When I arrived at Williams last September, I embraced the fast-paced and protean social environment I encountered.
I attended interest meetings for various RSOs and was impressed by their organization and self-governance. I was compelled by the way that principles of leadership and democracy were mobilized — by students, for students. With little administrative oversight, these groups were responsible for a surfeit of opportunities. I felt energized at the prospect of participating in this nexus of micro-democracies and eager to connect with the many worlds that converged before my eyes.
I was drawn to College Council (CC) because of its powerful position in the universe of other student groups: as arbiter, facilitator, distributor of funds. Participation in CC seemed to offer unique leverage for meaningful engagement with Williams. I ran for CC, promising the residents of Sage Hall that I would prioritize their concerns and be genuinely responsive to their input. I vowed to keep the door of communication open and remain attentive to the diversity of who we were and where we were coming from. And so I joined CC, with an eagerness I now recognize as credulity. Two semesters and many meetings later, now the Vice President for Student Affairs, I fear that CC is not a functional governing body. I cannot, in good conscience, continue to participate in a group that contradicts its own rules, promotes a dangerously homogenous working environment and has proven (in both method and practice) to neglect important minoritized student voices.
Before coming to Williams, I served as a human rights commissioner in my hometown. In this role, I was exposed to the procedures of bureaucratic decision-making and saw first-hand the importance of human connection amidst a seemingly inhuman matrix of budgets, bylaws and regulations. When I joined CC, I naively assumed that it would operate in a similar way: privileging human interaction over officious bureaucracy and attending to student concerns with a genuine desire to promote change. This, unfortunately, was wishful thinking. Frequently over the course of my first term, I saw RSO representatives struggle to navigate the confusing, muddied waters of CC procedure. I saw well-conceived budget proposals shot down and scrutinized for being insufficiently technical or poorly formatted. Students who had taken time out of their busy schedules to present budgets or advocate for projects were being trapped in our web of process and decorum or discouraged from engaging for fear of being chewed up by the bureaucratic machinery of CC. It was as if, as a body, we had forgotten the central purpose of student government. We were neglecting the very people whom we existed to serve, and functioning as an impediment, rather than a conduit, to the effective administration and support of student affairs. Frustrating as this was, I still believed that CC was a worthy institution — albeit one with a diversity problem, and a problematic culture of self-obsession.
Last winter I ran for CC again, this time for the position of Vice President of Student Affairs. I hoped that a position on the executive board might give me a better opportunity to promote practical, on the ground change. It did not. On exec, all of the perceived shortcomings and inefficiencies of CC were amplified. Infighting and egotism often posed an insurmountable obstacle to finding common ground among us. Debates over bylaw amendments and semantic reconfiguration devoured valuable time. Essentially, we took ourselves more seriously than we took the concerns of our representatives. And we were okay with that. While serious attention to the minutiae of governance and process is valid, even essential, for any executive committee, we left out the human part in our focus on the trappings of process.
At this juncture, it is important to note that I am not exempt from criticism in this indictment. The extent to which I participated in a damaging culture, the extent to which I, too, was a part of the officious and aggressive machine which undermined the purpose of student government, should not be underestimated. I was partly drawn to CC because I recognized a problem in its structure — and the potential for change in that structure. But, ultimately, I became a part of the problem.
From the vantage point of early fall, it seems likely that the days of CC as we currently know it are numbered. Over the course of the next semester, CC will likely undergo deep examination, scrutiny and reconsideration, ideally with the result of creating a better-working system of government. If a vote of no confidence in CC is won, the current system will be replaced by another. The proposal to reconsider CC (in both structure and function) was born from mounting student concern and discontentment. We now need to be careful that reform is not developed and refined behind the scenes by the very people against whom students have leveled criticism. Ironically (yet quite characteristically) even in trying to fix their faults, the executive board cannot help but monopolize the conversation, and insist that their ideas are more generative and worthy than those of others. An effective and responsive new conception of student government whose sincere aim is inclusion and representation cannot be hatched behind closed doors by the very group responsible for the failures that prompted the institution’s review.
I believe that CC must undergo critical self-study and reform with the aim of achieving a higher level of transparency and accessibility in three main regards: the process by which discussion occurs, the structure of communication between Council members and non-members and the process by which decisions are made. CC must do this in order to prove that it can be a positive element in the self-governance of a socially responsible community and to earn the general support of the socially responsible citizens who make up this community.
Modern democracies rest on the ostensibly progressive premise that “all people are created equal” — that what we share in common is more determinative than our differences. As we re-chart the trajectory of our student government, I implore you (if you have the time and the energy) to engage, dissent, make yourself heard about ways to insure that our differences (which, after all, also constitute who we are) are fully embraced, seen and respected in the process of finding a richer, more meaningful, more thoughtful vision of our common ground. This is an opportunity to reweave the very fabric of Williams’ student government, to alter structures which determine how student groups receive funds, initiate projects, and more. For me, it is also an opportunity to be someone who can sleep at night, knowing that I’m working toward a solution rather than perpetuating the problem. I’m quitting College Council because you deserve better; because we all deserve better.
As I do so, I
want to note that my criticisms of CC are my own personal criticisms of a
failing institution. I am not trying to impugn the opinions or motivations of
any specific Council members, or of all Council members in general.
Furthermore, I would like particularly to thank co-presidents Ellie Sherman ’20
and Carlos Cabrera-Lomeli ’20 for the often thankless work they have done to reshape
the kinds of conversations we have in CC and to reorient our goals as a group.
Finally, to the newly elected members of CC, I hope that my thoughts here will
be grist for the mill of improvement rather than discouragement from the
project of student government as a whole.
Tristan Whalen ’22 is from Amherst, Mass.