How to create a relevant Council

In an interview this weekend, CC presidents Kim Dacres ’08 and Morgan Goodwin ’08 said that the organization needs to reassess its goals and role on campus. We agree, and suggest a specific way for Council to become more relevant and effective. Rather than entering office with a pie-in-the-sky agenda, next year’s leaders should come in with a pair of simple goals: soliciting opinions from students and communicating their wants to administrators.

This advice may seem counterintuitive. Why should we look for candidates without a big agenda for how the College should change? We’ll answer that question with a telling anecdote. Dacres and Goodwin came into office with four broad goals, one of which was making the College a more supportive place for student leaders. In nearly nine months of work, what has been accomplished to that end? A sparsely attended leadership summit before classes started and a glass case in the Paresky Center to house prizes for the winners of Campus Life awards. That’s it. It seems safe to say that the average student leader at the College does not feel more supported as a result of these changes, and thus this big objective should be termed a failure. Council as a body does not have the power to create broad changes in Williams culture.

Now, there are some important responsibilities and powers that undeniably rest with CC. They’re the body tasked with distributing the student activities tax. They sift through piles of applications and put students on College committees. They now help oversee ACE.

But perhaps even more significant than these specific tasks is Council’s easy access to both students and administrators. For starters, the organization’s leaders have guaranteed places in the administration’s date book. Unlike your average Joe Williams, CC officers have standing weekly meetings with Dean Merrill, blocks of time dedicated specifically to discussing issues currently affecting students.

The CC presidents have another noteworthy power that the rest of us lack. With a simple click of a mouse, they can reach the inbox of every student on campus at any time they choose. This semester has seen substantial abuse of this privilege, with Dacres and Goodwin sending numerous casual e-mails about such pressing topics as the purposes of toilets and what to do with our computers over Thanksgiving break. The net effect has been a student body more likely to treat these messages like junk mail from other listservs than ever before. However, if used only to lucidly communicate timely, pertinent information, then the ability to send these e-mails offers Council a considerable advantage over all other groups on campus.

So then, in CC we have a group with a few concrete responsibilities, unparalleled access to top administrators and the ability to communicate easily with all students on campus. In recent years we’ve also had about 50 percent participation in student government elections. From this set of facts, we can’t help but draw a troubling conclusion. This is a body that could do a dynamite job voicing our concerns to the administration, but is also a set of representatives most of us have so little investment in that we can’t put in the effort to cast a ballot for their places in office. We’ve seen further illustrations of this reality in the form of sparsely attended CC debates and forums. All of this evidence suggests that at the moment, CC may have Merrill’s ears, but the officers have little grounds to say that they’re filling those ears with our views. By utilizing opinion polls to gauge student opinion, our leaders would be better able to give the administration a clear and accurate representation of their constituencies’ concerns.

It would be easy to suggest that the way to solve this disconnect is to put more people on Council. It would also be incorrect. This is a campus with a long history of apathy towards student government, one where most elected positions have gone uncontested in recent years – last year’s competitive CC presidential race was far from normal. We do not need to bring on a bunch of people only vaguely interested in governance. Rather, we need a Council compose only of students willing to make the effort to be pro-active in talking to and representing their constituencies.

We recognize that doing such a job well would require considerable time and energy. We’re also not blind to the fact that the majority of the top leaders on CC are already stretched thin with extracurricular commitments. Between the co-presidents, secretary, treasurer and senior class representative, we have three Gargoyles, two neighborhood presidents, two sports team captains and a head tour guide. No wonder these people can’t dedicate the time to make CC a body that actually represents what their peers are thinking – they probably don’t even have time to sleep.

The solution here is simple. Shrink Council until it’s small enough to have competitive elections and the positions only go to students who will be legitimately dedicated to representation. Once all those governance-committed students are in the same room, leave as much of the nitty-gritty stuff as possible to the neighborhoods – if the Neighborhood Governance Board-organized changes on Dodd dining hall are any indication, they’re better at those than Council is anyway. After that, start making active listening and communicating a priority, letting the opinions and concerns of your fellow Ephs guide your agenda.

While flawed in its implementation, Council’s response to Campus Life’s dorm access restriction proposal offers a good starting place for becoming a body that represents students. Using their links to the administration, CC helped push decision-making off until they held an opinion poll. Using their all-campus e-mailing ability, CC held a poll that a gigantic proportion of students voted in. The administration got the message loud and clear: we want all of our dorms open to one another.

The key to the next Council’s success will be seeing instances like this one as the purpose of the body, rather than interruptions to their “real business.” Because, really, when that business is getting a trophy case installed to hold awards most of us haven’t heard of, then you’d probably be better off focusing on what other people have to say, anyway.