Submission: What admins miss about building community
Submitted by Isaac Denner
I recently stumbled upon a copy of SRQmag sitting in the Ringling museum’s art library. The cover was graced with the image of a fellow New College of Florida (NCF) student, second-year Emma Gonzalez. Curious if the magazine featured any commentary on NCF itself, I flipped it open and, to my surprise, found a very different NCF personality: Provost Barbara Feldman.
It was hard to miss the uproar, centered around Provost Feldman, that shook the campus email lists last year. Nearly $380,000 was spent on new furniture and the construction of a poorly-planned library cafe—with nearly no input except from the Dean of the Library and Provost Feldman herself. The lack of regard for outside input—and especially student input—made a lot of people, including myself, very angry.
Perhaps she thought that these improvements could, in turn, improve admissions; perhaps she simply recognized that our rather grim library could use some refinement. I can’t exactly sympathize with decisions made during the library improvements process. But, despite the incompetence in execution, I can perhaps understand Feldman.
I could, however, neither understand nor sympathize with the email that she sent out earlier this year:
“New College T-Shirt Fridays:
Welcome Back! We missed you and have been excitedly awaiting your return. We are starting a new tradition at New College. We would like to encourage everyone to wear a NC shirt on Fridays. It is just one more way for us to show are[sic] connection to the college and to each other.”
The way that Feldman says, “We are starting a new tradition,” shows a fundamental misconception of how traditions work. Traditions are not top down. Traditions are bottom up. One cannot simply install a new tradition like one might install, say, a new library cafe. Barbara Feldman seems to think (generously, magnanimously, much to our gratitude) she can simply bestow unto the student body these campus traditions, these beloved campus spaces. Other administrators seem to think this, too. They are wrong.
This email, to me, is incredibly indicative of what NCF’s administration doesn’t seem to understand about community. Forgive me for being kitschy, but too often the administration seems to think of the word “community” in conjunction with another c-word: “control.”
I am not an expert on tradition, nor am I an expert on community building, nor am I an expert administrator. I have, however, dabbled: I helped throw Gatsby, an annual party, last year; I’ve started campus clubs and held office in them; and, most important of all, I’ve participated in campus traditions (of my own free will!). Perhaps this last aspect is what the administration misses—that participation in tradition, participation in events, participation in any community at all cannot be prescribed. It must be genuinely and organically created.
This is why, on any given Friday, if you look at the student body, nobody is participating in the wonderful tradition that was bestowed upon us. Nobody wears their NCF t-shirts. I sincerely doubt any students were consulted in the inception, creation and execution of this “tradition.” Perhaps if they had been, the provost would have been aware that a single email detailing “one more way for us to show are[sic] connection to the college and to each other,” is not a genuine or organic source for a tradition.
Tradition is not bestowed from the top down. Tradition is built from the bottom up. Perhaps what confuses our administration is the term “leader.” The issue comes back to those dreaded c-words. Perhaps our administration does not realize it, but an effective leader does not control. An effective leader communicates. Leaders are people who come from a community or partake in a tradition. Leaders are people who help create, sustain and expand these communities and traditions. An effective leader is talented at finding what makes an event or a tradition or a community worthwhile. Perhaps it provides an interesting exchange of information, or it provides a support network for those in need, or it simply brings together a group of complementary individuals. An effective leader is also a person who is talented at organizing and communicating with the people necessary for making this tradition or community possible.
Administration’s inability to properly do this in recent months has been very striking to me. In attempts to “build community,” I think the administration has showcased just how much they misunderstand the essence of both communication and leadership.
Some students might have noticed my forum commentary on the Cops and Pups event that took place earlier this semester. To me, something seemed off about the way the event was advertised, and how both the cop aspect and pup aspect of the event were framed (alas, I think my critique of the event was poorly received). Talking over email with Adriana Diaz, the host of the event, she expressed that her intent was to strengthen student-police relationships and reduce negative interactions with the police, a goal which I wholeheartedly support. This intent, however, was not expressed in her original email. Rather, the email seemed to try to ‘lure’ students out with the pleasant promise of puppies, and, by association, make the police appear more pleasant, too. In my opinion, the actual intention—to build trust and community between police and students—should have been expressed in the opening email. Anything other than this honest communication, to me, comes off as misleading and vaguely condescending.
Worse than condescending, though, is downright negligent. I was incredibly annoyed to see that the SA[u]CE office had, to kick off the new semester, organized “Paint Party!” (with the strange, strange tagline “wear whatever you want! #nonudity”). They had decided to organize this party despite the fact that admin had suggested a similar event at the end of last year, a suggestion that was met with a substantial amount of negative feedback by the student body. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this admin-organized event was pitifully under-attended (a fact which was underscored by the overlooking Z balcony, the site of a successful, crowded, student-run party). The fact that SA[u]CE totally ignored student feedback in organizing this event not only showcases poor leadership and a poor ability to communicate, it downright undermines community. One cannot impose fun.
Administrators, as well as police, exist on the periphery of the student community. They will remain on this periphery if all they do is legislate—rather, they must participate and they must communicate. I hope any administrator reading this will take a moment to consider how they can do this. I also encourage police, in light of recent events, to better communicate, better participate, and, in turn, build better trust with the community here at New College. Unless both of these groups significantly improve in these areas, they will remain legislators, not leaders.