Editor’s note: All opinions pieces published in the Clerk represent only the views and ideas of the author.
By Riley Wheaton and David King
It has recently come to the student body’s attention that this year’s plenary will be substantially different from all previous years’. In an effort to respond to potential inadequacies of previous plenaries and longstanding issues on campus, Students’ Council (SC) has decided to propose that the student body change the format to a discussion-based plenary. This plenary will include conversations surrounding topics of great importance to the community. While we agree and fully support the intent behind the changes to Plenary, we disagree with the use of Plenary as the mode by which these changes are accomplished.
1. Disrespect of Student Agency
Unfortunately, as we head into plenary, the Students’ Constitution is inaccessible on Students’ Council’s site and returns a 404 ‘page not found’ error (never a good sign for an institution’s founding and sanctioning document). Students’ Council is constitutionally obligated to provide up-to-date versions of the constitution to the student body (this comes from Article IV section I according to a constitution emailed to us last year. This portion has not been altered since). Access to the Constitution is crucial to student governance insofar as it allows the student body to hold Students’ Council accountable to the rules of Plenary and the rules of their offices. We have to have access to the Constitution so we can, as a community, plan how to bring resolutions or amendments to plenary and, in extreme circumstances, recall members of student government. More than either of these, if the constitution is null and void, then so is the Honor Code, also known as Article III of the Students’ Constitution. The Constitution is withheld from the student body at a time when it is particularly vital that it be accessible. Without this sanctioning document, the student body has no way of corroborating SC’s claims that they are empowered to do the things they are doing this fall, nor do we have any recourse to alternatives, should the plan advanced by SC fail. When you are trying to reprogram your television, it is not a good time to lose the manual.
Leaving behind the format of plenary also sacrifices significant opportunities for students to make their voices heard. The opportunity of every student to bring resolutions is something SC should always seek to expand, rather than contract. This fall an environment was purposefully created in which resolutions could not be brought. With such emphasis placed on the discussion-based format, resolution writers could be forgiven for not feeling their ideas were important or time-sensitive enough to interrupt the path Students’ Council enthusiastically pursued. As students’ have urged in previous plenaries, the process of writing a resolution should be more open and accessible, not virtually shut down.
If Special Plenary had been discussion-based, we would not now have an Honor Code that explicitly acknowledges the need to protect marginalized students nor would we have a system of confrontation that takes account of the psychological barriers to confronting, with a disproportionate share of that burden falling on marginalized students. That said, Special Plenary Committee (SPC) actually did try to create an environment in which no one but us could bring resolutions. We could not forbid people from bringing them forward, but we tried to subtly dissuade them, and it was unquestionably wrong for us to do so. If we had succeeded, the student body would not have passed a resolution supporting the President’s Office’s initiative creating more gender neutral restrooms, a program that has had an impact across campus (though we admit there is still much to be done).
Plenary is also a vital space for students to have the opportunity to make their voices heard. Two years ago a student got up at fall plenary to speak her mind on the unacknowledged connection between rape culture and the alcohol policy. That spring JSAAPP brought a resolution to the floor incorporating and acknowledging that connection in our school’s alcohol policy. At Special Plenary, someone completely unrelated to the committee organizing the event spoke at the mic noting that when we acknowledge the potential for electronic confrontation we should exclude public electronic media and focus our allowance to private ones, a vital change that averted potential disaster! Everyone gets to talk at plenary and Clearness Committee data show few differences along identity lines in who feels able to speak or email in questions. Everyone is present to bear witness to whatever any student feels needs to be said, and some of them remember. While this is a somewhat idealistic view, it has been borne out on more than one occasion.
Obviously, plenary is in need of updating and reforming. It always is; its malleability is part of what makes it potentially amenable as a means to redress student concerns. SPC added accessibility innovations including a removed space that counts toward quorum but is intentionally less crowded and overwhelming for those who need that space. Emailing in questions if you feel unable to speak at the mic is an innovation from the last two years as well, as is reshaping plenary to try and make the space feel more accessible. Year by year, reform was working. As data from the Clearness Committee report shows, these innovations are reaching hundreds of students and making them more comfortable engaging in the experiment that is our student governance. To leave behind the format of plenary does not build on these reforms, but gives back, at least in part, the gains that have been made.
2. Structural Concerns
Aside from the harms to existing structures of student agency, this plan raises real structural concerns for plenary, the first of which is about accessibility. Based on Students’ Council’s description of the bleachers as “in” (as opposed to “out” and accessible) and the lack of bleachers indicated on the proposed floor plan, it appears the bleachers will not be accessible at this weekend’s event. If this is not the case and bleachers will be available for seating the following point is less relevant. Students’ Council is expecting over 900 people to join them in the gym and are providing 300 chairs, expecting over 600 students to either bring their own furniture or sit on the floor. For many students, sitting on the floor for two to three hours is not a viable or acceptable thing to ask. This places disabled students and all those who aren’t able to sit on the gym floor for 2-3 hours in a very challenging spot, having to ask someone to give up their seat. This may require students to disclose an issue or disability they may not be ready to or interested in disclosing and it opens them up to that most humiliating heartbreaking experience, having someone disbelieve you. Students’ Council noted in their email to the student body that 300 is the maximum number of available chairs. An appropriate rule of thumb from an accessibility standpoint would be “if you cannot provide seating for everyone you expect to attend an event, host the event somewhere else or in a different format” (more on that in a moment). This event is markedly less accessible than plenary in years past, and that is unacceptable.
