Reform has potential to be divisive

What an exciting and promising way to end the semester! We couldn’t be more optimistic about such a show of interest in student government on campus, a trend we think is growing this year and that we hope continues. A group of students came to the College Council’s last meeting before winter break to ask for recognition for a new organization, which they call the Reform Group. This was not the first we knew of the group’s existence. Indeed, the group’s members have been active in other CC initiatives, like our recent open forum to discuss bylaw revisions. We’ve been excited by their direct, face-to-face engagement, and that is precisely the reason we broke a tie by voting against recognizing the Reform Group as an official campus organization.

Sound ironic? It may, since the group’s members have such good intentions – getting involved in student government issues and helping CC improve the way it does business, from running meetings to communicating with the campus. But the creation of an official group to deliver dissent to CC would have posed a threat to the progress the Council is making in having more substantial discussions and attracting interest. The Reform Group believes CC is too homogeneous in the way its members think and vote. We, of course, disagree; the lively debate that often takes place in CC meetings is the main reason we have stayed involved with great interest since our freshman year.

Regardless, the claim that an official Reform Group would help overcome any homogeneity of opinion in the student government is in fact the opposite of what we believe the result would be. If an official group were set up through which supposedly marginalized voices could be expressed, dissent would be diverted out of CC meetings and into Reform Group meetings. We prefer that people congregate and converse face-to-face.

Want ennui and political homogeneity in the CC? Just set up a group that siphons off the naysayers into a separate organization that meets in a separate place at a separate time. That’s not our idea of a lively, responsive and wholly representative student government. We don’t claim that CC is wholly representative; we hope it will become that way, though, and that is why we voted against setting up a separate organization for the channeling of criticism and dissent.

An effort by members of the Reform Group to work with CC, as it is the body that should represent all voices, would serve the like interest of both groups – to truly represent the campus in its entirety. The Reform Group seeks to reform campus practices, and CC was created to be just that body that addresses campus issues. If we are not doing our job, we should make sure to address this problem with the help of our constituents (i.e. members of the Reform Group).

It is easy to criticize a system from the outside, but to work with the system and correct it from within will produce more profound and longer-lasting changes. Then CC will be a representative structure – stronger and truer than ever before. To this end, we hope that house election ballots will be filled with names, rather than the paucity of candidacies of this past year. (Many house elections were uncontested!) If students like members of the Reform Group want reform, we hope they will run for CC – that is why we, as agents of reform, ran for office.

Members of CC over the years have done what they could to improve the campus in policy and practice. We ran because we wanted forward steps to continue. We were not content with what was in front of us; and to do a proper job, we must not resign ourselves to complacency. Improvements to progress, more interest and involvement in student government will be necessary – but it must be direct engagement and dialogue that is student-to-student in a common forum, instead of engagement by proxy through another organization.

Our mission, when we ran for the CC co-presidency, was to build community on campus, and we strongly believe that the Council has the potential to be a vehicle for the achievement of that goal. In setting up a student government to establish formally the Williams Student Body, the CC constitution proclaims, “Our hope is that through the Student Body we can create a community to which everyone belongs and in which everyone participates.” We’re not giving up on that purpose. We’re dedicated to overcoming, step by small step, the balkanization that has crept into the campus community. Therefore, we believe in the vision of people of diverse opinions coming together in a single forum to discuss and debate and reach compromise or consensus, instead of retreating into smoke-filled rooms and talking about, rather than with, each other.

The institutionalization of the Reform Group would have been the first dangerous step toward surrendering to factionalism and disenfranchisement in campus dialogue. We refuse to throw in the towel and say CC is incapable of accommodating dissent or unable to communicate effectively with the campus. If our minutes aren’t good enough, we need to pick up the slack – not expect another group to publish “alternative minutes” just so the whole picture of the meeting gets painted.

If there is not enough diversity of opinion in Council meetings, we’ll work harder to invite the campus to participate in our meetings and forums and to get more people to run for office – not just expect an outside group to pipe up whenever debate needs to be generated. If students’ opinions aren’t being represented, CC reps need to redouble their efforts to be in touch with their constituents via house listservers and everyday discussions and not just remain complacent because a separate organization would exist for the registering of complaints.

We’re enthusiastic about the steps CC is taking to do its job better. We’re meeting in Baxter lounge, where we’re visible and accessible; revising our funding procedures; trying to initiate a regular discussion series addressing issues affecting the campus and the student government; and perhaps even setting up a radio talk show. We hope the members of the Reform Group will help us, for instance, by joining the committee we’ll establish to facilitate the discussion series, or, even better, by running for CC!

Moreover, we’re excited by the steps CC and the administration are taking to build community on campus. Mountain Day will become a true all-campus celebration next year, for instance, and the Log is becoming a great place for all sorts of people to meet, mix and enjoy each other’s company. We’re looking to the future with renewed dedication to seeing through more projects like these, and we’re equally optimistic that we can help foster community by improving CC to be more varied and inclusive. We’re in complete agreement, in fact, with the Reform Group’s sentiment that student government can be strengthened.

But we want to make sure the result of our work leads to the student government, not a separate organization, fielding and representing student opinion. We hope the members of the Reform Group help us become a better organization by helping us change, not by giving up on the student government and forming a separate venue for the expression of dissent. If we can leave a stronger, more effective student government for future classes at Williams and avoid institutionalizing schism, we will count ourselves fortunate to have had the opportunity to serve our campus in building a stronger and more inclusive community.