Owning the purple bubble

September 30, 2015 by Will Sager

We, the students of Williams, do not own our campus. But that’s not the scary part. The scary part is that we’re fine with that.

Last week, a thought-provoking article by the Record’s Editorial Board argued for “increasing student involvement … in the decision-making process surrounding the discretionary spending of our endowment.” I wholeheartedly agree that we, the students, should have a voice when the College makes the decision to spend millions on a new building, rather than instituting a tuition freeze. But we cannot credibly claim a right to involvement in this arena, or many others, when the track record of student involvement in important college decisions is marred by apathy. Why should the College seriously consider reworking its decision-making frameworks when students have shown they will very likely, within a year or two, have lost all interest in being part of those frameworks?

Two years ago, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was chosen to be the College’s commencement speaker. In the months leading up to graduation, a portion of the student body voiced opposition to this choice, in part because of the former mayor’s support for stop-and-frisk, a controversial policing strategy. This campus debate spurred the College to expand student involvement in choosing Honorary Degree recipients. Today, the Honorary Degrees Advisory Committee (HDAC) is structured to include three members each of the sophomore, junior and senior classes, as well as the College Council (CC) Vice President of Community and Diversity.

But there’s a problem with this story. As you might have recently noticed while voting online to elect your student representatives, only one member of the sophomore class ran to serve on the HDAC. If candidates had not been written in, two spots on the committee would have gone unfilled.

Similarly, the senior class didn’t have a single person declare his or her candidacy to represent the class in CC. While this might be kind of funny, it’s also alarming. It means that, in one way or another, some part of the mechanism by which we are supposed to govern ourselves is broken. Maybe we shouldn’t be worried – maybe the way to fix our broken system lies in non-participation. This could conceivably cause existing structures to collapse and eventually provide the chance to start anew. However, I think it’s more likely that saving, and perhaps reforming, our system depends on the opposite.

The College has displayed laudable willingness to engage with students on issues that matter to our community and to rework existing governing procedures. Last year, the divestment movement helped spur the College to act to respond to global climate change, and the College publicly committed vast resources to reducing its carbon footprint at the start of this academic year. Similarly, the HDAC was adapted to increase student involvement when it became clear that the voices of students were not being heard when it came to choosing the people we should be honoring at graduation. In both of these cases, students worked hard to make their voices heard, as well as to take ownership of our community.

But we give up our ability to own our community when one person runs for a body like the HDAC. Let’s say, hypothetically, that next year, after a similarly low turnout of candidates for the Committee, the College chose Donald Trump as our commencement speaker. How seriously could we expect opposition to this choice to be taken if the student body had already said “thanks, but no thanks” to serving on the selection committee?

Active student participation in decision-making bodies today matters because it means that in 10 years, we won’t have to protest to make our voices heard on issues like how the College spends its money or what fuel sources we burn to power our campus. Our voices will already actively contribute to those important decisions and be ingrained in the fabric of the College’s decision-making culture – the momentum will be on our side.

In the short run, it’s easier to let the College make decisions for us. There are a lot of smart people on this campus who aren’t students but who are fully capable of shaping a vibrant and well-run community. But when we allow others to construct the community at the College we will live in for four years, we run the risk that we won’t be happy with some of the decisions they make. We run the risk that in four years we won’t recognize the community we thought we knew as first-years. We run the risk that we’ll lose the ability to really make our voices heard.

We can either decide to own our community and build the college experience we wanted when we chose Williams or we can sit by and let others build something else.

Will Sager ’17 is a political science major from Mendham, N.J. He is currently studying abroad at Oxford University.

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