Increasing student involvement

It is extraordinarily distressing that many students do not recognize that the quality of their experience here is, for the most part, in their hands.

You may not notice it, but this school is great. You can party on weekends without paying a dime. You get to go to great concerts – like Ben Folds or The Roots – at dirt-cheap prices. We have ridiculously prestigious, knowledgeable and entertaining speakers almost every week. By all accounts, student life here is pretty good.

And nobody wonders where it all comes from. Well, that’s not completely true: everyone knows that ACE did this or that, or that College Council or some other group sponsored something else. Still, that’s all rather distant. When I’m having a good time at a party, or attending a lecture, I hardly have the time or inclination to think about all the organizations and people behind it.

That’s probably a good thing. I’d most likely be turned off if an event were “sponsored by Gerry Lindo, Greatest Guy Ever.” If the motivation behind the work of student volunteers and organizers was simply the gain of political or social mileage, then we might agree that their dedication was questionable.

But for the most part, student organizers at Williams College tend to work outside of the limelight. They do what they do, things run well, and the student body stays rather content.

Perversely, one effect of this is a profound disinterest in the workings of the school; it seems as if these activities are organizing themselves. Accordingly, few people take it upon themselves to do anything.

Traditionally, there have been few applicants or candidates for positions on student-faculty committees – perhaps because few know what exactly it is that they do. In the last CC election, attendance at debates was sparse, and there were several unopposed candidates; again, perhaps because many did not see the point.

Bureaucrats, admittedly, aren’t very interesting. But one need not look at such organizations (which some critics deem “irrelevant”) to see and to critique student disinterest. All-campus parties and the occasionally chaotic results thereof, are a prime example.

The vandalism, inappropriate urination and bad behavior that occurs at these events – resulting in massive fines and the deactivation of many houses – is unacceptable. This kind of behavior would be hard to imagine if students were aware of the hosts, monitors and other organizers that run the events, and of their fellow students to whom charges accrue. If there were not a mental disconnect between students and organizers, this would not happen.

A more troubling consequence of the disconnection cuts the other way; many organizations that make decisions that affect student life seem unconcerned with student desires. The reduction of the housing group size, for example, was a decision that most students were very much against, and complained loudly about.

Yet, the decision took two years to be made and there was hardly a peep about it until it actually happened. The CUL was not acting in secret; their meetings are open, and they made their report widely available. Yet many students were surprised and angry. Could it be that the CUL did not represent student interests? Could it be that students were just being whiny after failing to hold the CUL to task? Either way, the problem seems to be one of disinterest and disconnection.

Groups that oversee student life are often called “irrelevant,” and this may be true. However, it seems to me that irrelevance is a function of complacency – if no one cares what a group does, or if no one attempts to participate, then a group will be ineffective, at best. A worse possibility is that a group may act badly, or that the school administration may listen to the opinion of a handful of students who do not represent the student body. And to be fair, in a case such as this, the administration has little else to go on.

A few vocal (but perhaps unaccountable) students are a more effective voice in the ear of the deans than a grumbling but inactive student body. Almost everything of importance in this school gets decided by a committee with student voices on it. This campus is run by students, and things run as well or as badly as students let it.

The deadline for nominations for student-faculty committees is approaching quickly. Everyone received an invitation to join one. Sadly, I have the distinct impression that a lot of people threw the solicitation away moments after taking it from their S.U. boxes.

After this round of appointments, we’ll see if things still run as smoothly as they usually do, or if people will be upset that they never have a say in things.