Toast to the trustees: Finding ways to be heard

April 27, 2016 by Eliza Klein

This past January, the members of the Student Life Committee on the Board of Trustees met with students in an open forum to prioritize student voices. Many agreed that the forum was a huge success: Students voiced many crucial issues, including financial aid and the disproportionate harm the removal of the no loan policy causes for working class students and students of color, sexual assault at the College, the demand for an Asian American studies concentration and admissions accessibility for undocumented students. This direct conversation between students and trustees in an open forum was the first of its kind in recent history. The Board of Trustees holds a great deal of power over the operations of the school, and therefore it is crucial that students, faculty, staff and administrators have the right to consistent, open communication with the Board. An open forum, like the one that was held in January, is the single most important way this can happen.

During the trustees’ annual spring 2016 meeting, despite students’ calls for another open forum with all trustees present, the trustees organized a formal reception for the student body in the Faculty House. The main reason students supported the open forum was that it worked to undo the power dynamic between trustees and students that exists in individual meetings, dinners or receptions in which the trustees feel more at ease and the students don’t feel comfortable raising their concerns because it doesn’t seem polite. The other crucial aspect of the forum is that it allowed for students to show solidarity with each other, preventing the individualization of pervasive systemic issues. Consistent forums would allow stakeholders in the institution to hold the administration accountable for commitments they have made to address certain issues. It is true that not all students feel comfortable or are able to speak out at an open forum, and so a forum can include multiple forms of input from students.

In order to ensure that everyone was aware of crucial student issues, which may be concealed in one on one mingling conversations, concerned students wrote a document summarizing some of these important student issues, and handed out orange squares to symbolize fossil fuel divestment and red squares to symbolize the tens of thousands of dollars of debt some students are graduating with. The room was filled with students wearing these pins. About halfway through the reception, students disrupted the space with a series of toasts. One student gathered the attention of the room, and then another student immediately began to speak. “Hello, thank you all for coming here. It’s so wonderful to have the trustees here tonight to listen to the students. In that vein, we would like to give a collective toast,” they announced.

What followed was a sequence of powerful toasts that spoke to some of the most pressing issues in the community – issues that the Board of Trustees has neglected to address. One student toasted to our financial aid system, in which students graduate with an average of $12,000 in debt thanks to the repeal of our no-loan policy. Another toasted to our sexual assault reporting process, where 90 percent of survivors do not report and nine out of 15 cases are not brought to justice. Another student toasted our investment office and its refusal to engage our fund managers about fossil fuel divestment, as well as peer institutions like Yale who have promised partial divestment to help fight climate change, environmental degradation and human violence perpetuated by fossil fuel industries. Additional student toasters called out the College’s lack of support for undocumented students, insufficient psych services and our curriculum, which still lacks Asian American studies and Native studies despite years of student pressure to implement such programs. The final student who spoke made a toast to transparency and the need for the trustees to be transparent about their processes and decision-making; currently their minutes are sealed for 50 years, and they do not take minutes at all at their subcommittee meetings.

Looking around the faculty house, we saw trustees, not students, talking for the vast majority of the reception. Students were not given a chance to raise issues of concern as organized groups of students working on issues together, and so out of necessity we created our own space to do so. The toasts and, more quietly, the orange and red squares, were a necessary disruption of the reception that allowed students to speak to different issues, show support and solidarity with one another and demonstrate to the trustees that we will continue to make our voices heard. We were able to bring the event closer to what many students felt it should have been, and the toasts were also implicitly a rejection of the format of the event itself. The trustees should make a commitment to hold  more open forums, otherwise it will fall by the wayside. We are Williams, the chant goes, but will students all get an equal say in how the College should look?

Eliza Klein ’19 is from Cambridge, Mass. She lives in Sage.

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