Club constitution policy raises student concerns

The College’s requirement that all student groups present constitutions that stipulate a non-discrimination policy has been a cause of concern and discussion among some student groups. These constitutions are due this winter study, but discussion about their purpose and exact nature continues.

The idea for this policy was brought forward by the dean’s office last spring. According to Jim Kolesar, director of public affairs, the policy was at first thought of as an issue that dealt with liability and insurance coverage. But, as Kolesar noted, “the issue was more complicated than it seemed on the surface.”

Richard Kelley, activities coordinator, said one of the reasons for the constitutions was to provide consistency for groups from year to year. “According to court cases, colleges must list the policies by which they operate,” he said. “We feel that student groups should do the same thing. We do not, however, list what those policies should be.”

While the College is not stipulating what those policies should be, it is stipulating that each group abide by the college-wide policy of non-discrimination, which is found on page two of the Williams College Bulletin. In the “Guidelines for Contents of Constitutions, By-Laws, and Policy Manuals” put out by the Student Activities Office, the clause in question reads: “The (full name of organization) does not discriminate on the basis of age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, handicap or disability, marital status, lifestyle or national origin.”

At this point, however, it is unclear how this clause will be interpreted and how grievances against clubs will be handled.

Michael Sheehan ’03 worries that such a blanket policy might force student groups to compromise some of their own values. “This is a very vague policy,” he said. “I’m afraid that if clubs have to sign off on this, they’ll be opening themselves up to things that might go against their own beliefs.” Sheehan insisted that the policy would only work if it did not compromise students religious beliefs or constitutional rights.

“If it is challenged it can be taken any number of ways,” Sheehan said. “This is important because there are no ‘do-overs’ with this policy.”

Sheenan also said, “I’m still waiting for an answer from [dean of the College Nancy] Roseman. People don’t want to deal with this, and I don’t blame them.”

While Sheehan worries about the policy of non-discrimination, Jen Geiger ’01, president of the Gargoyle Society, sees the whole process of writing a constitution as a waste of time.

“We’re a college, not a corporation,” Geiger said. “The turnover rate of club membership and leadership is too extensive. There is no way that this can be done effectively and still have student groups function.”

Geiger also questioned the amount of time needed to write constitutions. “Writing a constitution is a month-long project, at least. I don’t think clubs should have to devote so much time to an endeavor a new group of people might want to change when the leadership changes.”

Geiger noted that she agreed with the policy of non-discrimination. “The policy of non-discrimination is very much in line with the way we do things at Williams. If your actions as a leader of an organization are directly contrary to your organization’s mission statement, it’s not discrimination for your club to ask you not be one of its leaders.”

Kolesar said, “Every group on campus would have attributes it thinks are important. At what point does this constitute discrimination?” Kolesar noted the importance of having a framework for a student who felt he was discriminated against.

Roseman has found herself in the middle of this issue.

“Ever since I became dean in July, I have been trying to educate myself on this policy, and I began to review and ask questions like why are we doing this, what problem are we solving, is this in the College’s best interest, and is it in the students’ best interest,” she said.

Roseman stressed that the policy in its final form will look “quite different” from the way it exists now. “I plan on making it less bureaucratic. But at the same time, our non-discrimination policy remains the same. We still have in the bulletin a very clear non-discrimination policy that applies to the entire institution.”

“Student groups that are now very concerned about this issue I think will be pleased and will be comfortable with it at the end of the process,” she said.

Roseman’s current idea includes a “kind of grievance procedure” as opposed to a blanket statement of non-discrimination. “If a student feels like they have been discriminated against, I’d like to have in place some kind of grievance procedure where the community decides [like the Honor and Discipline committee] and I’d like that to be student-based, student-run,” she said.

“I don’t think that should be my decision,” Roseman said. “Right now, it is. Even before the policy existed if a student had a discrimination complaint, it’s unclear right now where that goes and how that’s dealt with. I think it will be good. It will let the community decide its own standards.”

Roseman further clarified her idea for the grievance procedure by saying, “What I hope is that the grievance committee would be similar to the honor committee in that it would be made up of students and faculty, but the faculty would be in an advisory role and the students would be the voting members. In essence, it allows the community to decide, yes or no, whether something is discriminatory and also to recommend a penalty if necessary.”

On the time table for the policy, Roseman said, “I hope to have a draft of the new policy soon so that I can discuss it with senior staff, my staff, college council, and our lawyers. My hope is that the final version would be finished by the end of this semester. Some aspects, like the make-up of the grievance committee, might take a little more time.”

This issue has been – and will continue to be – discussed in College Council (CC). “College Council began talking about this issue last year when student groups were first told about the constitution requirement,” said Todd Rogers ’01, co-president of CC. “We’ve been hearing a lot about it lately from a bunch of concerned groups and so we’ve been speaking with the dean’s office the past few weeks.”

The Minority Coalition (MinCo) also plans to address the constitution issue at an upcoming meeting. “Sometime during this month, MinCo will be discussing this issue and how it affects our members,” said Samee Ahmed ’01, co-chair of MinCo. “I’d like to see this issue be part of a discussion forum involving students and administration. This issue goes to the very heart of how we see groups on campus.”

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *