Irregularities emerge in Honorary Degrees Committee appointments, current student members disgruntled

Student representatives on the Honorary Degrees Committee, who are ordinarily elected by their classmates, were selected this year by the College Council (CC) appointments committee (AC). An error made by the Elections Supervisory Committee (ESC) is responsible for the anomaly in the selection process. In a separate development, two student members of the Honorary Degrees Committee for the 2002 commencement have expressed disappointment about the scope of student inclusion in the committee.

The Honorary Degrees Committee, which selects speakers and honorary degree recipients for the College’s commencement ceremonies each year, consists of the president of the College, a number of trustees, a faculty member from each of the three academic divisions and three students from the graduating class. The committee meets each April during the monthly gathering of the Board of Trustees in order to generate an “A-list” of possible honorees for the following year’s commencement. Between committee meetings, the President’s Office contacts potential speakers and honorary degree recipients in order of the committee’s preference, keeping committee members informed of their progress.

Student members of the Honorary Degrees Committee are normally selected by a vote of the rising senior class via JOSE, the College’s online elections system, each spring. However, the committee positions did not appear on the ballot in the March campus-wide elections; instead, the AC chose the three students who represent the class of 2003 on the committee.

Joe Masters ’02, former CC co-president and designer of the JOSE system, traced the problem to last year’s spring elections. “In the spring of 2001, the Elections Supervisory Committee neglected to include that election in their packet,” Masters said. “So we ran the election after Spring Break. This year, the Elections Supervisory Committee used the information given to them by last year’s Election Supervisory Committee, which did not have the Honorary Degrees Committee included, and so again it did not happen.

“I realized this mistake about a week after the initial solicitation for nominations went out, and the ESC decided that it could be done again after Spring Break,” Masters continued. “So I let the administrator in charge of the committee [Margaret Driscoll, executive secretary and assistant to the President’s Office] know that the newly-elected College Council would take care of it.”

According to Ching Ho ’03, co-president of CC, the CC leadership “assumed [the Honorary Degrees Committee] was one of the committees that went through the College Council appointments process” following the failure of the position to appear on JOSE. CC was also pressured by the deadline imposed by the April Board of Trustees meeting.

Dan Elsea ’02 and Morgan Barth ’02, who served on the committee that chose speakers and honorary degree recipients for the 2002 commencement, expressed some disappointment with the level of student consultation in the process and hopes that the three students on the committee will be more centrally involved in the future. In particular, Elsea and Barth said that the “short list” of commencement speakers was pared down without a great deal of input from the senior class representatives.

“I was pleased with our honorary degree recipients. . .. That said, I was disappointed with the way in which the commencement speaker was chosen,” said Elsea. “I cannot (nor should I) get into the details, as I have to respect the committee’s confidentiality, but it was done rather unfairly and surreptitiously, I thought.

“As an elected student representative of the committee, I felt my point of view was not taken seriously by other members of the committee, especially some of the trustees,” he said. “That’s unfortunate considering that it’s our graduation, not theirs.”

Barth’s criticism was not as strong as Elsea’s, though he said he was “disappointed that [Trustee] Cecily Stone, President Schapiro and whoever else was in on the final decision acted without really consulting us.

“It seemed to betray the spirit of the committee’s consensus-gathering group decisions,” Barth said. He qualified his objection, however, in noting that the final selections were delayed until March, which is “late in the game. . . when it comes to finding a speaker.”

Elsea said that the current system for choosing commencement speakers is “not very democratic” and recommended a fundamental change in the process. “The graduating class should have as much input as possible in choosing the commencement speaker, because it is after all their event, so I think it only appropriate that the graduating class be able to play as much of a role as possible in choosing the speaker,” he said.

Elsea suggested the system used by Wellesley College as a model for Williams to follow. At Wellesley, he said, the graduating class votes for their speaker and the college contacts the individual winning the most votes and moves down the list if he or she declines.

“That sort of system guarantees both a certain degree of student satisfaction with the final selection and is simply much more fair given that the graduating seniors (as a whole) essentially decide, to a much greater degree than here at least, who should speak at their graduation,” Elsea said.

Barth did not see a need for fundamental change in the process, calling it “fair and balanced,” but he emphasized the need for student members of the Honorary Degrees Committee to be assertive.

“I hope that next year’s student members just know that they have to use their voices – they must be creative in suggesting new names and they must articulate their support of and objections to candidates from the very beginning of the meetings,” Barth said. “Once the folks from the Board [of Trustees] show up, the meeting goes so quickly and most of the Board members have people in mind – friends, connections – they advocate. It’s easy to get intimidated and to clam up, but everyone listened respectfully when we spoke up last year.”