A proposal to reform College Council: Outlining a new structure for disbursing funds

Simon Kessel and Hadiqa Faraz

When you give $500,000 away to student groups each year, being irrelevant and unpopular is an impressive feat. Yet College Council manages exactly that. Boasting a 7% approval rating, uncompetitive elections, and a general lack of respect, College Council clearly needs reform. Fortunately, CC has recognized this, but has not yet fleshed out a complete plan for what its future should look like. To fill this gap, we would like to offer a diagnosis of CC’s failures, and a plan for how structural reform could ameliorate these problems.

CC’s overlapping and sometimes contradictory missions prevent it from succeeding at any one goal. In addition to distributing the roughly $500 thousand per year from the Student Activity Tax, CC is tasked with making appointments to Student-Faculty committees, as well as representing/leading the student body. Because it was designed as a representative, quasi-political council, with nearly every action, no matter how trivial, subject to arcane parliamentary rules and majority approval, CC is structured to promote discussion and debate, rather than swift action on uncontroversial issues. It does tend to promote debate and discussion fairly well – for evidence, look no further than the robust debate over the funding of WIFI (though one should note that many, particularly people of color, do not feel comfortable within CC). However, this prioritization of discussion limits CC’s effectiveness at distributing funds to student organizations: groups are made to wade through complicated bureaucracy, trivial discussions slow down motions that should easily be approved (Simon once sat through a twenty minute discussion of whether Tarot card reading is “skilled labor,” and should thus be paid at a higher rate), and the lack of a single person to hold accountable lets bias fester and makes reform hard. Thus, the very structure of CC creates a negative feedback loop: too much debate, whether good or bad, prevents decisions from being made, making CC a frustrating experience, reducing interest and the competitiveness of elections, which removes CC’s mandate, and continues the cycle. And look no further than CC’s inaction on reforming itself for proof that it is systematically incapable of decisive action.

The solution lies in breaking up CC into two bodies, one tasked with distributing funds to student organizations, and the other built to create a forum for campus discussion and representation. The second body could look similar to the CC that exists today, so we will leave that aside, and focus our proposal on a body to distribute funds.

We believe that the power to disburse funds should rest with an empowered Treasurer, checked by a small council, that could take swift action on the vast majority of funding requests that are not controversial, while deferring to the council on more controversial requests. To be more precise: this new body would consist of a Treasurer, along with a  Council of six representatives, all elected at large from the student body. Funding requests would be submitted to the Treasurer, who would evaluate these requests and decide whether to turn down the request or fund it in part or full. The Treasurer’s decision would then be subject to an up/down vote at the weekly meeting of the Council – no nitpicking at a couple hundred dollars for a Previews event. If the Treasurer’s decision is upheld, then OSL would be instructed to disburse the funds, with no need for an overworked treasurer to handle the paperwork. If the Council vetoes the decision, then they would discuss with the Treasurer a solution that can pass.

For the vast majority of funding decisions that are uncontroversial asks, this system would be a vast improvement. Student groups could submit a simple form to the Treasurer, outlining their request, who could then choose to fund it in part or full, or work with the students to make it acceptable. Then, the council would vote within a week, and the vast majority of decisions would be upheld, after which OSL could disburse the funds. This process would be a huge improvement over the current CC structure, in which students are forced through the bureaucracy of FinCom, the tedium of debate of the full CC, and the need to have the funds disbursed by an unpaid, overworked student. The process would be faster, easier, and more predictable.

For the controversial requests that seem to come up a couple times a year (think the Equestrian Team, WIFI, and Black Previews), our proposal would still be an improvement, though not quite as drastically. If the Treasurer is unsure about what to do with a request (if, for example, the requested funding is especially large or for a potentially controversial use), he/she could choose to not make a decision and discuss with the council, or hold an open forum, in which the Treasurer and Council would listen to opinions for and against the funding from the student body at large (a supermajority on the Council could also force an open forum). In the event that an open forum is called, a supermajority would be required to approve or disapprove funding. Thus, for especially controversial cases, our proposed structure would require compromise. 

Two specific reasons this structure would be an improvement in controversial cases: first, the easy to navigate system would make controversial cases less likely to occur: if the system is simpler, frustrations won’t build up as much, and hopefully  historically marginalized groups will be likely be less disadvantaged when requesting funds. Second, the small size of the system, with a Treasurer and only a six-person council, would allow for more accountability. Rooting out bias (or even just incompetence) is harder in a system that lets individuals hide within a group and mask prejudice or ignorance with greater knowledge of parliamentary rules. The Treasurer and Council would not be able to hide behind bureaucracy, and thus could be better held accountable. 

While finding a good Treasurer would be essential for this system to function well, our reforms would make this more likely by making the job more attractive and the elections more competitive. Offloading the administrative functions of the job onto OSL, while empowering the Treasurer to swiftly make decisions, would make being Treasurer less tedious and more important, thus increasing the pool of candidates. Additionally, reducing the overall number of representatives, and making all elections school wide, would make each individual election more competitive. 

We hope that this proposal sparks other thinking in how CC could be structurally reformed to better serve its mission. We welcome, and hope for, criticism, responses, and further thought. If there is one thing, though, that we are certain about, it is that we as students should not give up the power to fund student groups to administrators. The Student Activities Tax is a powerful tool for shaping the future of Williams, and letting the same people who remove protest posters control student group funding is unlikely to result in more accountability or less bias. Though we may not believe in CC, we should have faith that we, the students, can reform CC into something better.

Hadiqa Faraz ’21 is an economics and political science major from Islamabad, Pakistan. Simon Kessel ’21 is an economics and political science major from Seattle, Wash.