very important–the college should prominently advertise and feature self-government’s guiding values in its admissions literature and on the grinnell.edu website. Students were divided on self-governance’s impact on their admission decision; this should not be the case. Self-gov’s definition may be fluid, but responsibility, respect, and communication will always be vital aspects of the Grinnell community, and accepted applicants need to be aware of their importance before choosing to attend Grinnell.

Second, the more concrete elements of self-governance should be deemphasized as guiding values and should instead be used as examples of self-governance at its best. Respect for student and college property was a prominent phrase in the open-ended response section of the poll, but that respect flows from trust and active care. Self-gov is not an insurance policy; it shouldn’t be advertised or defined that way.

Finally, on-campus communication should be promoted to bolster compromise. Self-governance is not an ideology or lifestyle; it is an organizing principle. There will always be major issues at Grinnell that require a hard line or a strong position, like the college’s sexual assault policies. But everyday concerns and frustrations–stolen bikes and late-night parties–require a more nuanced response, to promote the best interests of every member of the community.

The next several paragraphs will provide a question-by-question breakdown of the poll. Check out gumag.net in the coming weeks for a longer version of this report, with full results and more analysis.

When considering your actions and choices at Grinnell, to whom are you most responsible?

Self-gov dictates responsibility toward peers, but only 34% of respondents value community expectations most strongly. The majority of Grinnellians primarily hold themselves personally responsible for their actions.

Question 2

While it is a good sign that Grinnellians are self-aware, if this beautiful experiment–self-governance–is going to survive, more students are going to need to value the entire community instead of their own convenience. The majority of respondents shunned traditional authority figures, with only 3% reporting that they feel responsible to their family and their professors, and no one felt responsible to Grinnell’s administration.

How important was the idea of self-governance in your decision to attend Grinnell?

Less than 20% of those surveyed felt that the concept of self-gov had no effect on their decision to come to Grinnell, and less than 35% feel it was not that important or somewhat important. Close to a majority of respondents felt self-governance was important or very important to their decision to attend Grinnell.

How important is self-governance in your Grinnell experience?

Although Grinnellians are split on self-gov’s impact on their attendance, a clear majority–over 90% of respondents–report that self-gov at least somewhat affects their Grinnell experience. The rest can go to the University of Chicago, where fun goes to die.

What do you believe is the biggest obstacle to the implementation of self-governance?

Around a quarter of Grinnellians feel that administrative policies are the biggest obstacle to self-governance’s implementation, and 7% blame the academic workload. Surprisingly, given the amount of flak it gets in relation to self-gov, less than 15% of respondents felt that the alcohol and drug culture of campus was the biggest obstacle for self-gov. Over 50% of respondents felt other students were to blame, but only 7% blamed themselves. This suggests that more Grinnellians will have to examine their actions if self-gov is going to be sustainable.

In your opinion, how well does the campus community practice self-governance?

While Grinnell Student Analytics thinks that the college is anything but normal, ironically, our perception of self-gov is statistically pretty normal. 8% said that it is effectively non-existent, 20% said it was not implemented well, 46% think it is implemented somewhat well, 24% reported self-gov is implemented well, and 1% said it is implemented very well.


Between May 1 and May 2, the Self-Governance Poll was available on a Google form and gumag.net. An all-campus email, posters, and Facebook posts advertised the poll. 183 individuals responded to the poll, which has a margin of error of approximately +/- 7%.