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Gottlieb: Best solution to university issues is diplomatic activism

Durham 500

By Greg Gottlieb

s I was sitting in an airport bar in Mexico a few weeks ago drinking a Pacifico Light with a lime, burdened by the thought of the all-too-familiar frigid New England winter climate that the nearby airplane would be returning me home to, a small Mexican woman with a sort of awkward smile approached me and asked if I would be willing to partake in a “quick survey.”

My initial reaction was one of avoidance; something about her clipboard, name tag, and attempt at an overly-friendly demeanor led me to believe that this was just another cold sales strategy of a desperate airline asking me to sign up for their frequent flyer program. After a moment of hesitation — which looked perhaps equally as awkward as Isabelle’s smile — I agreed to partake.

After coming to the realization that Isabelle was, indeed, just a government worker who was collecting data regarding airport patron satisfaction, I wasn’t just okay with my decision to partake, but I was excited to simply share my opinions with someone. It didn’t matter that the topic was about an airport I’d probably never see again.

With the exception of public surveys, there aren’t many instances where an unfamiliar person will genuinely want to know “how you are doing?” or “how happy you are with something?” We all like to share our feelings on even the most miniscule or irrelevant of things, especially when someone is directly asking. That’s why on those rare occasions that you’re asked to partake in a “no strings attached” survey or offer your sentiments on a story to a news station camera crew, you might be inclined to do so. For most, complaining about or worshipping something is more enjoyable for the person talking than the one listening.

What’s fascinating to me is the fact that oftentimes we are less likely to share our feedback or criticism proactively – that is, without being approached or surveyed first — even when it’s in regard to something directly affecting us, operating at our own financial expense, and existent for our own benefit.

This past Tuesday, students received an email from UNH Vice President for Student and Academic Services, Mark Rubinstein, making the request of students to partake in a study from the National Survey of Student Engagement regarding their feelings on the university. Earlier this month, another email from a “Discovery Program Review Committee” requested students’ participation in a separate survey, at the recent onset of a five-year program review. There seemed to spread a small buzz around campus shortly after each of these requests. On more than one occasion, I’ve heard students boasting to one another about their bashing, attacking, or otherwise aggressive denouncement of the university’s educational environment, general education “Discovery” program, or its colleges’ curriculums. They just couldn’t wait to “tear the University apart” for whatever was bothering them.

Why is it, then, that someone who has such passionate opinions on these matters would wait around for an email survey to express those feelings to a third party and by way of HTML radio buttons and comment fields?

Administrative decisions of grand scales, especially those made in the interest of public institutions, must be made with great care and often over a span of time for adequate monitoring and evaluation. While it is honorable that the university values its students’ opinions enough to conduct these surveys and studies and equally noble that many students choose to partake (albeit many with the hopes of winning participation incentives like Apple iPads and Dunkin Donuts gift cards), I think there is a missing piece to this problem-solving, environment-enhancing, satisfaction-generating puzzle of university betterment.

The missing piece is “constructive criticism” and it is often omitted as a solution to a problem due to its intimidating nature. It is a wildly underutilized, yet an immensely powerful catalyst for positive change.

Some UNH student organizations operate on the very basis of constructive criticism. The Student Senate uses constructive criticism every week of the school year when drafting resolutions. Just a few days ago, the UNH Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC) took the idea of constructive criticism to the next level by garnering support with a petition and rallying through campus to publicize its criticism of the university’s investment in companies that use fossil fuels and unsustainable business practices.

What’s more, these organizations’ use of collaborative, constructive criticism has proven effective. Two years ago, when SEAC received 1,000 signatures in support of their cause, the university answered and implemented an ESG portfolio, a sustainability tool used by organizations to help invest in sustainable practices. Whether or not this was an effective enough response is up for debate, but there is no denying the good cause and the subsequent effect.

If we know that the use of diplomatic and constructive critique can be effective in bringing about change to our communities, why must we only utilize this tool through mediums like student organizations and only by formal means?

We are often reminded by our administrators and faculty members that “[their] door is always open.” If that’s the case with a professor whose teaching style you take issue with, for example, consider forgoing the sarcastic sigh to your neighbor or anonymous online post. Instead, substitute it with a visit to office hours or an email with a friendly suggestion the next time she changes the PowerPoint slide too fast or doesn’t explain the material clearly enough. Students should be encouraged to approach university leaders with concerns and not be intimidated.

Strength in numbers is both effective and comforting when supporting a cause or voicing a concern, especially in opposition to a figure of authority. But we should hold the virtue of individual action in high esteem as well. If we are going to go down in US history as the “rebellious generation,” let’s ensure we are “rebelling” by way of constructive criticism, with utmost discretion, with good intentions, and without waiting lazily for a survey to ask us about our feelings.

Greg Gottlieb is a senior hospitality management major who comments on noteworthy topics in the UNH and Durham communities. Follow Greg on Twitter @gottliebgregory.

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