Student leadership stonewalled in fight for voting rights on academic policy

By Stephen Neukam

Student leadership is facing building resistance to its push to secure student voting rights in committees that control academic governance at the university, with both faculty and administration having little appetite for the change.

For months, Student Government Association (SGA) President Dylan Erdelyi, a senior musical theater major, has geared up to advance the policy, gaining little traction in the process.

Erdelyi argues that students hold a sufficient stake in the affairs of their education and that they deserve actual influence in the voting process, not just a space for feedback.

But opposition to granting students voting rights — a rare unified front of faculty leadership and the administration — leaves Erdelyi and his allies to lower expectations and search for options that would lead to incremental improvements.

Academic governance at Rider is controlled through the University Academic Policy Committee (UAPC) and smaller academic policy committees at the college level. The arrangement is set up in the bargaining agreement between the administration and faculty union, which leaves the lone student representative on each APC committee with no voting power.

The committees govern all aspects of academic affairs at the university — right down to what is taught in a curriculum.

“So much of our academic policy is outlined in [the bargaining] agreement,” said Erdelyi. “We do not have a system of shared governance between students, administration and faculty.”

Cooperation and progress have been sparse, according to Erdelyi. He said that meetings with both the administration and faculty union have been hard to come by, with some union leaders refusing to respond to emails about the policy.

Initial support for student voting rights at the highest levels of the administration has fizzled out, according to Erdelyi. While some voiced encouragement for the move, he said finding any positive reception recently has been difficult.

Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs DonnaJean Fredeen said that she “always support[s] students taking agency over issues impacting them,” but declined to comment on student leadership’s campaign for voting rights, deferring to the bargaining agreement between the university and faculty.

“Any changes to that process can only be accomplished through negotiations with the [American Association of University Professors] AAUP,” said Fredeen.

Erdelyi said that Fredeen was once an advocate for student voting rights when the idea was presented in 2017.

“I think now that we have put some pressure on the issue, she is less than an advocate,” said Erdelyi. “When it was just presented as a piece of legislation in 2017 and there wasn’t any motion on it, many in the know kind of just dismissed that as ‘that’s kind of cute.’ Now it’s more of a threat or reality.”

Fredeen did not clarify if she had been in support of the measure in the past.

Rider’s AAUP President Arthur Taylor said that the executive committee of the union is aware of the proposal but reiterated that the voting system is part of the bargaining agreement.

With seven voting members on the committees — four from the faculty and three from the administration — Erdelyi is pushing for just one student vote.

Union and administrative sources have stressed the importance of experience in academic governance, a refrain that Erdelyi believes is condescending.

“I am certainly not here to discount anybody’s expertise,” said Erdelyi. “There’s another level that has nothing to do with expertise.”

Erdelyi explained that students are not trying to change the curriculum of the courses they take. Instead, they want to add another level of insight — the student experience — to the decision making process.

With little indication that either side is willing to move forward with student voting rights, Erdelyi is looking for incremental ways to move students toward that goal. In general, he is trying to break down the barriers that have gatekept students from understanding academic governance.

Erdelyi said that students should be given an opportunity to learn and participate in the academic policy process. He also believes that student feedback should be solicited as a priority in decision making, rather than students having to push their way onto the meeting agendas.

Associate Professor Justin Burton, a supporter of the student voting push, agreed that students should be able to learn the policy process, an important step to voting rights.

“[J]uniors and seniors who want to understand academic governance and who want to learn how to parse and vet policy proposals should be able to gain a level of knowledge and proficiency that allows them to vote,” said Burton. “Expertise seems an unreasonable standard that we don’t even apply to faculty and administration.

After all, a school’s academic policy committee vets and votes on a wide swath of proposals related to disciplines outside some of the voters’ areas of expertise, and the practice is to yield to others’ expertise while asking questions that sharpen a proposal and identify its shortcomings.”

Erdelyi’s hope is to push the fight forward and make progress on his goals. With a clear view of the obstacles, he said “we are more than willing to work with faculty and administration to find other solutions.”

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