How can students gain more of a voice in the affairs of their psychology department? Here is the experience of one Psi Chi chapter...
The idea of having a permanent student representative position established on each of the three department committees (i.e., Undergraduate Committee, Graduate Committee, and Department Faculty Committee) at California State University, Stanislaus (CSU Stanislaus) had been mentioned in conversation by psychology majors for a couple of years. These conversations, and the very legitimate concerns and perceived needs of students that were the focus of these discussions, were held, unfortunately, mostly over coffee in the campus restaurant called Mom's.
Student concerns--such as more student input on what classes were offered, class scheduling, better student/instructor interaction, and the mysterious process by which the faculty and the university decided how much funding would go to each of the various components within the department (Counseling, Behavior Analysis, Research/Experimental, BA, MA, MS, etc.)--were debated intensely. Sometimes these discussions even included instructors (those few instructors who felt comfortable eating lunch or having coffee with students, that is).
The problems, besides the one of actually getting the faculty to agree, of course, always came down to this . . . How could those of us who recognized the need for closer cooperation between faculty and students legitimately claim to speak for the rest of the psychology majors and minors if we had no established and consistent way of receiving their opinions and concerns and deciding upon those for which we should advocate? Then came the issues of who would attend the faculty meetings as the recognized and agreed upon student spokesperson(s), the voting status of the student committee members, the problem of committee discussions that contained confidential information about students and instructors, and dealing with faculty objections to having students become equal members of their traditionally self-governed realm.
These problems have been the focus of several studies that have looked at the impact, efficacy, and advantages versus disadvantages of student participation in department decision making. According to a report by the Cornell Commission on Student Involvement in Decision Making, there was no doubt that the inclusion of students in decision making at the departmental level, on both curriculum and faculty selection committees, would have good effects both on the decisions and on the students (Morison, 1970). The authors state that "the student committee must have opportunities to engage itself in a real way with departmental deliberations on matters which affect students, and almost everything does."
The need for such student input is justified because "academic disciplines tend to develop internal criteria of what is important (and fashionable) and sometimes this may lead them in directions farther and farther from the felt needs of students" (Jencks & Reisman, 1968). The influence allowed by students when they are given positions on department committees is the subject of strong disagreement. One study found that of 199 institutions where students sat with executive committees, 33 did not allow them to vote. Of the curriculum committees studied, 78 of 506 did not allow student members to vote, while only 41 (with 10 not voting) committees on faculty selection, promotion, and tenure had student members (McGrath, 1970). More recently, in a study of the affect of chaos theory on curriculum and teaching it was found that student input and influence played a positive role in developing a system that supported and nurtured change within departments (Iannone, 1994).
At the beginning of the 1995-96 school year at CSU Stanislaus, the Psi Chi chapter had a total membership of six students (all but one of whom were graduate students) and had not held a scheduled meeting in almost two years. Presented with the need to generate interest in Psi Chi among students as well as a growing awareness that part of their academic success and professional maturity would require more active participation in the decision-making process of the various department committees (especially among graduate students looking with concern at rapidly changing professional requirements), the local Psi Chi leadership recognized an opportunity to promote interest in Psi Chi membership as well as provide a platform for student advocacy.
It was clear that what was needed was a student organization that would be accepted by the department as legitimately representative of the students in the department and whose membership and leadership would (a) establish a process for gaining approval from the department for this new advocacy, (b) be the initial spokespersons on behalf of the students, (c) recruit students from the various "domains" and theoretical orientations within the department to serve on a permanent Student/Faculty Liaison Committee, and (d) be responsible for gathering and presenting the changing needs and suggestions to the varius committees. With these needs in mind, the leadership of the Stanislaus Chapter submitted a proposal (see page 21) for establishing a permanent student representative position on each of the three department committees. As spokesperson for the membership of Psi Chi, the chapter president received numerous individual responses from instructors in the department, all of which were supportive of the idea. However, one month after submitting the proposal to the three committee chairpersons (with copies given to each full-time instructor) there had been no official response.
On Wednesday, April 24, Dr. Gina Pallotta, chairperson of the psychology department's Graduate Committee, and Dr. Bruce Hesse, chairperson of the Undergraduate Committee, formally extended to Psi Chi Chapter President Samuel Tull an invitation to attend the next and subsequent meetings of their committees, either in person as the author of the aforementioned proposal or through a designated student representative who would speak for and report to the student members of the CSU Stanislaus Psychology Department. These invitations were accepted by Mr. Tull as the de facto representative of psychology majors and minors at this campus. These newly established positions will be permanent additions to the makeup of the committees, and although the student positions will not be voting members of their respective committees (for now), they will voice the concerns of students and will comment on issues before the committee which affect the students in this department. All pertinent information will then be made fully available to Psi Chi members, and a summary of the proceedings will be displayed on a Psi Chi Information Board in the Psychology Office.
