For a better College Council: What CC can learn from the Papa Smurf controversy

Peter Le

I have a confession: Sometimes, I read the College Council’s (CC) minutes as a source of guilty pleasure. Perhaps I’m a concerned citizen, but the riveting drama of late is enough reason to go on CC’s Google Drive every Tuesday night. The more I read these minutes, however, the more my joy becomes worry. It seems to me that CC is unable to wrap its head around the fundamental issue that plagues its legitimacy and image: CC itself. 

By now, most people should already know about the Papa Smurf controversy (at least through the numerous memes about it). I’m not here to voice support for the “Papa Smurf Resolution”; in fact, some portions of the resolution take the joke too far and are offensive to some. Nonetheless, it is still worth looking into some of CC’s own arguments against this resolution because I think they reveal the problematic nature of how CC sees itself and how it wants to be seen on campus.  

The first claim is that the parodic language of the resolution mocks other efforts of student groups seeking CC’s support for legitimate concerns and undermines CC resolutions themselves. I completely agree with the first half of this argument. Instead of aiming criticisms squarely at CC, the “Papa Smurf Resolution” does veer off course and carelessly make fun of student groups, especially minority ones, that have serious concerns with the College. This alone is a good enough reason for CC not to pass the resolution. But the second half of the argument shows that CC is out to protect more than just these students. It is also out to protect the seriousness of its official communication channel: resolutions. 

Symbolic importance aside, what is the real meaning and impact of CC resolutions as a whole? Save the one for funding MinCo groups (which had its share of controversies), most resolutions “in support of” various groups/movements, like need-blind aid for international students and the Asian American studies program, are no more than empty press statements. The few lines of text, which offer CC “support” and “urge” College administration to do this or that, are mere blessings because CC does not follow them up with any substantive support. There is no support system after a resolution is passed, no organizational outreach or financial help, and I doubt that CC members actively lobby administrators for a movement that CC supports unless they are part of the movement themselves. 

The disconnect between passing resolutions in support and actually giving support is highly concerning, if not outright harmful. Resolutions give CC the justification to dust off its hands and say it has done its part, without seriously contributing to these movements’ viability or success. Worse, student groups that feel compelled to get a CC resolution to legitimize and support their cause end up wasting time and energy for what is, essentially, a false promise. Thus, if it wants to protect the sanctity of resolutions, CC should also look into how it is undermining movements that need — and deserve — more than a pat on the back. 

The second argument against the “Papa Smurf Resolution,” raised before the text was even introduced, was that, if passed, it would be widely published to the student body, administration, trustees and alums. The main concern here is what CC would be signaling about itself by passing this resolution. Cynically, the implication here is that the resolution would be embarrassing to CC in front of the College “adults,” since the student body’s opinion of CC could hardly get any worse by passing it. But CC should feel embarrassed. It should signal to the College’s stakeholders that it is in trouble. It is understandable that CC feels defensive about its image on campus, but this denial only exacerbates the problem. Despite various goodwill efforts and promises to improve CC and its image, I do not think there has been any serious conversation about how CC got itself into this position in the first place. Such a council-wide recognition is necessary for any CC reforms to succeed. Otherwise, these efforts risk being temporary fixes that mask persistent problems with CC-student interactions.  

This is not to say that CC members are oblivious, but rather, that they need to fully and publicly acknowledge CC’s situation. CC should not take the Papa Smurf controversy (not the resolution) as a slight or threat to its legitimacy because it is a symptom, not a cause. I do not want to dispute CC’s importance and responsibility on campus, but its demands to be treated seriously and with respect can be met only once CC humbles itself and, from there, delivers substantive results to the student body. Perhaps it is unfair to ask  the new Council to make amends for past terms’ problems, but this is also a chance for new members to break the downward spiral and rebuild CC’s trust on campus.  

Peter Le ’21 is from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.