Second, students will be broken up randomly into discussion groups but may shift from group to group. We worry this may lead to echo chambers forming as students shift to groups which include their friends. A collection of echo chambers is unlikely to produce the kind of innovative ideas Students’ Council is hoping for and will not differ greatly from the conversations that take place around campus every day.
Further, this proposal does not contain a result in the same way that plenary does. That is, when students gather for a regular plenary, there is an expectation that something will indeed get done. This plenary shirks that responsibility to and of the student body. When students come to plenary, they know that without them the Honor Code might not have passed. This is a substantive concern for many. We know that without everyone there, the student body might not be able to make a clear statement of its values, which we take to be the core motivation of plenary. In plenaries past, this value system has bared itself in resolutions surrounding financial aid, sustainability, and the Honor Code we all share to name but a few. Whether or not one thinks that these resolutions are a true reflection of a value system the community has, it is undeniable that the resolutions themselves (which have provided the means to do critical work in the community) could not have been passed without the presence of the student body. They know that they made a difference in a result. When students choose not to attend this weekend’s event, they can be forgiven for feeling that their absence may not have cost the community much. From a recent announcement from JSAAP, the alcohol policy is not on the agenda for this plenary and will be discussed in the spring, so if quorum is not met at this weekend’s event, there will be no lasting consequences for the student body at large. This is not to imply, we ought to say, that plenary is a matter of consequences. However, it is to say that the community gathering known as plenary is the means by which we hold ourselves and each other accountable in concrete ways. We cannot succeed in our endeavour to live together without recognizing the need we have for each other.
This lack of a teleology to plenary teaches a quarter of our school (for whom this will be their first and, for a while, only experience of plenary) that their absence doesn’t have dramatic consequences. This is a dangerous lesson to teach, as this spring we’ll be acting on both the Honor Code and the Alcohol Policy. If the lesson from this plenary is that students in all years have learned that it’s okay to miss plenary, we will fail to reach quorum and both the Honor Code and the alcohol policy will fail, precipitating a constitutional crisis the likes of which this campus has actually not seen in recorded memory.
The Path Forward
We both understand and appreciate the good motivation behind this proposal and respect the amount of time Students’ Council has devoted to bringing it forward. We want to acknowledge the incredible amount of effort and time that planning a plenary like this has taken. We also understand and see the absolutely integral need that the student body has to talk with one another. Our community has deep-seated divides, and we need to not only talk and hear from each other, but think quite critically of the issues at hand. We maintain that it should be more doable to bring forward resolutions, that there are ways in which plenary remains an inaccessible space.
We recognize the work done, and the work needing to be done.
It is in that vein that we suggest the following. Two years ago, a group of highly-respected individuals, most of whom were Honor Council veterans, brought forward a resolution called “Collection: Day of Community Engagement” (CDE). This resolution, which should be documented on the Students’ Council website but at present can only be found in the emails of juniors and seniors from our freshman and sophomore falls respectively, laid aside a day which would contain deliberative and substantive discussion in the morning designed to generate resolutions, and would culminate in voting on resolutions and ratifying the Honor Code in the afternoon. This plan was well-thought-out and carefully-scaffolded. It is the most direct attempt we have seen in our time at Haverford to address the most important issues facing us as a community. The day would be organized by a group whose job would be to plan it throughout the year and who would receive student input on every aspect of the day. This plan was brilliant and motivated by many of the same things motivating Students’ Council today, but does not fall prey to many of the problems plaguing this proposal.
When this resolution was brought to the student body, they endorsed it and sent it to President Benston’s desk. Unfortunately, President Benston rejected the resolution on the grounds that he was uncertain of its rationale and was concerned about cancelling a day of classes to make room for the day (a bold and intelligent provision to ensure the attendance of all students). When Special Plenary Committee brought a watered down version of the CDE to Special Plenary the student body voted it down decisively in a rejection of that pale substitute for a brilliant reform. The following year the student body again voted decisively against the then Students’ Council presidents’ suggestion to have a discussion-based plenary, an agenda similar to the one proposed for tomorrow. The student body supported the CDE as an ambitious, well mapped out, and effective plan to better our community and it has rejected all imitations. We suggest that the CDE proper be revived. It is our hope that such an effort would receive the support of the student body.
In her inaugural address, President Wendy Raymond named the two greatest areas of challenge facing this community as community and inclusion. There is no better intersection of these two titanic challenges than the Community Day of Engagement, and we have clearly never had a president who would look more favorably on this resolution than we do now. If Students’ Council really wants to spark discussion among the student body, make plenary more accessible, and leave a lasting legacy, then it seems to us that they should revive the community day of engagement resolution, opening to Haverford once again the opportunity to purposefully engage with one another, think deeply and critically about the issues facing the community, and come together with a sense that each of us is equally as critical to the venture we are on together.
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Cover photo by Max Cox ‘23