Approximately 100 College students traveled to Washington, D.C., on Sunday to protest the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which if built would carry oil processed from tar sands in Alberta, Canada some 1700 miles to refineries in Texas. The protest, organized by the national organization Tar Sands Action, drew 12,000 protesters who circled the White House to draw attention to the potential environmental impacts of the pipeline and the release of greenhouse gases resulting from tar sand processing. Students who traveled to the protest sought funding from an array of sources at the College, ultimately raising roughly $5500 in donations from faculty, students, alumni, parents and academic departments. While the student protesters from the College, along with about a dozen students from MCLA, were able to raise the funds needed to book two busses for the day-long event, the process of individual donation by which they acquired those funds has raised questions regarding the funding of student political activism at the College.
As early as September, students began making plans to attend the protest, following a lecture at the College on Sept. 20 by Bill McKibben, leader of the environmentalist groups 350.org and Tar Sands Action. The lecture, titled “Global and Local: Reports from the Fight for a Working Planet,” discussed, among many environmental issues, the significance of the Keystone pipeline. McKibben identified the issue as one of the few major environmental crises that could be prevented and encouraged students to attend Sunday’s protest event in Washington D.C.
While the protest itself was free to attend, the students looking to make their way to Washington, D.C., sought funding from the administration and College Council (CC) to cover travel expenses. According to student organizers, they were initially refused funding from the administration due to legal concerns involving the College’s non-profit status.
According to Jorge Tena ’12, an organizer of the student protest and a member of the Williams Activist Coalition (WAC), President Falk told the protest organizers that the administration could not cooperate financially due to concerns that funding for the event could be construed as lobbying. Under Massachusetts and Federal law, non-profit organizations such as the College are prohibited from engaging in lobbying activities attempting to influence legislation, including acts of Congress, any state legislature or similar governing bodies.
Upon hearing that the funding for the protest might be prohibited, Tena looked into the legal issues at stake. “I thought, why not, let me check it out. I went to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) website and [the information is] very clearly outlined there, very accessible,” Tena said. According to Tena, information published on the IRS website suggested that the Keystone protest would have been exempt from lobbying restrictions for non-profit groups because it opposed an executive order by the President and not an act of Congress or any other legislative body.
Tena said that he brought this information to the administration about a month prior to the protest and that the administration told him that he was correct. “Dean Bolton emailed me back saying that my analysis was right but that the principle behind the IRS requirements is that the administration shouldn’t influence political decisions, so they still wouldn’t fund [the protest],” Tena said.
He added that the administration told him that CC was the only body on campus that could have legally funded the students looking to attend the protest because the money it appropriates from the Student Activities Tax is designated for student causes.
“The principle behind these laws, as I understand it, is about the appropriate role for non-profit educational institutions – that the institutions themselves should not be pushing one outcome over another in policy decisions,” Dean Bolton said. “So, while it may have been legal for the College to support a rally for one side in the tar sands issue … the principle of not institutionally supporting one outcome of a policy decision over another is the same whether the decision is taken in the Congress or the White House.
“Part of the reason these laws about non-profit educational institutions exist has to do with their tax-exempt status. If funds from these institutions go toward pushing one side of policy issue, then forgone tax revenue is supporting activist policy influence, which is problematic,” she said.
Tena said that he also approached CC for funding but was told that CC could not fund political interests. “If you look [on the CC website] there is no bylaw,” Tena said. “If they passed such a bylaw it isn’t in the minutes.”
Robin Hackett ’13, another student organizer, said that students then tried to seek funding from CC through the environmentalist group Thursday Night Grassroots (TNG).
Hackett said that while they were not able to obtain funding from CC, they did obtain “a decent amount of money from TNG, about 20 percent of its annual budget.”
CC treasurer Jack Noelke ’13 explained CC’s stance on the issue. “We had gathered that the deans’ office was uncertain about funding the event, specifically because the students were surrounding the White House,” he said. “It has to do with the type of activism that the College is supporting. We have no formal bylaw clarifying activism funding in this manner, but we might create one going forward.”
“It’s not even a fine line,” CC co-president Francesca Barrett ’12 said. “There’s a difference between sending students to a conference, such as that which the College Democrats attended last year, and sending students to a direct political protest,” such as last weekend’s event, Barrett said.
Without financial support from the administration or CC, the students who organized the protest relied heavily on donations from fellow students, alumni, parents and faculty.
