Students petition for civic engagement center

A student-driven petition to establish a Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement (CPACE) has garnered almost 200 signatures in just over a week.

The campaign, which aims to make the College a leader in student activism, is a partnership between the Lehman Council for Community Engagement and Lindsay Moore ’09. The effort was initiated last year by a group of students who shared the concern that the College was lagging behind its peer institutions in supporting student involvement in public affairs and civic engagement. Moore is continuing the work of these students, many of whom have since graduated.

According to the petition’s organizers, the College’s Office of Community Engagement is lacking in resources. It is run by one part-time staff member while the equivalent organization at Amherst is staffed by eight full-time employees. Similar organizations with comparable means also exist at Middlebury, Swarthmore and Hamilton.

This inadequacy was the subject of the Record op-ed last week by Laura Christianson ’11 and Janna Gordon ’11, two members of the Lehman Council. The op-ed attributed students’ frequent failure to engage outside the Purple Bubble to the administration’s inability to adequately fund and facilitate service-oriented programs. “You shouldn’t have to know somebody to get involved,” Gordon said, reiterating the lack of access to resources.

Moore envisions CPACE as a centralized office that will bring together disparate service groups on campus and serve as a valuable resource for students looking to put their academic and activist interests to use outside of the classroom. According to a proposal she drafted, the Center will “integrate formal study, community-based engagement, and social action into the undergraduate experience” and thus fulfill the College’s broader mission to provide students a holistic liberal arts education. The proposal further notes that it “will – encourage all members of the Williams community (students, faculty, staff, and alumni) to collaborate and cooperate in public endeavors that are sustainable and continuous.”

Moore recently started working with Chris Winters, director of institutional research, to look for evidence of student interest in such a project. She hopes that analyzing the data from surveys given to Williams alumni and students and comparing it to data from other liberal arts schools will show the current need and internal support for this type of center.

According to Gordon, Moore is a liaison between administrators and students in this ongoing effort to bolster support for CPACE, while the role of Lehman Council has been to coordinate student involvement in the campaign.

Since last Tuesday, Lehman Council has been tabling in Paresky, collecting student testimonials about their own engagement with the community and gathering signatures for a petition it hopes to pass along to senior staff and the Board of Trustees before its next meeting on Oct. 16. The petition expresses “concern with the lack of institutional support for student involvement in public affairs and civic life” and urges the College to “encourage and streamline academic and extracurricular engagement with local, national, and global initiatives.” Approximately 160 students have signed the petition on paper and another 30 have endorsed it electronically. Lehman Council will be gathering signatures through the end of this week.

Gordon emphasized the potential impact on the local and global community should such a Center facilitate students’ application of academic knowledge to the realms of advocacy and activism. “We’re lagging behind right now,” she said, “but Williams can and should become a leader in civic involvement.”