By Andrew Nguyen
It was short, and some say, bad. Despite free t-shirts and chicken tenders and the promise of “the best plenary ever,” many students walked away more disenchanted than ever.
On Sunday, Oct. 7 at 2:30pm, Haverford students piled into the basketball court of the GIAC to reach the new 66% quorum for plenary. This plenary, students would have no resolutions to debate and there would be no changes made to the Alcohol Policy. The only change made during this short plenary was to make it even shorter.
Although a resolution had been proposed earlier in September to create a committee to oversee plenary, it was withdrawn before plenary due to the fact that the Students’ Constitution already covers this issue. Because of the lack of resolutions, this fall’s plenary was to take advantage of having gathered at least 66% of the student body for mediated conversation on current issues on campus. Dedicated to facilitating this conversation, two new segments were listed on the plenary agenda that were entirely new to students who’d been attending plenaries since the fall of 2015: a “State of the Ford” speech given by Students’ Council (SC) Co-President Maurice Rippel ’19 and a “Town Hall” section dedicated to giving students the chance to discuss some of the most pressing issues on campus, which had been compiled in a Google Document based on student feedback.
Before any such discussion could officially begin, Brett Hungar ’21 made their way to the microphones to propose to change the rules of order and remove the town hall segment.
“I believe that the issues that were summed up were very important, but I am concerned this is not the appropriate space for these conversations,” said Hungar. “People may feel pressured to stay, there is also no way to facilitate this and make sure people are not taking up too much space.”
With a show of hands, an overwhelming number of students seemed to agree with Hungar’s proposal, and the sections were removed from the plenary proceedings, leaving just Rippel’s speech and the ratification of the Alcohol Policy left, and cutting the event to just over an hour.
As planned, Rippel proceeded to give his speech announcing the “State of the Ford.” While also commenting on the status of ongoing SC projects such as the installation of gender-neutral bathrooms all over campus and the creation of two literary magazines highlighting the racial and cultural diversity of the student body by students of color, Rippel acknowledged the abnormality of the fall’s plenary session. He expressed hope that students would make the space productive with discussion regarding issues on campus. He also noted concerns about how no JSAAPP co-heads had been elected yet this year. A short question and answer period followed.
Commenting on the shortened plenary, Rippel and fellow SC Co-President Andrew Eaddy ’19 said, “While we are disappointed with the lack of conversation and dialogue that occurred at Plenary, ultimately students made of the space what they wanted it to.”
This shortened plenary without resolutions means that half the campus has yet to experience what an upperclassman might describe as a regular plenary.
“It’s interesting because I don’t have a very good kind of comparison for what a normal plenary is since my first plenary was protested, and we sent my second one to special plenary,” said Lourdes Taylor ’21, Honor Council Co-Chair. “And then this one was like 45 minutes long.”
First-year student Jesse Zeldes added that the plenary felt different from what other students had described.
“It felt very uneventful. There was not a lot happening, and not a lot of enthusiasm among the student body, which stood in marked contrast to a lot of what I’d heard about plenary: an intense hours-and-hours of debate and counter debate,” said Zeldes. “It felt more like instances of student government at other schools I’ve been to, like in high school. It was like a ‘let’s get this over with’ sort of attitude.”
There was a general feeling that a vote to remove sections set aside for discussion in the plenary agenda was a vote to disengage with important, necessary conversations. This feeling of disengagement may trace back to having experienced the high-stress environment of last spring’s special plenary, when 75% of the student body spent eight-and-a-half hours revamping the Honor Code.
“I think one of the most surprising things was that there were no resolutions and I’m sure that’s repercussion from special plenary when there was so much to change that many students were overwhelmed,” said Sarah Curtis ’20. “But I do think that what we’ve seen from last spring is that the Honor Code needs to change and our work isn’t done.”
Whether there needs to be more student engagement or whether the structure of plenary needs to be changed, the role that plenary plays in student governance overall seems to be coming into question.
“I think plenary is kind of archaic,” said Taylor. “It worked really well for the college when there was a hundred students and they were all white men. But the school is now approximately 1200 students with a wide diversity of identities, so plenary doesn’t work super well anymore for talking about the kind of issues that are around or rising on campus. Those kind of discussions have to happen in a different way that doesn’t allow them to be glossed over like at the most recent plenary.”
Moving forward, a newly structured, extra-short plenary may have implications for rethinking student governance at Haverford and how students engage with the larger community in general.
Despite their disappointment with fall plenary, SC is already thinking forward to the spring.
“We are looking forward to having more conversation going forward, helping people develop resolutions for the spring, and overall working with the student body to see what folks want/need out of the space going forward,” said Rippel and Eaddy.
As the final moment of silence wrapped up plenary, students quickly began to empty the GIAC, but not before taking with them bright red t-shirts, on which were printed “Plenary 2018, the best you’ve ever seen!” that had been sitting in boxes in the middle of the room, t-shirts whose price tag for SC was approximately $2,000.
“I like the t-shirts, but I hope we don’t have to incentivize people to engage with the Honor Code,” said Curtis. “I hope that the incentive is that we’re existing in a community that we actively chose to be a part of.”
Photos by Cole Sansom ’19.