The members of Psi Chi and other student members of this department would like to express our appreciation to the instructors on both committees for their willingness to acknowledge the rights and responsibilities of their student colleagues.
Also on Wednesday, April 24, Psi Chi Advisor Jamie McCreary learned from Psychology Department Chairperson Gary Novak that faculty members have agreed to an initial arrangement whereby a student representative could occasionally attend department faculty meetings to present current concerns and/or suggestions gathered by the Psi Chi-sponsored Student/Faculty Liaison Committee. This committee will be made up of student members of this department (Psi Chi members and nonmembers) and will be responsible for soliciting student input and presenting appropriate issues and concerns to the faculty committees.
While this response to the proposal is not as empowering for students as was hoped for, most students will recognize it as an attempt to accommodate the needs of students without making major changes in the traditional decision-making process of the department. As such, it will be appreciated by the students, particularly those who understand the great effort that is required on the part of individuals within an established decision-making system to make potentially far-reaching changes in that system.
Morison, R. S. (1970). Students and decision making. Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press.
Jencks, C., & Reisman, D. (1968). The academic revolution. Chicago: Doubleday Press.
McGrath, E. J. (l970). Should students share the power? Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Iannone, R. (1994). Chaos theory and its implications for curriculum and teaching. Education, 115, 4, 541-546.
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This letter was presented to the chairpersons of the three department committees mentioned below and to the full-time faculty members of the Psychology Department last week. It is written on behalf of the psychology majors and minors at CSU, Stanislaus. Anyone who is interested in finding out how this proposal was accepted, please contact Psi Chi Chapter President Sam Tull or watch for upcoming announcements on the "PSI CHI NEWS" board.
February 28, 1996
Dear Dr. Novak, Dr. Pallotta, Dr. Hesse, and Faculty:
I am writing to you in my capacity as this year's president of the Stanislaus Chapter of Psi Chi, the National Honor Society in Psychology. I would like to thank each of you in advance for what I know will be your sincere, thoughtful, and professional consideration of the proposal I am about to make on behalf of the students in this department.
It has become clear to many of us that part of our educational and professional training now requires us to begin to accept more responsibility for the quality and the content of the training process we are going through. In order to do this we must begin immediately to assume a more active role in the decisions made in this department which affect us such as curriculum changes, financial priorities, and the academic policies established by the Psychology Department.
Based on my conversations with faculty members, with a large number of students, and with interns who have recently completed their graduate programs, it is recognized that some changes in the psychology program will be needed in order to meet the needs of a swiftly changing professional world outside of the university setting. Therefore, it is the firm belief of many people that the best way to facilitate an increased partnership between students, department administration, and faculty is to establish student representative positions at the Department Faculty Meeting, the Graduate Committee, and the Undergraduate Committee.
I therefore propose that three permanent student advocate positions be established. These students would be chosen by psychology majors and/or appointed by the members of Psi Chi (most likely in conjunction with the new APS Student Caucus which is being formed by Dr. Todd Nelson) on a yearly basis and would speak on behalf of their fellow students at each of the department meetings mentioned above. As a representative of Psi Chi I would like to offer the services of our Society in the yearly selection process. Additionally, Psi Chi will convene a student/faculty liaison committee, which will review the student suggestions and concerns to be presented at each department meeting. I have already spoken to several students about serving on the committee, and once this proposal is approved I will (in conjunction with faculty advisors Jamie McCreary and Todd Nelson) recruit other committee members who will be representatives of both the counseling and behavior analysis components of our department, as well as the MA and undergraduate program.
If the faculty would like, I will make myself available at the next department meeting to elaborate and explain further the reasons why students have placed such importance at this time on the need for this student advocacy program. According to several students and instructors, similar student representative positions are in place at other colleges and have generated not only an improvement in the quality of education but also a more positive interaction between students and instructors. In fact, the response of students to this proposal has been unanimously supportive and enthusiastic.
In closing I would like to thank you again on behalf of the students in this department for your sincere and open-minded consideration of this idea. Due to the growing interest in this concept among my fellow students, I look forward to your timely reply to our attempt to work as colleagues and to share the responsibilities of making the psychology program at Stanislaus the strongest it can be.
Samuel D. Tull
Psi Chi Chapter President, CSU Stanislaus Chapter
Spring 1997 issue of Eye on Psi Chi (Vol. 1, No. 3, pp. 19-20), published by Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology (Chattanooga, TN). Copyright, 1997, Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology. All rights reserved.