Williams College students abolish College Council, replacing government from the ground up

Williams College students check out the new Sawyer Library on the first day of classes in September 2014.

WILLIAMSTOWN — Williams College students elected to dissolve their student government during a campuswide election this month.

At the same time, students approved a proposal for a completely new student government that attempts to be more responsive, effective and transparent.

The former student government, known as the College Council, had been in place since 1971. Since then, it had evolved into a convoluted structure with arcane requirements that "no one understood," said Adam Jones, a member of the task force who was elected last fall to develop an alternative governmental structure designed to be more representative of the current makeup of the student body.

And after years of students' frustration with the council's dysfunction, the students elected to end it, and set up a new form of government in its place, earning praise from Williams College President Maud Mandel.

"While students have long expressed concern about several aspects of the College Council, these students enacted solutions by building a new system from the ground up and ultimately convincing enough of their fellow students of its merits to support it in a democratic election," Mandel told The Eagle via email.

The dysfunction of the College Council became apparent to all when it denied permission to a group of students seeking to form a club to support Israel, the Williams Initiative for Israel (WIFI) during the spring 2019 semester. That led to accusations of anti-Semitism and, eventually, an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.

In July, the college agreed to a resolution with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights over a complaint charging discrimination in the College Council's denial of Registered Student Organization status to WIFI, a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, reported the student newspaper the Williams Record.

Jones described the WIFI debacle as a "giant dumpster fire" that effectively tangled the council in such tension and debate that it ceased to function.

Aside from that, there have been complaints that only a portion of the council is elected, and the Finance Committee in charge of distributing $600,000 annually in student activity funds was not elected, but appointed.

Many questioned the committee's decisions and makeup. Overall, students said the council was ineffective and bureaucratically muddled. Others pointed out that, statistically, black college groups were denied funding more often than mostly white student groups. Calls for its abolition have been heard since 2015.

When school resumed in the fall, the student body elected representatives to the council who favored its dissolution. Another election assembled the 16-member task force, and during the January winter studies program, the task force devised a Three Pillar system, wrote the constitution and bylaws for each of the three branches of the new government, and arranged for elections to dissolve the council March 1 and establish the new system.

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Both proposals passed. The vote to abolish the council passed with 81 percent in favor. More than 40 percent of the student body voted. Another set of elections happening this week will form the next government, which will begin its work almost immediately.

The Three Pillars of the new student government includes the Williams Student Union, which is made up of 12 elected members, three from each undergraduate class. The student union will serve as an advocacy group for the student body and will address issues raised by students regarding administration and school policy.

The funding body is FAST, or Facilitators for Allocating Student Taxes. There are five members, three selected from student organizations, and two that are elected. Their function is to administer requests from student groups for funding, and to work with the groups as they navigate the process.

Then there is TABLE, or The Advisory Board for Lobbying and Elections. It will be made up of five students who already had been elected as student representatives to five different student-faculty committees: one each from the Committee on Student Life; the Committee on Diversity and Community; the Committee on Educational Affairs; the Committee on Priorities and Resources; and the Campus Environmental Advisory Committee.

TABLE will administer appointments and elections for student-faculty committee members, ad hoc committees, or other committees that request students during the year. TABLE will set up a process that allows students to bring concerns to committees' attention, and host monthly forums open to the entire campus community.

Task force member Essence Perry noted that each of the three pillars are independent of each other, so, if an issue or circumstance causes a problem or an interruption in its functionality, neither of the other two groups would be affected and would continue to fulfill its duties.

As for the task force, after a month and 80 hours of labor, some will run for the new government slots, while others won't. But, Perry said the task force worked so well, partially because its mission was "very specific. I think that's one of the reasons we were so successful."

Mandel was pleased with the result.

"I have been impressed by a group of students who sought, through a democratic process and a lot of hard work, to address a campus problem that they believed was interfering with the establishment of a fully effective and representative student government," she said. "I look forward to working with the first students elected in the new system as we continue to improve the broader college governance processes through strategic planning."

Scott Stafford can be reached at sstafford@berkshireeagle.com or 413-629-4517.