The Benefits of Self-Governance on the College Campus: Empowering Students to Govern Themselves

College students are generally not fans of rules and regulations. Despite this, college administrators are faced with establishing more policies, restrictions and Codes of Conduct -- all in a time of increasing concerns with liability, litigation, and in some cases intrusive forms of campus policing and enforcement.

Grinnell College has taken a very different -- and successful -- approach, building community with principles of self-governance. This approach means that students agree to self-regulate their actions in order to maintain a healthy and safe community. With self-governance, students are responsible and accountable for their choices, words, and actions as individual members of the campus community.

Rather than focusing on what students can and can't do, Grinnell emphasizes aspirational behaviors, reminding individuals to act with integrity, to consider how their actions impact others, to value their own personal safety and that of others, to respect personal and College property and to act as role models of good citizenship. With these community standards in mind, students work to prevent their actions from infringing upon others' rights and to resolve interpersonal issues through shared understandings.

Here are some common examples of how self-governance works on campus:

  • If there is a noise complaint in a residence hall (such as loud music or voices), students approach one another and attempt to resolve the matter themselves as a first step, prior to calling a residence advisor, hall director or campus security;
  • Student advisors on each residence hall floor are community builders, not rule enforcers "doing rounds," a common practice at many colleges. Students are expected to be actively looking out for each others' best interests and well-being;
  • New student orientation is planned and facilitated by Grinnell students. Many campuses invite outside experts and consultants to discuss topics like honesty, sexual responsibility, drugs and alcohol, and diversity. However, at Grinnell these sensitive issues are explained personally and credibly by students;
  • Social events are completely planned, coordinated, and overseen by students;
  • Student clubs and organizations at Grinnell do not require a staff or faculty advisor to "sign off" on plans, expenditures or elections, as is the case at most higher education institutions.

While self-governance may seem loose and unstructured, it's actually just the opposite. Students learn how hard it is to operate openly, responsibly and accountably. Furthermore, by self-governing, they remove most of the conflict resolution burden from the professional staff, allowing them to focus on educational purposes. At Grinnell, very few situations ultimately need to be elevated to a formal proceeding that involves a hearing.

Perhaps the most important benefit of self-governance is how it impacts students both now and in life after campus. They learn an invaluable lesson -- that in real life, the response to many interpersonal situations is "it depends," in a world that is mostly gray, not black and white. Without a handbook to follow, graduates leave campus with an instinctual understanding of how to act with integrity, honesty and in a socially-just manner as a world citizen. They also take with them the interpersonal skills they will need as they enter the "real world," full of challenging co-workers, employers, neighbors and others.

Self-governance isn't for every school, nor will every student find it to be the right fit. But for those who can commit to maintaining a shared set of community values, it can be a great tool for creating a positive campus experience and teaching critical life skills.