Three Pillars: Imperfect but improved; The Record endorses Task Force proposal, despite shortcomings

Editorial Board

Voting on a referendum that offers the choice between two distinct paths forward for student governance at the College opened last Sunday and will close on Friday night. A Yes vote would abolish College Council (CC) and endorse the Three Pillars Plan, a proposal put forth by a student-elected Task Force to create three elected bodies that fulfill and reform the primary functions of CC. A No vote would mean resigning ourselves to a fundamentally broken CC, which we have critiqued in the past for its lack of transparency, inequitable funding practices and failures in accountability (“Calling for accountability, transparency from CC,” Oct. 9, 2019). Following careful consideration of both options, we, as the Record’s editorial board, endorse a Yes vote. 

The Three Pillars Plan offers solutions to several of the major structural issues that have prevented CC from responding effectively to student needs. With student government partitioned into three distinct bodies, problems likely to arise in one particular governing body would no longer affect student government’s ability to perform other functions. Student leadership would be more effective and efficient in a system that encourages specialization, where student leaders are able to focus on the areas where they are the most passionate to make change. Accountability would also be strengthened, since students could directly elect leaders for each of the pillars’ specific functions, in contrast to CC’s financial committee (FinCom) funding body currently in place. The alternative, a return to CC, would mean simply hoping that our representatives will suddenly and inexplicably correct for all the institutional mistakes that CC has committed for years. Eventually, we have to confront the fact that CC is structurally unsound. 

Although the Three Pillars Plan is preferable to the unworkable status quo, we believe that significant improvements must be made to the structure and function of each of the proposed pillars, which are the Facilitators for Allocating Student Taxes (FAST), The Advisory Board for Lobbying and Elections (TABLE), and the Williams Student Union. These are issues which ought to be remedied through continued reform after the initial implementation of the Three Pillars Plan. 

We support the overarching structure of TABLE, in which the elected chairs of five student-faculty committees are charged with appointing students to student-faculty and ad hoc committees. TABLE would be an improvement over the opaque appointment process currently presided over exclusively by the CC Executive Board. But several amendments to its bylaws are necessary to ensure TABLE can achieve greater transparency and accountability in the College’s oft-overlooked but still consequential system of student-faculty governance. 

In order to ensure responsive representation of student interests, we would require that a subsection of appointed student-faculty committee members attend TABLE’s monthly public forums, which the proposed bylaws currently require only the five TABLE members to attend. We would also mandate that the five elected chairs conduct significant outreach efforts to increase genuine interest from a diverse group of students in staffing these committee seats, which are often left empty or are appointed without a competitive application process. 

TABLE’s core purpose should also be reframed. Student-faculty committees are not just bureaucratic machines that keep the College running. They have the power to influence significant administrative decisions which have been the object of sustained student advocacy, including in the recruitment of faculty, the establishment of new academic programs and college policy on free speech and inclusion. TABLE would have the unique opportunity to effectively leverage institutional power on behalf of the student body. It should be explicitly charged with doing so in its constitution. Commitment to student advocacy should be a criterion the five elected chairs must consider when selecting appointees to student-faculty committees.

While we believe TABLE should have an important role in student advocacy under the Three Pillars Plan, the Williams Student Union would be not only ineffectual but actively harmful in achieving its purported goal of representing student advocates. We reject the institutionalization of student movements that CC began and the Union would continue, and support the dissolution of the Union after the passage of the Three Pillars Plan. The Union would be incapable of holistically representing the diverse and at times diametrically opposed positions of student advocate groups to the college administration, and would have too much discretion to pick and choose the kinds of advocacy it conducts. It would only offer the administration an opportunity to delegitimize student protest movements by insisting that these movements advocate solely through the Union’s bureaucratic, troublingly ill-defined and ultimately ineffective channels of communication. 

The last pillar is FAST, a body of elected ‘funding facilitators’ representing five sectors of funding: one student affiliated with club sports and competitive teams, one affiliated with performance groups, one affiliated with Minority Coalition and two student members-at-large. FAST begins to move past the overly restrictive and bureaucratic funding guidelines that prevented CC and FinCom from being accessible to students without the institutional knowledge necessary to understand its arcane bylaws. In pursuit of this accessibility, FAST would institute an approval structure that requires a supermajority of four out of five funding facilitators to reject a funding request, reducing the burden on students to prove their case for funding. 

FAST also addresses the barrier that kept low-income students out of FinCom by compensating the five facilitators and shifting the role of the elected funding body. The commitment required of CC members often excluded students who needed to prioritize work-study from seeking positions of leadership in student governance; compensating FAST members, in comparison, would reduce these barriers. Further, the funding facilitators would act as guides for students seeking funding, and it would no longer be solely the responsibility of unpaid RSO treasurers to navigate the bylaws. FAST would increase efficient access to funding in all sectors of the campus community, and its members might finally start looking like our campus community. 

But FAST, too, requires serious adjustments before it fully accomplishes the goals that it sets out to achieve. We are particularly concerned by the lack of transparency in FAST, which will not publicly release its members’ individual votes on funding requests. Anonymous voting is an unacceptable barrier to holding FAST accountable. Put simply, we can’t make an informed vote if we don’t know how FAST members are doing their jobs. FAST bylaws should be immediately amended to ensure funding facilitators publicize their votes and open their deliberations to the entire student body. 

FAST’s approval process has structural failings which would undermine the fair distribution of funding. Article IV, Section B, of the proposed FAST bylaws asks funding facilitators to consider the degree to which the event is “accepted by the student body” in deciding on funding requests. This language injects impermissible vagueness into the approval process and should be removed at the earliest opportunity. Acceptance by the majority should not be the rule by which funding requests are decided; it would provide an opening for funding facilitators to enforce their own arbitrary standards of student “acceptance.” 

The fair distribution of funding is further called into question by FAST’s sector allocations. By rigidly defining the amount of funds that each sector of student organizations can draw from, the proposed bylaws leave no room for discretion when exceptional circumstances arise. We should not look solely towards historical funding patterns, as these sector allocations do, to constrain future needs when past funding processes were mired by inequities and inefficiencies. 

Nevertheless, FAST, like TABLE, is superior in totality to the alternative: CC. Although this board sees the Union as counterproductive, and proposes significant reforms to each of the other two bodies, we recognize the reality of the referendum: The choice we face is not between the Three Pillars and a yet-to-be-developed perfect student government. It is a binary choice between continued CC dysfunction with little hope of reform and the change embodied by the Three Pillars Plan. We choose change.