Last Sunday, approximately 100 students traveled to Washington, D.C., to urge President Obama to reject plans for the creation of the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline. We unequivocally applaud the initiative that students showed in executing the event – and the resurgence of social and political activism at the College that it represents.
Yet, strikingly, the manner in which the group obtained funding for transportation to the protest was fraught, raising a series of questions about the way the College can effectively support activism. This kind of activism falls into a gray area of the College’s funding policy for student events, and in its wake, it would be wise for the College, and for constituent organizations like the Multicultural Center (MCC), to establish ground rules for what kinds of activist events the College community can and should be funding in the future.
While participants returning to campus seemed moved and reinvigorated by their experience in Washington, D.C., the days leading up to the event were filled with uncertainty. The College itself, College Council (CC) and the MCC all refused to fund transportation to the event, citing College policy and the potential illegality of a non-profit sponsoring student involvement in a political protest. Students ultimately raised significant funds by themselves, soliciting alums, parents and even professors to contribute to the cause.
It is lamentable that students had to resort to door-to-door solicitations of professors in order to raise the necessary funds to attend the protest. Whether or not this was appropriate is not necessarily clear, particularly in relation to professors. While we recognize that professors are individuals who can independently support whatever causes they’d like, we think it may be uncomfortable, especially in our small, tight-knit community, for professors to become a known resource for extra money for such endeavors when traditional means of funding prove unforthcoming. Additionally, the College is a predominantly left-leaning institution; we doubt that a group of intrepid students looking to attend an off-campus Tea Party protest, for example, would have been able to garner the faculty support that the Keystone XL activists have enjoyed.
In a time of resurgent nationwide activism, we hardly believe this is the last event of this nature in which students will want to take part. To be sure, the College does have resources for students to learn about and be supported in their efforts. The Williams Activist Coalition (WAC), founded last year to bring together the various student activist groups on campus, has just begun to transition from a purely organizational body to a body that can fund activities. The MCC has also begun to change its role on campus in an attempt to forge more activist- and academic-based relationships with the student body at large. While the administration and the MCC did offer organizational aid to the students who traveled to Washington, D.C. – the Center coordinated busing for the event, booked hotel rooms for bus drivers and helped students open a bank account for donations – there was a clear lack of information about what the best way was for students to proceed.
Perhaps with the help of students who worked so hard to attend the Keystone XL event, we would like to see the MCC establish a solid definition of what qualifies as an appropriate activist event for the College to fund, as they have mentioned they would need to do in order to fund the event. As part of its restructuring efforts, the MCC needs to work with the administration to clarify the College’s official policy when it comes to these sorts of events; when a student comes to the MCC looking to attend a political protest in the future, the MCC should be able to say whether the College will be able to support the event, and if so, where on campus the student should go to find funding. It would be equally productive if CC went forward with the consideration of a bylaw relating to the funding of activism. We believe that this kind of clarity in practice will help avoid the confusion that student protesters were force to overcome in organizing last Sunday’s ultimately successful event.
Given the complexity of the legal issues related to nonprofit involvement in political activism, it would be imprudent for us to make specific suggestions to address the administration’s concerns. However, if the College is interested in fostering political activism on campus, it is incumbent upon the administration to make resources and funding accessible to students. There are means by which the College could legally fund student involvement in activism of all types – an endowment specifically for student activism, funded by alumni and anyone else interested in donating, might be one such way. Administrators should at least consider those options as more and more students embrace the wave of political movements taking hold across the nation. We often talk about dangerous learning at the College; with clear institutional rules and support for activism, we can put that theory into practice.