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Letter to the Community re: New Plenary Structure and FAQs

Editor’s note: All opinions pieces published in the Clerk represent only the views and ideas of its authors.

By Katie Leiferman, Mariana Ramirez, Carter Patterson, and Soha Saghir

Hi friends,

As Students’ Council Co-Presidents and Honor Council Co-Chairs, we have spent the past couple months working on restructuring Plenary. As it approaches this weekend, we want to take some time to answer a few of your most frequently asked questions regarding the discussion-based Plenary and put forth our intentions behind the change. 

Why restructure Plenary? 

We are restructuring Plenary as a response to the Report of the 2018-2019 Clearness Committee, student feedback, and our own experiences with Plenary over the years. According to the Clearness Committee Report, around 74% of students disagreed to some extent that they would feel comfortable speaking at Plenary. What does it mean that in a space where over 800 students are required to attend that only a handful of people feel comfortable speaking? During our time on Students’ Council, we have tried changing the layout of the physical space only to continue running into the same issue: hundreds of people but only a few voices. Similarly, the report also found that respondents feel as though there is not enough discussion and that the discussion that takes place is low quality and disengaged. While many past resolutions have generated engaging conversations, in our view, resolutions aimed at changing a few words in the Constitution are met with general disinterest. Who wants to sit through hours of the same five people debating changes in word choice? 

Perhaps the issues with Plenary run deeper than verbal participation. The rigid bureaucratic structure, including its language and terminology, may be outdated and inaccessible. First-year students are not introduced to the language of Plenary until their HCO session and even then, it is difficult to understand what exactly is going on. Until joining student government groups on campus, many of us did not even understand the difference between friendly and unfriendly amendments. Even if Students’ Council changed the language, there is something to be questioned in following an overly bureaucratic structure just for tradition’s sake. Then, there’s the problem of writing resolutions. Are we, as a community, okay with putting this labor on a select few individuals? And what about the timing of fall Plenary, when a quarter of the student body hasn’t even been through a semester at Haverford?

Tentatively, we hope to move ahead with a Fall Plenary that is discussion-based, and have a Spring Plenary that is more traditional and provides space for resolutions to be brought forth. We also expect that providing discussion-based space will allow for more resolution-worthy material to be generated for Spring Plenary.

What is this going to look like?

We are planning to have 37 groups of 20-30 students each. We will be handing out numbers to everyone as they walk into the gym. The first thing after we reach quorum will be to approve the Rules of Order and Agenda. Once this happens, the designated facilitators will hold up group numbers so that students can find their group. Of course, your safety and comfort comes first, so don’t feel obligated to sit with a group you don’t feel safe in. Once you find your group, the facilitator will lead the group in opening up the space to decide on community guidelines as a group. Each facilitator will then have a predetermined list of questions to guide the discussion (which you will have received via email in your Plenary packets). These questions are based on the poll Students’ Council sent out to the student body about what you all preferred to spend time discussing. The top topics were: Labor/Wages, Customs, Sustainability, Party Culture, and Mental Health. Within the small group discussions, the facilitator will be in charge of helping keep the conversation moving. Each group will also be asked to choose a notetaker whose job is to anonymously write down the key points that are brought up (these will be compiled after Plenary into a document for the whole community to reference). After about 45 minutes, the facilitator will ask the group to consent to the main points that were discussed. This is not consensus in terms of an opinion of the group, but rather, consenting to a fair summary of the discussion. Then, we will return to the larger group where one person from each small group will have the opportunity, if they so choose, to share out the consented upon summary of their group’s discussion. 

Is this an abuse of power? 

Everything that we are proposing will first be voted on by the student body. At the start of the day, once we reach quorum, members of Students’ Council and Honor Council will outline the proposed changes to the Plenary structures and give an overview of the agenda. These changes are technically referred to as the “agenda” for the day. Then, there is a period for any questions or changes to the Rules of Order (which are the same as last year) and the Agenda. If there are any amendments to the Rules of Order or Agenda, there will then be a pro/con debate on the amendment followed by a voting on whether or not to pass it. After this, voting will open on the Rules of Order + Agenda as per usual.

