Community Members Meet to Discuss President Benston’s Rejection of Plenary Resolutions

On Tuesday, November 14, members of the student body congregated to respond to President Benston’s denial of the two resolutions at Plenary.  This event was hosted by the resolution writers, and Leah Budson ‘19 facilitated the discussion.  The event was intended to be an open space for students to react to President Benston’s decision and email to the community, and to formulate a plan for action.  

President Benston sent his letter of rejection to the community on November 8, nearly a month after fall Plenary.  Benston accepted the ratification of the alcohol policy (meaning that the alcohol policy will remain in effect) and rejected both resolutions (Financial Aid Policy and Day of Community Engagement).  

President Benston begins his letter by explaining, “While I find common cause with much that I take to be essential in the resolutions, I cannot commit myself and the College to a strict fulfillment of the actions they prescribe… I ask that students, including but not limited to those who supported these resolutions, move beyond the binary structure of the present moment and continue to engage in productive dialogue about the resolutions’ core ideals and aspirations — which I share.”  

Roughly 30 students attended the November 14 meeting, including athletes, Customs team members, and members of Students’ Council and Honor Council.  Participants in the discussion introduced themselves along with a one-word reaction to Benston’s letter: some words which were repeated include “disappointed,” “frustrated,” and “exhausted,” as well as both “surprised” and “unsurprised.”  

When students shared their reactions in more depth, the complexity of the issues at hand became clear: there were strong emotions expressed stemming from many different places.  Every student who spoke felt that some action needed to be taken, and that  they believed that President Benston’s letter was reflective of a lack of concern or knowledge on his part regarding the issues faced by students on this campus.  Most of the action items discussed centered around raising awareness of issues of identity.  

On November 21, students reconvened to speak with  President Benston directly about their concerns.  Unlike the first meeting, which was a student-organized forum, this event was organized by President Benston, and all community members were invited to attend.  A greater number of students attended this meeting, and some members of the faculty and administration were in attendance as well, including Dean of the College Martha Denney and Special Assistant to the President Franklyn Cantor.  Only two of the resolution writers were present.  

After a moment of silence, President Benston shared his hopes for the meeting: he expressed a wish to continue “moving towards the future”, and that he was “surprised that students were surprised” at his decision.  He added that he felt that he was not actually in disagreement with the student body, saying, “The richness and depth of our commonality is profound, and should be foregrounded and embraced”.  

A student expressed that, even after reading the letter of rejection, they were still confused as to why the financial aid resolution had been rejected, given that it was more a “statement of student values” than a mandate for action on the part of the college.  President Benston explained that the resolution implied that the college does not already provide as much financial aid as possible, which he described as  a false statement.  He emphasized that the college is “running a deficit of millions of dollars”, and the most important mandate currently in effect is to “stop doing that”.  While the resolution asked that the college “do even more”, President Benston said that he doesn’t “know what that means.”  To “do more” would be akin to “lopping someone’s arm off.”  President Benston highlighted the recently concluded Lives That Speak campaign, which raised $269 million in total, with $40 million going towards financial aid.  He also stated that after compensation, financial aid is the second highest item in the college’s budget.  

Another student expressed concern about a lack of transparency and education regarding “how financial aid works”.  President Benston said that this will be addressed, possibly through workshops related to the newly instated LIFTFAR program.  Another student stated that the fact that the resolution passed at Plenary shows that the student body feels that “the college is not doing enough”; President Benston again responded that this belief stems from a lack of knowledge, and offered to write another letter with a more in-depth explanation.  He also stated that the college’s “discount rate”, or the amount per dollar of tuition money which is allocated to financial aid, is higher than most of its peer institutions at “40-something cents per dollar”.

A student cited the newly renovated VCAM Building as an example of an expenditure which seems, to many members of the community, to be an irresponsible use of resources.  President Benston emphasized the responsibility the administration has to “build a better Haverford”, and made the point that the “rotting” Ryan Gym was expensive to maintain, so it made more sense to use those resources to “innovate and move forward”.  The new physical spaces on campus are intended to “work differently, not just look differently”, and are thus a long-term investment in the college’s future.  President Benston also mentioned that VCAM and the upcoming Lutnick Library are the result of directed donations, and he can’t tell donors what to do with their own money.  

On the topic of the second resolution, the Community Day of Engagement, President Benston stated that the rejection of the resolution does not mean that the Day will not happen eventually.  While there were many technical and logistical reasons for rejecting the resolution, including the fact that the Educational Policy Committee (EPC) did not sign off on it, President Benston also expressed that he thought the goal of the Day, at this moment in time, was unclear and underdeveloped.  He felt that there was “no sustainable entry point” into the Day, as the exact meaning of the phrase “issues of identity” as used in the resolution is nebulous and commonly disagreed upon.

In order to make the proposal for a Community Day of Engagement more actionable and realistic, President Benston recommended that the writers either refrain from asking to cancel classes, or “be more persuasive” as to why the Day would require such a cancellation.  He also recommended starting, conceptually, with the Social Honor Code rather than the phrase “issues of identity”, as the Honor Code provides a more accessible and clear entry point for participants in the Day.  President Benston expressed that “every student needs to feel that there is a place in this for them”, and cited the athletic amendment as an example of a divide within the community.  

In response to a question about the nature of student self-governance at Haverford, President Benston stated that no single person or entity has “absolute agency”; rather, all members of the community have “collective agency”.  He added that we are “governed by realities, not ideas”, and repeated that the resolutions had to be rejected because they were “not in touch with reality”.  

President Benston closed the meeting by encouraging students not to be disillusioned with Plenary, or to feel disempowered.  He expressed hope that the Community Day of Engagement will happen eventually, saying, “We will make this happen.  This is a stage in a process; this is a moment… everything in our history says that Plenary has real impact, but some things take time.”  

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