The state of College Council

The usually quiescent College Council has provided the campus with a lot of news in the past few weeks: the departure of Co-President Mark Rosenthal, the taut and controversial Horowitz meeting, and the student-funded CC dinner at the Thai Garden, a modest affair involving only 30 people and 500 dollars. All of these serve to shine a spotlight on a Council that is now in the fourth month of an eight-month term of office. In these four months, its record has been mixed.

First, we ought to discuss the departure of Co-President Mark Rosenthal ’03. Some see the move as an abdication of responsibility on the part of Rosenthal. I’d say that’s partly true; however, I’m more sorry that Rosenthal is leaving than anything else. Having talked with him last year after his election, he (and Ching Ho ’03) did seem to have genuinely good intentions. Also, it may be an abdication on Rosenthal’s behalf, but there is a succession process written into the CC Constitution, which, if imperfect, is still workable. The problem with CC is that in their well-intentioned desire to improve student life, they have lost sight of larger issues dividing the Williams community.

It ought to be pointed out, in all fairness, that this year’s CC has by and large done a good job on issues of student life. Rosenthal’s push for the inclusion of older laptops to be provided by the 1914 Library is a prominent example of this utilitarian spirit. Ideas like this one are genuinely important for many students, and it is to the credit of the College Council that it has recognized this and acted upon it. Still, the question of the proper focus of CC nags: is it in essence a glorified student council, confined to the collegiate equivalent of bake sales and car washes, or is it a real deliberative body making important decisions for the body politic it represents? One would hope that the latter is true, but one might also be justified in thinking that an excessive commitment to the smallest details leads inevitably to an undesirable neglect of larger campus issues.

And there are plenty of these. Whatever your stance on campus politics, you are surely able to think of matters that ought to be taken up by College Council in addition to student-life issues; for some, it might be questions of comfort and safety – threats to these were some of the things opponents of the Record’s decision to run the Horowitz ad pointed to. For others, the tendency of unpopular speech to be attacked and shoved out of the public sphere might be just as threatening. Whichever position is closer to your own, we can surely all agree that the questions raised by these issues – free speech, diversity, race relations on campus – are ones central to our existence as a College. And yet, in the body that is supposed to discuss matters of import to students – the College Council – there is limited and equivocal discussion of hot-button topics like those above. CC can do better than that.

Perhaps most importantly, there is the question of the growing gulf between the CC and the student body it is supposed to represent. There is little love lost for CC in the mind of the average Williams student; the prevailing opinion seems to be that CC is a group of self-important politicians, and the latest actions by Council have done little to dispel such notions. I am referring to the lavish ($500) dinner held for CC members at the Thai Garden. According to a statement made by Treasurer Mike Henry ’04 in the minutes, the money came from a CC “slush fund” not connected with the Student Activities Tax, and has been traditionally used to buy departing officers dinner. It is important to note that this money comes from royalties from Baxter vendors; the student handbook stipulates (on p. 161) that money from the vending should be entered into should be placed in “the College Council account,” not a non-Council fund which is used for luxuries for the CC. Henry said that such a policy promoted Council unity. It very probably did, but is that a good reason to spend $500 on it when groups are having budgets slashed? I’m not convinced that it is.

So all in all, it’s been a mixed bag for this no-longer-new College Council. They’ve done some real good – the idea of College-financed laptops for financial aid students is a fantastic one – but they’ve also done some harm, the most pressing example of which is the Thai Garden dinner. The CC should use its remaining time in power to remedy some of the problems which have come up under its watch. Student life is important, but so are bigger issues, like the roots and causes of the continual Mad Cow/Horowitz divisiveness.

If the current officers and Rosenthal’s successor can strike a balance between the utilitarian and mundane on the one hand, and abstract discussion on the other, it will be to the benefit not only of CC, but also to the students, campus and the Williams community as a whole.