What exactly is the facilitator in charge/not in charge of doing? 

The facilitator is in charge of helping present the questions to each group, keep track of time, and facilitate the creation of community guidelines before conversation begins. We want to emphasize that they are not there to teach or educate any members of the group. To alleviate this pressure, Students’ Council sent out a short guide containing information regarding the discussion topics (we understand not everyone is well-versed on every campus issue, so we hope this guide can help provide some context around the topics that will be discussed). Facilitators are also not there to be silent, and have been encouraged to also participate and bring in their own perspectives. Most importantly, facilitators are not in charge of confronting. SC and HC representatives will be in communication with facilitators throughout the entire discussion period and are ready to step in if a community guideline is broken. 

How are you addressing issues of safety and accessibility? 

In addition to the facilitator role, we have done our best to ensure that this new structure will be safe and accessible to as many students as possible. We will have one discussion group upstairs to serve as a quieter environment for those who prefer it. A Students’ Council representative will be the designated facilitator for that room. When it is time to break up into small group discussion, students who desire can simply go to the upstairs room to be a part of the low-distraction room. Additionally, we have worked with the Athletic department, Conferences & Events, and BLAST, in order to gain access to the in-house audio equipment in the GIAC. This is unprecedented and will be very helpful in addressing the difficulties around sound we have encountered in past years. 

We want to reiterate that students should not feel forced to speak or educate their peers. We recognize the disproportionate amount of emotional labor required of students of marginalized identities in group discussions. We want to ensure that all students are encouraged to take any space/breaks they need. Additionally, the Community Outreach Multicultural Liaisons will be a resource to students throughout Plenary. They will also be hosting a post-Plenary debriefing space in the CPGC Cafe. 

How do we know this is the right model?

As we put forth this new model for the community and the advantages we think it holds, we simultaneously realize that this model is by no means flawless. We understand that there are multiple avenues for things to not go as planned including but not limited to the proposed discussions not flowing perfectly, facilitators not being able to engage all group members, and group members still feeling uncomfortable speaking. There is still so much room for improvement, and will always be, especially in a system which tries to bring 1300 students’ attention and energy towards a singular issue or topic. However, given the information we have regarding student experiences with Plenary, we feel strongly that this is a step towards making Plenary more accessible and inclusive. We have a long way to go until Plenary truly lives up to its promise, but we hope that this structural change is laying important foundations. 

What is the point of all this discussion?

With the demographics at Haverford increasingly changing, we encourage current and future students to think critically about why we do what we do. Does it make sense to continue doing Plenary the same way it was done when Haverford was comprised of a significantly smaller student body, most of which was white, rich, and cis-male? We don’t think so. 

We hope that a discussion-based Plenary will encourage students to speak with one another about the issues that they feel most passionate about. While we share students’ frustrations with discussions leading to no substantial change on campus, we hope that this Plenary can be used to inspire creative solutions through collaboration. We believe this discussion-based Plenary can lend itself to actionable solutions.

But there are also conversations that we need to have as a community regardless of measurable outcomes. We need to address the alarming substance-related hospitalizations that have occurred so far this year. We need to talk about multiple issues that affect our campus, including but not limited to Customs compensation, mental health, sustainability, and party culture (the 4 of which were voted highly on by the student body).

At the heart of all of the countless hours Students’ Council and Honor Council have put into making Plenary a more inclusive and accessible space is our belief in concern for one another. We hope to see you at Plenary on Sunday, November 3rd at 2 pm in the GIAC showing the same care and concern for the community. 

Signing off with trust, concern, and respect,

Katie Leiferman ‘20, Students’ Council Co-President
Mariana Ramirez ‘20, Students’ Council Co-President

Carter Patterson ‘20, Honor Council Co-Chair
Soha Saghir ‘21, Honor Council Co-Chair

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Cover photo by Ankith Suhas Pinnamaneni ‘23

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