We forget ourselves under the title: Reimagining student governance at the College

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We forget what College Council is – a body fashioned after the flaws of institution. Student management positions have always been breadcrumbs, approved by and handed to us by administrators as some figment of autonomy, their main function to be an intermediary, to redirect the energy or concerns of the student body away from the administration back onto itself (Record articles from 1914, 1934). College Council serves as a petri dish for students to learn the violent practices of institutional rule and recreate mechanisms of authority. We police ourselves like an institution, disregarding common sense for a slew of technicality, bylaws and amorality. Why is it we find ourselves unable to reimagine a campus with more conscientious student governance? We are so allured by the ability to control each other’s funding that we have grown complacent with our governance system, such that we accept division and pain as the only realities our student body can achieve.

 Since Williams’ inception, the College has been in place to maintain a stifling order upon the campus. Every year around Previews, around the time the Trustees arrive, administrators speak of the successes of higher staff pay without questioning the lack of mobility once staff enter the College. They flaunt Africana studies and Latina/o studies without supporting departments and programs suffering from our growing numbers of faculty of color on leave or leaving (Singham, Mutongi, Kolb, James, Njoya, Green, Love, Manigault-Bryant, Manigault-Bryant, Wang, and others). They ignore investigations of sexual assault and violence committed at the hands of tenured professors and use legalese to erase faculty-staff testimonies from the record. They ignore budgetary needs for the Davis Center and instead pit the Minority Coalition against College Council for funding once again.

 In keeping with this environment, College Council continues to reproduce the biases of the administration. For instance, last week, College Council engaged in blatant anti-Blackness disguised as strict adherence to constitutional rules and bylaws. When Black femme organizers requested funding for Previews programming aimed at creating space for Black pre-frosh, they were met with an onslaught of questions. This interrogation fixated on the presumed exclusivity of Black Previews and failed to reckon with the fact that Black Previews is not about exclusivity, but about inclusivity and belonging. Black students have taken on the extra labor to independently fill a gap in Previews programming that the administration and Office of Admission has overlooked. Notably, the barrage of questions came primarily from white men and non-Black members of color on College Council. Why was Black Previews funding met with bureaucratic resistance when a $16,000 funding request for the Williams Ultimate Frisbee Organization took six minutes? Why did College Council not discuss the fact that the Office of Student Life (OSL) has been charging club sport expenses, namely rugby, directly to the OSL p-card, rather than the student account as per the official College Council treasury rules? Why do we bend the rules for some groups but penny-pinch, berate and attack Black students trying to make Williams a more livable space? Should we not celebrate and enthusiastically throw our support behind student-led initiatives?

In the meeting, Council member Tristan Whalen ’22 demanded Black students give College Council “the same respect that we give everyone who comes here” (CC minutes, April 9, 2019). Yet, it is clear Black student organizers were not met with the same respect that other student groups, namely club sports or majority-white groups, enjoy without second thought. All of this happened in the same room, on the same night, April 9, 2019, in Hopkins Basement – under the many offices of the administration.

 College Council has been made a shield under which its members learn to selectively target people of color, to infiltrate safety and reason like administrators. We say abolish it, remake a student government that holds more autonomy from the institution and implements common sense rather than bylaws. College Council needs to work to repair the harm caused through meetings that reproduce institutional and interpersonal racism.

And yet, we also recognize that College Council is an echo of the institution. It is where students direct their rage and anger, only because it is more accessible to us than Hopkins. We do not question what lies outside our reach. We do not storm into the President’s Office demanding stronger funding lines and fairer methods of supervision by OSL. We are so caught in the pettiness of student-to-student political drama that we forget who lies behind it all. 

It is in the interest of the institution to have a divided campus, one that cannot unionize with staff, one that cannot walk out of classes in support of faculty of color like students did last week at Yale. We must reimagine the possibilities of our student governance, such that we can engage in the much more critical work that is left to be done.

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We, the authors of this op-ed, recognize that we will never know the experiences of Black students in last week’s College Council meeting, and tread lightly so as to not speak on their behalf. Rather, we point to this incident and invite the Williams community to reckon with our complacency with what we call “trickle-down institutional violence.” Existing on a college campus does not have to be unfair, unkind, or amoral. We have resigned ourselves to division, so much so that any attempt to achieve a better campus is ridiculed as naivete. In contrast, activists are more than aware of the harsh realities of the situation. We differ in that we imagine and work towards a world that does not necessitate division, where we are protected under the same banners as everyone else.

 This place holds witness to the generations of students who use their positions on committees, College Council and beyond to enact violence and diminish the position of students from minoritized backgrounds. Student organizers for Black Previews and CARE Now are already attempting to reimagine a campus that does not necessitate the harsh realities of the current system, but instead, challenges complacency in favor of a new institution.

Isabel Pena ’19 is a history  major and Latina/o studies concentrator from Anaheim, Calif. Tyler Tsay ’19 is an American Studies major from Pasadena, Calif.