Hanna Saltzman ’12, who was involved in organizing the protest group, said that much of their funding came from students going door-to-door, soliciting donations from professors. “We explained ourselves and we said, ‘Do you have five dollars, or 20 dollars … whatever they could give,” Saltzman said. She added that they also asked students attending the event to give $10 of their own money; many chose to donate more. According to Professor of History Shanti Singham, who attended and helped organize the event as well, five academic departments – political science, economics, Africana studies, the Center for Environmental Studies and the Office of Experiential Education – each contributed between $100 and $500, amounting to a total of about $2000, less than half of the busing fees.
Jim Mahon, professor of political science and chair of the department, said that his department was approached and contributed $200. “We regularly give modest donations for student activities of a political type, on the expectation that participation of any kind is a good way to learn about politics,” Mahon said. “We have done so without regard to the opinions expressed, as long as the participation is lawful, does not interfere with students’ other academic pursuits and does not pretend to represent its opinion as in any way connected to the position of the College.”
The Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives was not able to contribute financially because it was informed that the protest “wasn’t an activity that the College could directly fund, due to our nonprofit status,” said Amy Johns, interim director of the Zilkha Center.
Lili Rodriguez ’01, director of the Multicultural Center (MCC), said that the Center, as an office of the College, was not able to provide funding for the student protesters. “Three weeks before [the protest] we were told by [the administration] that we could not fund this because of our nonprofit status, and because [the protest] was seen as a partisan and a legislative issue … Williams couldn’t use its own operational budget to fund it,” Rodriguez said.
She added that the issue of funding was considered controversial because if the College or any of its constituent offices gave funding toward this event – seen largely as a liberal cause by the media – it would be expected to give funding to student-organized causes on both sides of the political aisle in the future.
According to Rodriguez, the MCC considered offering funding to the protestors following Tena’s assertions that the College could legally fund students. “However, we also knew that we needed some sort of statement or disclaimer saying that as a Center we are supporting [events such as this] because we believe in diversity of thought, not necessarily because we support the cause of each event,” Rodriguez explained.
Rodriguez and Justin Adkins, assistant director of the MCC, both thought that if the MCC agreed to provide funding for student activism, specifically protests, it would need to clearly establish how it values “diversity of thought,” Rodriguez said. That would mean funding both liberal and conservative political events, as long as they did not “violate Williams’ non-discrimination policy, which holds certain identities as protected,” including race, religion, nationality and sexuality, Adkins said. “If somebody came to us and wanted to go to a rally … that was about being anti-gay,” the MCC wouldn’t be able to send them, he said.
“At the end of the day, the MCC doesn’t initiate activism on either side [of the political aisle]. But we support [students who wish to engage] in it,” Rodriguez said. “We want both conservatives and liberals to walk through the doors and see the center as a resource.”
While the MCC decided not to fund transportation to the event, it did provide logistical support by finding the students an affordable means of bus transportation, booking hotel rooms for the bus drivers and helping students open a College bank account for donations.
“We [were] trying to help, and made the decision that [organization] was the best way that we could assist,” Adkins said.
Tena underscored how important it was for the group to procure funding for transportation: “Without the support of private donations, [the event] would be limited to wealthy students” who could afford attending on their own, he said.
“Williams is not usually politically active,” Tena added. “Just the fact that we had 100 students means that there is a lot of potential to have community building surrounding political issue.”
Singham also highlighted the significant fundraising effort put forth by the students attending the protest, explaining that they spent the several weeks prior to the event soliciting for donations.
“These past few months, America has had more grassroots activism than our generation has ever seen before,” Saltzman said. “Despite a general lack of activism, Williams is feeling this national energy and students are ready to be a part of it. In bringing as many students as we could with us to D.C., we aimed both to contribute to the amazing turnout at the rally and to help students to realize that they have a voice in America’s political system.”
Singham also attested to the significance of the approximately 100 students’ attendance at the protest. “This is the single biggest event of student activism that I’ve seen at Williams in my almost 23 years here,” she said. “In a sense, [activism is] new again at Williams. It’s always existed … but now I think we’re seeing a lot more youth activism.”
Tena said that while the protest, and the process of planning student transportation to Washington, D.C., was enlightening in terms of how students can create community through political endeavors, it also illuminated the need for clarity in the administration’s policies for handling activist events of this nature. “It just opens up a lot of questions about what the administration thinks about political issues and the importance of being political,” Tena said. “What does it mean that the administration and [CC] won’t finance this particular expression of political beliefs? I think it’s interesting that since day one we’ve been encouraged to engage with our community and be civilly active and engaged with our society, and that with a concrete opportunity to express our beliefs, that [CC] and the administration took this stance.”