Richards: The Presidential Search Advisory Committee needs more diverse departmental representation

Jason Richards, Staff Columnist

The news of the year arrived to most students on Feb. 3 through The Daily. Case Western Reserve University President Barbara R. Snyder announced that she will be leading the Association of American Universities (AAU) come the end of the fall 2020 semester, and stepping down from her role as CWRU’s president. Snyder, who joined CWRU in 2007 as the university’s ninth president, was recruited through the Spencer Stuart firm, responsible for recruiting several high-level administrators. 

In recent days, Fred DiSanto, the chair of the new committee created to help find CWRU’s next president, emailed the university community asking for CWRU faculty, staff and student nominations to join his committee, the Presidential Search Advisory Committee. The committee will be responsible for “gathering campus perspectives on key topics—for example, key challenges and opportunities Case Western Reserve faces; experiences and qualities our next leader should possess; and aspirations for the university in the coming years.”

After six days and 336 nominated names—190 of which were submitted on the first day—DiSanto notified the campus community of the results. There were 23 members selected for participation in the committee—a supposed 50% increase over the initial planned size. How they figured a committee of 11 to 12 members could represent the aspirations of a university with nearly 95 undergraduate degree choices, about 135 graduate and professional options and almost 140 dual-degree programs is still head-scratching to me. Even 23 committee members is not enough.

Those 23 members represent the nine schools and colleges that make up CWRU’s academia, as well as the administration, the Department of Physical Education and two undergraduate student-led organizations. This alone gives the impression of variety within the committee, but diversity in departmental representation falls short for a committee in charge of sourcing perspectives on challenges and opportunities facing the university as a whole. While the representatives should not be solely from the most popular departments, it is important that there is an adequate variety of members to advocate for the academic, student life, sustainability, resource and safety issues that we are currently facing, as well as the issues yet to come. 

All three members currently representing the Case School of Engineering on the committee are associated with the Department of Biomedical Engineering. According to a CWRU fact sheet listing each undergraduate major and their respective enrollment counts, in fall 2018, a total of 376 undergraduates were pursuing a computer science degree—the most of any undergraduate degree in any discipline. Biomedical engineering in that year had 336, and mechanical engineering fell close behind with 303 students. These other growing engineering departments have no representation in the Presidential Search Advisory Committee.

I find it worrying—and, quite frankly, absurd—that the Case School of Engineering, with 1,779 students spread across 12 programs, is being exclusively represented by the Department of Biomedical Engineering. It is possible that CWRU’s aspirations of becoming a top university in engineering disciplines, other than biomedical engineering, could get lost without representation from other departments.

The natural sciences and math departments are made up of about 15% of the undergraduate student body, yet they have no representation in the Presidential Search Advisory Committee.

The College of Arts and Sciences is represented by a professor in the Department of Art History, an associate professor in the Department of Music and an emerita trustee with a professional focus in humanities, social sciences and languages. There are nearly twice the academic departments, nearly the same number of students and more than double the faculty members in the College of Arts and Sciences than in the Case School of Engineering. For being the most diverse program, the College of Arts and Sciences has very little diversity of representation on the committee.

However, inadequate representation extends beyond academic professors and advisors. 

The Office of Energy and Sustainability has made great improvements over the past years in CWRU’s recycling and sustainability efforts. Our recent movement to single-stream recycling and more accessibility to recycling bins has been a monumental accomplishment. They have no representation in the Presidential Search Advisory Committee. If we are sincere in becoming carbon neutral and a leading sustainable school, while maintaining our extensive research centers, there must be someone on the committee advocating for a leader who will take us in the right direction.

CWRU’s University Technology ([U]Tech) department partners with companies to bring more affordable technology to students in the modern era of computer note-taking, information sourcing and research. In their 2019 Strategic Plan Progress Report, [U]Tech noted they have met and exceeded goals and initiatives introduced in their 2016 Strategic Plan, with accomplishments in client experience, research computing and infrastructure services, finance and administration, teaching and learning technologies, and information security. Through centralizing IT resources and services, they were able to reallocate $1.6 million into projects like the WEPA cloud-based printing service, a Health Education Campus Support Team and so forth. Their contributions to CWRU’s ability to stay on top of an ever-changing technological world as a research university are nothing short of notable. They, too, have no representation on the Presidential Search Advisory Committee.

However, perhaps most notably missing from the committee is a representative focused on campus safety and security. Neither the CWRU Police Department nor the Division of Public Safety have representation in the Presidential Search Advisory Committee. I find this to be the most careless omission from the committee. President Snyder worked closely with public safety executives, even directly communicating with the university community following a shooting in November of 2018 that resulted in the injury of an undergraduate student. She highlighted the shortcomings of campus public safety—an invaluable transparency that I consider to be one of the most important aspects of a university president. President Snyder took direct part in reactionary measures, including an analysis of “where our safety efforts have fallen short,” and the subsequent increase in security personnel and Safe Ride drivers, per an email sent following the shooting.

I’m not here to assert that these committee members are incapable of representing more than just their respective departments. They are amazing people with extremely notable accolades in their fields, who I have no doubt would advocate for the university over their own personal agendas. There are, however, significant holes in the committee. To address these gaps would help in establishing as fair and diverse a committee as possible, especially in making such a substantial decision as choosing the next president of CWRU. There are a lot of departments and programs working toward change which I believe are currently underrepresented. Their inclusion in the committee would further our best chance at producing positive change across the university in the coming years.  

It is important to select a president that is aware of the areas undergoing change and those that are in need of greater change. Further, they must understand and respect the importance of collaboration across disciplines here at CWRU. With significant departments and programs being omitted from the search committee, their efforts and recent accomplishments may be diminished. Failure to include these issues in our university’s long-term goals will unfortunately result in a less productive future that is missing key improvements. 

There are significant gaps present in the current Presidential Search Advisory Committee. It is important that we, as students who will be directly affected by these changes, voice our concerns. While our involvement in this committee is limited at best, we are invited to email the Board of Trustees to advocate for a more significant student perspective that is vital to the presidential search process and inform the board of the lack of diverse departmental representation on their committee.