Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Committee work

I spent the last two hours of my workday in a committee meeting, performing the thankless, no-win task of deciding which applicants' "extraordinary circumstances" merited funding from what used to be the mysterious presidential discretionary fund.

The problem with this job is that by its very nature, it's impossible to set up criteria for what constitutes "extraordinary circumstances." They are by definition things outside the ordinary circumstances of life, things no committee can foresee. Therefore you can only take the students' stories on a case-by-case basis.

Yet while doing that, you must come up with a justification that could pass public muster for each individual decision. In most other cases, the justification would place the request in a class of similar requests and show how they compare to each other. Yet again, by definition, there's little or no possibility of such a class of similar requests existing here. Each circumstance is unique. The decisions can't be justified comparatively, therefore. And unique justifications are uniquely open to question and open to attack.

All that said, I think we did a very good job discussing our general approach and debating individual cases. I think we can stand behind the reasoning for each denial or approval. But this is new territory for the university. The so-called "Special Presidential Scholarships" (money the previous president gave out at his own discretion) had no criteria and no justification -- that was the problem. The suspicion was that it went to students from well-connected families, and without a process by which the funds were allocated and oversight by some entities outside of the administration, there wouldn't be any way to answer that charge.

Now we're trying to recognize the existence of circumstances that fall through the cracks of the current scholarship and financial aid policies, and help out those students that deserve it. Well and good. But we're in uncharted waters here, and there's no way to tread lightly.

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