By Henry Griffith, DCI Fellow
As part of my work as a DCI Fellow this year, I had to complete a personal deliberation project of my own design and implementation. As a scholar-athlete, I have engaged in several conversations around marijuana policy during my time at Davidson. With the broader landscape around marijuana shifting so much in the United States in recent years, the discussions within Davidson have consequently responded. However, it seemed to me that there was a gap in that conversation for Davidson as a whole. To me, that gap was between the policy conversations occurring within the athletic administration and the beliefs, knowledge, and experiences of scholar-athletes at Davidson. I firmly believe that most members of the Davidson community agree about various points in the conversation around marijuana, and yet, the topic continues to drag with it a burden of potentially unnecessary conflict. In this blog post, I wish to discuss my small implementation of a deliberation between students and administration around a specific Davidson policy to demonstrate how a deliberative mechanism could clarify policies and amplify agreement within the Davidson community.
My project intended to bridge the perceived gap between students and administration by creating the place to hold a constructive, structured, and facilitated conversation around marijuana policy at Davidson. The deliberation was created with the broad intent to answer, “How lenient or strict should Davidson’s marijuana policy be to best foster the growth of scholar-athletes?” To create the space for this conversation, I invited a few administrators from the athletics department, several scholar-athletes, and an administrator from the Dean of Students (their office is involved with the marijuana policy for all of Davidson). While scheduling and organizing this deliberation with many people was quite the challenge, it was quickly clear to me that those who entered the conversation wanted to better understand the current policy and its possible path forward.
Following along with the deliberation guide created for the conversation, the participants quickly engaged with one another and managed to settle into the deliberative space. Perhaps most importantly, it became clear that they understood that getting on the same page about the current policy was a sufficiently successful outcome; they did not need to come away having proposed radical changes to the policies. Rather, it was beneficial simply to create a space for all parties involved to better understand one another’s perspectives. They engaged with one another directly, including by asking clarifying questions and asking to hear more about individuals’ experiences. Deliberation guides can be useful in providing a formal structure for conversations; however, I think that conversations like this which were intentionally trying to bridge a gap are best served by allowing for flexibility in the conversation’s path.
Before the deliberation, I was quite worried about a student vs. administration dynamic. However, deliberation continues to surprise me with its ability to cool off such dynamics and produce unexpected agreements by the end of the conversation. I believe a large source of this surprising agreement comes from engaging with the nuanced areas of the policies. By focusing on specific components of and reasons for Davidson’s policy, students and administrators were able to agree where I believe they didn’t expect it. In the final section of each deliberation, there is a period reserved for reflections on the conversations in which each participant shares some reflection. And in these reflections, several participants noted that they were pleasantly surprised by the group’s areas of agreement.
It is due to the success of this small implementation of a deliberative policy conversation that I seek to argue for a broader use of deliberations in Davidson’s policy decisions. This year, students have seen policy changes such as the “Wellness Wendy” and non-food dining dollars change that created some backlash among the student body. I believe that deliberation could present an intermediary in these kinds of decisions for the future of Davidson. From my perspective, much of students’ frustration was that the policy was changed without consulting students. These situations are those which I believe deliberation could represent a powerful tool for aiding.
It might be somewhat foolish of me to assume that deliberation could help or change all policy choices that presently occur within Davidson. However, I do believe that creating a deliberative mechanism before a policy conversation even begins could be instrumental in helping get students, faculty, and administrators on the same page. These deliberations would not have to be lengthy. But I believe they would present a beneficial environment for members of the Davidson community to engage with one another as equals, per deliberation’s egalitarian agreement.
One of the factors for success in the deliberation around marijuana policy was that it took place shortly before the administration were planning to have a formal discussion on the matter. Thus, the deliberation allowed for the administrators to preemptively test their ideas with students before taking them to the formal conversation. It is this type of mechanism that I believe could be very beneficial for Davidson, not only in hopefully continuing to improve and adapt policies, but also in simply allowing all parties to be heard. Producing equitable, fair policies is quite a challenge. However, I believe that this mini deliberation around marijuana policy could set the stage for a consistent implementation of deliberative environments in future Davidson policy discussions.