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Haverford’s Broken Culture of Information: A Letter From the Editor

Editor’s note: All opinions pieces published in the Clerk represent only the views and ideas of the author.

As the Editor-in-Chief of The Clerk since last December, I am nearing the end of my term leading this newspaper. From our work last semester, my staff and I were surprised at times by the ways in which general information is (and is not) accessible at Haverford. So, with the semester now in full swing, I begin with a single-question pop quiz: Where do Plenary resolutions go?

Yes, any amendments to the Honor Code, Alcohol Policy, or Students’ Constitution should accordingly update their respective documents’ texts. But from our time at The Clerk, we’ve learned the hard way that the correct answer to this question is “nowhere.” Partial credit if you answered “Kim Benston’s computer”—he typically circulated his commentary on resolutions alongside his decision to accept or reject them, often with quoted passages from the resolutions themselves—but only time will tell if future presidents, including the newly-inaugurated Wendy Raymond, will necessarily follow suit or not. (To be clear: they certainly do not have to!)

The point is, there is no convention, mandated by the Students’ Constitution or otherwise, for how we record the resolutions, amendments, debates, and discussions we have for hours each semester at Plenary.

When we learned this fact last semester, we were stunned. Yet, as we carried on reporting on a variety of events last year and in this year so far, we’ve found a pattern of similar information lapses. 

For instance, at the time of this writing, it is impossible to view the Alcohol Policy online as presented by JSAAP, as the site is invalid. (The online version of the Students’ Guide, hosted by the Dean’s Office, now links to a static PDF of the policy which is current as of Fall 2017, where it once linked to a JSAAPP publication.) A quick search for the full text of the Honor Code on your favorite search engine will yield multiple versions of the Code’s text, all hosted by Haverford’s websites, of varying vintages.

And the document that is dually-titled the “Students’ Constitution” and “The Constitution of the Haverford College Students’ Association,” to which the Honor Code’s website links, is nonexistent at the time of this article’s publication. (A few weeks ago, the link was working but it listed the incorrect figure for quorum at Plenary. It is 66%, changed from the 50% that the Students’ Constitution once listed, during the 2018 Spring Special Plenary. Recent Students’ Council meeting  minutes indicate that the Council is aware of this problem, though it persists.) It took a dig through my email to verify what quorum even is, as I personally have yet to find any documentation of this change.

But it’s not just these formal self-governing documents and student groups which are subject to such horrible confusion. It wasn’t that hard for me to find that Haverford has significant information asymmetries once I knew to start looking.

In a past Clerk feature, many students could not name their own elected Students’ Council representatives, often times confusing prominent campus administrators for students. And during the annual Room Draw for this year’s housing, the Office of Residential Life strangely uploaded the floorplan options applicants could choose from for Drinker House, 710 College Ave., and HCA cluster groups to the Google Drive repository used throughout last year’s Room Draw process only one minute prior to the lottery results for those very same rooms. Lottery participants were assumed to know the layouts and options for these dormitories ahead of time. These examples show how Haverford is a place where students do rely–or, are made to rely– on their own experiential knowledge, even if incorrect, to get things done and engage in campus life. 

Just last week, Students’ Council announced that they would ignore the candidate qualification specifications written into last year’s resolution about appointing a Students’ Council Librarian, because these specifications limited the candidate pool too much. I remember clearly that when this resolution was being discussed at Plenary last year, people came to the Pro-Con mic to challenge these same specifications for this precise reason. Even though we had the exact same conversation a year ago, it only appears as one summarized comment in last semester’s Plenary minutes. The discussion of the entire Students’ Council Librarian resolution took at a minimum 45 minutes from the majority of student body, yet its results were ignored anyways, with Students’ Council disregarding the letter of the resolution and ultimately making the same realizations a year later than some students. Not only do we have a poor record and recollection of the conversations we have, but our own student representatives seem to be forgetful of them. 

And for a much more primitive example of the lack of information-sharing: last February, an email to all students revealed that approximately 100 students had failed to pick up keys to their own dorm rooms throughout the school year. A key is physical information about security for students and their belongings. Strangely, neither Campus Safety nor the 100 or so students cared for that information to be shared effectively for quite some time. This is yet another example of our apathy for even the most basic of information.

Had Associate Editor David King ’20 and I not both been enrolled students in the College for the past three years, we wouldn’t have known anything of the glaring information lapses that occur in this community like those that I’ve highlighted above and that have come up throughout this past year of weekly Clerk meetings. To be quite honest, in The Clerk’s own fact-checking procedures, we have had to rely on our staff’s collective memory of discussions, town hall events, and presentations to ensure that our articles contained correct information. Like any newspaper, The Clerk issues corrections on occasion, but I worry that, unlike other papers, the errors we make come not from primary sources providing incorrect or ambiguous information to The Clerk, but from the sheer lack of any official record of some of the things we cover, forcing my staff to substitute in conventions and common knowledge on campus. (I should also note that the flip side also occurs all too often, in which students make strong claims that our articles are misreporting information when in fact we are correct and they are not. These scenarios are equally-troubling effects of the current inaccessibility of information on this campus.)

A term I’ve learned since coming to Haverford is “institutional memory.” We talk a lot about it here. But I think this phrase takes the blame off of each one of us students to be transparent in our work, to keep good records, to leave clean marks. We take our own memory and accountability off the hook. Of course, there are administrators whose jobs involve institutional memory, from archivists in the libraries to record-keepers in the business office and administrators in Founders’ Hall. But for everyone else, have some integrity as you lead our clubs and spend our tuition’s student activities fee with what amounts to reckless abandon—your present intentions will persist in the community long after you leave. Every semester, clubs over-budget for expenses they ultimately never collect on—preventing that money from being allocated to other clubs—or spend money on pricey items only to become defunct. (Think of the tables for Ping Pong Club, bottles and equipment from the beer-brewing club, or the gaming devices for the Nintendo DS Club—none of which seem to be active this year, at least not on Engage—as just a few of many examples.) Over the years, we’ve accumulated so much stuff which, even without an active club, could be enjoyed by students, if we only communicated what we have or are leaving behind. The same goes for immaterial things, like knowledge of the Honor Code and prominent campus discussions. 

This semester and next, I’m really excited to see the results of the work that Students’ Council has done to reshape and restructure Plenary so that it is as useful as possible for students. I urge everyone who participates in Plenary—which I know Honor Council and countless other students, organizations, and other offices have worked tirelessly to put on in addition to Students’ Council—to take the examples I’ve come across over the last year of editing The Clerk as inspiration to open up and communicate before, during, and after our assembly so that all the work we’ve done for it actually means something. 

In this age of the internet and collaboration technology, I hope that the examples that I’ve provided inspire those who have items on the docket for Plenary to communicate their ideas effectively; inspire those who run Plenary to record and share its discussions and outcomes properly; and inspire all students and student leaders in particular to be mindful of how their contributions to campus life can shape the community in the long-term if they do the work to communicate efficiently. 

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