SIPA Town Hall: Communications Breakdown

As a "global public policy" school, SIPA needs to improve local conditions


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By Ariel Stulberg and Max Marder

“Does the administration really think that it is effectively connecting with students?” asked Aly Jiwani in an email.

SIPA may have “evolved into a global public policy school,” as interim Dean Robert Lieberman said last Wednesday, but students say the administration’s local policies leave something to be desired.

Lieberman and other members of the administration appeared before students last week at the SIPA Town Hall to present the results of the Student Satisfaction Survey and hear questions and comments.

While the survey showed that SIPA student satisfaction had increased since last year, students who attended were not impressed.

“The administration sounded really excited about small upticks in ratings, like it was a point-one, point-two improvement, which is great,” said Alissa Sevrioukova (MPA ’14), “…but there wasn’t much talk about: ‘how are you going to resolve these things that students have been consistently complaining about?”

In a phone interview, Interim Senior Associate Dean Patrick Bohan, who has been with SIPA since 1996, said he thought the meeting went well and stressed that Town Hall is primarily about students voicing their grievances and making their priorities clear.

SIPASA President Rachel Boehr echoed that sentiment. “Town Halls don’t change things,” she said, “they allow you to scream and shout about issues so its constantly on the agenda and so the administration knows how passionately you feel about them.”

Many of the deans’ comments focused on the institutional realities that prevented them from addressing on students’ concerns. Jiwani noted that the lowest rated items on the survey — 1) classroom temperature, 2) the quality of study space, and 3) the efficiency of the registration system — were exactly the same as at the last Town Hall. Jiwani also pointed out that all three items are outside SIPA’s immediate control! “Why ask these questions and why go up to the podium every year only to tell students that SIPA can’t do anything about them?” he wrote

Said Bohan: “A lot of people think that we up here control the building. SIPA’s really sort of a tenant, and I’m a middle man.”

He also stressed that addressing student concerns on issues like building temperature are a lot more difficult than most students realize. “It would require the entire building to be repiped at a cost of about $30-40 million,” said Bohan.

Jiwani and Sevrioukova both reported leaving the Town Hall with the impression that nothing much would be done.

“Students are disillusioned,” said Boehr. “They try to complain constructively and there’s no response so they stop.”

Bohan stressed the need for sustained feedback over a longer term. He cited the fourth floor bathrooms, which were repaired in Summer 2011 after years of complaints. He also made clear that without constant pressure from the students, the administration is less likely to address their concerns. Only 40% of students responded to this year’s survey and fewer than 100 (out of 1186) came to the Town Hall.

“I think doing a survey once a semester is not enough of a feedback loop to hold anybody accountable to actually making those changes,” said Sevrioukova. She proposed an internet-based system reminiscent of the Obama administration’s web petition site. “If you make a suggestion,” Sevrioukova said, “…maybe if more than one student makes that suggestion then some sort of action is taken to actually remedy it.”

Bohan perked up at this idea, saying he’d look into the logistics and bring it up with the other deans. Still, many of the difficulties in the feedback process might simply come down to perception. “[Senior staff] are doing their job but they don’t understand the value in pitching it to students and keeping us updated,” said Boehr.

Said Sevrioukova, “if they’re not being public or open about what’s happening and why certain decisions are being made, then the students fill in the gaps themselves.”

This article first appeared in the April, 9th, 2013 print edition of
The Morningside Post.


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