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photographer: Kate Silber

Transparency, Confidentiality, and the Problem of Self-Governance

“We just have no idea what it means to govern ourselves,” my friend said to me, as we walked out of Plenary in the spring of 2017.  


“At least we don’t anymore,” he continued.  “We’ve become so wrapped up in the institutional importance of Plenary, in discussions of what it means to be self-governed, that we do not even know what the term means anymore.  Perhaps I am wrong, but it seems like the modern Haverford community simply does not understand what self-governance even means for us.”

I did not know how to respond, at least in that moment, and it would be some time before I really understood the basis of his concern. At the same moment in which I understood the concern that lay under his comment, I came to realize a simple, yet not always evident, truth of Haverford’s self-governing body: we are a republic.  At least, we are a pseudo-republic, in the ancient, political theory sense, acting under the guise of impenetrably vague notions of “governance” and  “agency.”  With that kind of model comes a certain trade off: we elect representatives to do work for us, to govern for us, to represent our interests.  Mirroring our Quaker values, we have “trust” in them when we elect them in a position.  What this trust means, at least in some contexts, is that they have discretion to keep some information from the student body.  In a sense, they have an implicit right to confidentiality on certain issues that stems from the type of governance on which it is based.  We do not necessarily revoke our right to knowledge, but we do impress upon them the responsibility of making decisions for us.  


It is this basic premise which we, on a widespread level, often fail to understand, and which results in the conversations we see happening around aspects of transparency over and against confidentiality.  


I propose that we, as a community, do not understand the concinnity at the very foundation of Haverford’s student self-governance, the way that it is built upon student-student relations.  We do not understand its inherent reciprocity; in fact, we take it for granted.  What I mean by that is this: many of us do not pay particular attention when elections come around, because we find them mundane and tedious.  It is this very lack of attention from which all antagonizing over student government stems.  When the effects of our general apathy begins to be felt, that is when students begin to care.  If such a right as the “right to knowledge” exists, we do not give it up because we are complacent; rather, if we were attentive, we would not face, at least not as often, the issues of “transparency” we do today.  The result would be a community in which the boundary of suspicion is laid to rest, and the full and foundational power of self-governance flourishes.  


If I have written this article in a way that is at all persuasive, and if it does anything I want it to, then it will undercut the very premise of this series from the Clerk by suggesting that transparency is not our basic issue.  It is not our foremost concern, and I propose that it is only a problem derived from a larger issue on this campus.  My colleague and good friend Claudia Nguyen, a fellow member of the Clerk’s Editorial Board, is writing an article advocating the need and use of transparency between the student body and its “governing entities,” for lack of a better term. Presented together, these two pieces are meant to launch discussions of transparency into a broader discourse about the nature of agency, student-governance, and power on campus.


It became apparent enough during this year’s Plenary session, if it had not been before, that there are a good number of students who do not typically care about what goes on in student-governance until it affects them or their material well-being.  This is an egregious mischaracterization of what it means to be a student at Haverford; in fact, it is simply anathema to the ideals we espouse as students, those of trust, concern, and respect.  To mind-numbingly wave one’s Plenary packet with the weight of the room, with no consideration or even knowledge of what is occurring, is an egregious violation of those precepts we each signed on to as students here.  When that paper is raised with little care for the reason of raising it, we reduce Plenary to a benign, reflexive process with no substantive meaning, and more importantly, no presence of trust, concern, or respect.  


There was a time in Haverford’s history when Plenary had 100% attendance.  There was a time in Haverford’s history when each and every student thought carefully about the measures and resolutions placed in front of them.  Perhaps this makes me something of a Haverfordian antiquarian, but of that name I feel no shame.  I yearn for the days past when students could budget three hours on two days of the school year in order to really listen, to really hear, and to really act upon the concerns of their peers.  


When students do pay attention, where there is investment such as that which we saw in the protesters outside Plenary this year, we observe a certain fecundity within the student body that is found nowhere else.  Without this engagement, without the visualization of Plenary’s platform as a platform for all students to voice their concerns and to be heard by the student body, without the absolute trust, concern, and respect which has been neglected as of late, Plenary loses its focus, its point, and its effectiveness.  In other words, it ceases to exist in any substantive way.  And that, friends, makes us unworthy of the privilege of self-governance at all.  


Which brings me back to the beginning of this article and why discussions of transparency are perhaps the wrong discussion to be having.  Not because I have anything against transparency (in fact, I fully support it), but because discussions about transparency so often miss the mark — they are not discussions over whether or not we should know how a certain decision was made; they are discussions of whether or not some vague notion of republicanism should be the premise by which we are governed.  


I harken back to the words of my fellow editors in saying that, perhaps our diagnosis is not too much confidentiality, but too much agency.  I take their words further by saying that the issues found in discussions of agency and transparency stem from a lack of knowledge of, and a willing disinterest in, how Haverford’s self-governance functions.  And that willing disinterest, my friends, is a diagnosis that may require surgery rather than medicine.  


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