Trustees hold second forum for students

Kate Queeney ’92, chair of the trustee committee on student experience, moderated the open forum with students on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Jason Liu

Last Saturday at 1 p.m., over 100 students attended the open forum with the Board of Trustees of the College in Griffin 3. 

For two hours, students took turns sharing their concerns and views on the state of the College and the trustees responded.  As others spoke, audience-members showed support by snapping or raising double-sided signs distributed by students at the door that displayed either “Listen to This” or “I Agree.” 

This was the second open forum with the trustees at the College. The first open forum took place in January. These forums were created to allow students to openly share their experiences and concerns. 

College Council Co-President Caitlin Buckley ’17 and Trustee Kate Queeney ’92 moderated the forum.  In addition to Queeney, trustees Elizabeth Anderson ’87, Tim Belk ’77, O. Andreas Halvorsen ’86, Jordan Hampton ’87, Yvonne Hao ’95, Caron Garcia Martinez ’81, Richard Pickard ’75, Martha Williamson ’77 and Gregory Woods ’91  attended.

Many topics were covered including divestment, disability and mental health services,  curricular changes such as the implementation of an Asian-American studies program and international financial aid. The board’s lack of transparency and lack of progress on certain issues were oft-repeated points of contention.

Sam Alterman ’18 argued this point as the first student speaker. 

“I’m part of a group called the Coalition for Transparency and Accountability,” Alterman said.  “We’re a group of students who, in the aftermath of last year’s forum, was disappointed with what we see as a failure to make progress. This [forum] is a first step, but we have not really seen signs that there are further steps being made.”

Alterman made a series of demands that would be echoed several times during the forum. These demands were also outlined on handouts prepared by students and distributed to audience members.  In addition to a more permanent institution of open forums during each quarterly trustee visit, Alterman insisted on open release of minutes.

The core of the demands involved more transparency and student involvement with the trustees’ agenda and decision-making process as well as release of currently-sealed minutes and a student representative on the trustee committee.

“That the 50-year lock on meeting minutes be repealed with exceptions for privacy that are reasonable,” Alterman said, listing the demands. “That minutes actually be taken at subcommittee meetings and be available to the board at large, and be included within full minutes, that the current presidents of College Council and Minority Coalition actually sit with the Board of Trustees with reasonable exception for when students can’t be in the room — we want them to be able to add ideas to the agenda and proposals from the student body.”

Lastly, demands were made for an annual report.

“We want a yearly report from the Board of Trustees that describes your major financial and investment decisions, how the board has considered and addressed students’ concerns and progress towards increased transparency,” Alterman said.

The topic of conversation then changed to divestment, a proposal driven by the student group Divest Williams that seeks to divest endowment funds currently invested in fossil fuel companies, both directly and indirectly.  Many students attended the event wearing orange T-shirts and orange squares in support of the movement.. Eliza Klein ’19, a member of Divest Williams, voiced her frustration at the board’s slow progress toward removing funds even indirectly invested in fossil fuel companies after the previous open forum and reception in April.

“How it feels to us is that we’re telling you and telling you but you’re not doing anything,” Klein said.

Trustees defended their positions and worked to explain their perspectives. Queeney noted that the 50-year embargo on minutes allowed trustees to fully contribute their opinions and ideas, without fear of possible reprisal.

“Someone put it to me that the 50-year thing is so that basically people are dead before their ideas are released,” Queeney said.  “There’s a tradeoff between transparency and getting everybody’s best thinking.  We don’t always agree, and we change our minds with discussion.”

She also pointed out that the College administration and the board have taken steps towards increasing transparency in response to the demands of the students. A new website aims to inform the College community in more detail about board activities, conversations and agendas while providing clear profiles of each trustee.

“After we heard that from you last year,” Queeney said,  “the college actually did some work and found that the students are absolutely right — we are not transparent about who is on the Board of Trustees and what we’re doing.  We’re just now in the process of figuring out what’s the best way to make clear to you what it is we’re talking about and what we’re doing.”

Members also asserted that the board’s discussions and agenda have been already heavily influenced by student voices and concerns, even if they are not directly reflected in the decisions being made.

“The challenges you all posed to us made us think harder about [the agenda topics], more boldly about it,” Anderson said. “We didn’t agree with a specific prescription that was provided there, but you challenged us to think hard about what more we could do.”

In addition, the board has no control over some of the issues raised at the forum. Hao pointed out that this is the case with the Asian-American studies program.  Despite her support for it, curriculum determinations up to the realm of the faculty, not the board, and current situations at the College made it difficult for the faculty to accommodate such a program.

“That’s a topic that the board shouldn’t be in control of,” Hao said.  “We can ask questions, we can give input, but you don’t want the board meddling in what classes you have.  There were lots of good reasons that we heard back from the faculty why it was a difficult thing [to create the program].  I don’t love the answer, but I understand the answer and maybe we can think about ways in the future.”

Many students spoke about the need for increased levels of support for disabled, mentally ill and otherwise marginalized groups. Several students brought up  difficulties they had experienced personally or seen friends experience with healthcare, health support or therapy sessions.  Many noted how difficult it was to schedule therapy appointments — some only able to get a half-hour session every two weeks — while others talked about their difficulty in attaining health care in Williamstown. 

A handful of students called for equal opportunity in the face of unfair distribution of college resources, such as a misjudgment of priorities in the beautification library quad when other, highly utilized sections of campus were falling into ruin.  Terah Ehigiator ’18 brought up acute examples of construction not happening where needed.

“I’m wondering why is it that we’re spending millions of dollars on blocks and on walkways and yet black students, queer students, students who are giving up their time to work with students who have been sexually assaulted are being required to share small spaces with the faculty and staff,” Ehigiator said.  “The Davis Center — those buildings are falling apart, and students of color are in dire need of new buildings. That’s a big part of why I think transparency is so important, as this is a concern of many students of color, of queer students, of many students.”

Ehgiator also noted the difficulty of advocating up for one’s self-interests in certain positions, reflecting the his belief in the importance of establishing open channels of communication where students are comfortable to discuss their concerns.

“It is very scary for me, who has a lot of privileges, to speak in this meeting and know that I’m not putting my future in jeopardy,” Ehigiator said.  “Not every student is able to organize, and not every student has the emotional labor, the time to do that … That’s why I think it’s really important that there be a low-stakes way for us to talk about our issues as students that doesn’t require us to organize and occupy Hopkins Hall.”

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