This past Sunday evening, at 7 p.m. in the living room of 200 Church, the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) and the University Organizing Center (UOC) held an open meeting with the goal of discussing “student concerns and ways to improve campus.” The meeting was a part of an attempt to create solidarity between the two groups, which have historically been at odds.
Several members of the WSA and the UOC spoke of years past, whether remembered or learned about from older students, in which the two groups maintained a vague sense of hostility toward one another.
“The tension wasn’t imagined; it was definitely there last year,” said Alexandria Williams ’15, a member of the Student Budget Committee, which is a branch of the WSA.
According to UOC Intern Leo Liu ’14 as well as other members of the UOC community, tensions began when the UOC was located on Church Street instead of its current location at 190 High Street.
“At the time, we were fairly autonomous from the WSA because we had our own building,” Liu said. “But when Usdan was being built in ’07, as far as I know, the WSA wanted to find a way to keep hold of 190 High, the building that was their old meeting space, even though they were promised a new space in Usdan.”
This resulted in negotiations between the administration and the WSA. From those discussions came the decision to relocate the UOC to 190 High.
“The WSA decided to move the University Organizing Center…so that they wouldn’t have to give the building up and so that the building would still serve students,” Liu said.
Liu explained that the contract laid out several terms, a few of which have had particularly complicated, long-lasting ramifications.
“I think that a lot of the terms of the contract were sort of lost as the WSA members who negotiated these terms disappeared,” he said. “And as such, the technical clause that the WSA owns 190 High, I think, was vague enough that it was easy to misinterpret what the role was.”
According to Liu, this arrangement led to a lapse in the maintenance that has persisted to this day.
“Their commitment to holding the building didn’t extend to a commitment to maintenance and upkeep of the building,” Liu said. “All the way until this year, when we were trying really hard to find a way to paint the building, they were largely unsupportive. They were unwilling to spend more than $600 or $700 to get that done. So in the end it never really happened.”
Liu claimed that, since the UOC was managed by the WSA, the administration declined to involve themselves in the funding of the building’s maintenance.
“The administration, which is the other player that could matter for us, also doesn’t fund us, because they too are able to delegate it and say, “Well you’re owned by the WSA, and the WSA should fund you,” he said.
According to several members of both the WSA and UOC—who declined to speak on the record—tensions were furthered when Micah Feiring ’11, President of the WSA during the 2010-2011 academic year, attempted an impromptu renovation of 190 High Street by apparently tearing up floor coverings, throwing out archives, and causing destruction that went largely un-repaired.
Both Malter and Liu declined to comment on this rumor, but an article from the Oct. 22, 2010 issue of The Argus confirmed that the destruction did occur and involved unnamed WSA members.
“…Student groups learned that a few WSA representatives attempted renovations in the basement without authorization from the WSA, administration, or student groups using the space,” wrote Bea Paterno ’11, who was, at that time, News Editor of The Argus. “Student groups reported some materials moved or missing, prompting several meetings between the WSA and student groups regarding ownership and access to the space.”
Zach Malter ’13, President of the WSA, discussed more recent issues relating to WSA-UOC tensions.
“Last year, we had conversations between the two groups because the UOC wanted us to change their sign, and there were a lot of bureaucratic hurdles,” Malter said. “I think there were beginning conversations, and I don’t think the relationship was hostile, but there was a sense of some disconnect there.”
Liu seemed to hold a similar view that WSA and UOC members had recently started to directly cooperate and saw the issue of the sign at the front of 190 High Street as a significant milestone in negotiations between the WSA and the UOC.
“The sign was a big source of conflict,” Liu said. “We had a lot of trouble convincing people in past years that the sign should reflect something that isn’t WSA. I think a few of the struggles were that, technically, you can’t represent internal spaces on external signs. Since the building was managed and owned by the WSA, the sign really could only say WSA.”
Both Malter and Liu made it clear that cooperative relations between the UOC and the WSA have started to change for the better.
“At the beginning of the year we had done some outreach to the UOC and collaborated with them on a resolution so that their sign could be changed,” Malter said. “There wasn’t really explicit hostility at all. The two groups didn’t have a shared understanding. This year I think we’ve tried to bridge it.”
Liu agreed that this meeting was, in many ways, the beginning of more friendly relations.
“I think this year relations between the WSA and the UOC are much, much better,” Liu said. “At the beginning of the year, we asked formally at a meeting that the WSA forfeit their decision about what goes on the sign to us. They agreed, and that was really, really big. So we have now officially changed the name of the building; the external space is named the University Organizing Center.”
Malter approached Liu and the other UOC Intern, Meggie McGuire ’12, over the winter break to set up the dialogue that would eventually result in the Sunday meeting at 200 Church.
The meeting itself, according to Liu and Malter, was meant to be an open space for discussion between members of the WSA, UOC, and concerned members of the broader campus community.
“We concluded that we want it to be a space where nothing is off limits and where people feel comfortable talking about anything, and where the conversation is not always from above,” Malter said.
The meeting was divided into three segments, the first of which allowed students to voice general issues that they saw on campus, which were all recorded on large pieces of paper by McGuire and Malter.
Issues raised included chalking, concerns over the lack of abortion care, STI testing, and transsexual health care in the University health insurance plan; improving integration of marginalized student groups on campus such as international students, students of color, and disabled students; and altering what some saw as a paternalistic relationship between the University and Middletown.
During the second part of the meeting, students were asked to propose solutions to these issues.
The discussion quickly turned to issues of the overall campus climate and relations with the WSA. There seemed to be a broadly held sentiment that something is missing in relations between the WSA and the student body.
Paul Blasenheim ’12, a longstanding member of the UOC, among other students, characterized the issue as one of larger structural problems.
“I don’t really understand the WSA, and I do get frustrated, in the same way that I get frustrated with my own position,” he said. “I can say to the WSA, ‘Y’all do an amazing thing in that you have student representation inside the administrative processes. But because you are institutionalized into the process, it prevents you from doing big things and making transformative demands and suggestions.’”
Alma Sanchez-Eppler ’14, the head of United Student-Labor Action Coalition (USLAC), made it clear that, in her view, the differences in the two working methods are not impossible to bridge.
“Our tactics are not mutually exclusive, and to treat them as mutually exclusive is absurd,” she said. “I can make demands and be close with administrators at the same time. I have.”
Issues of communication were brought up as a key factor, with many WSA members voicing the opinion that students were not aware of how much the WSA had already done to address their concerns.
“I feel like a lot of people are saying, ‘Oh, I wish the WSA had this; I wish we had a place to engage with higher-level administrators.’” said Aubrey Hamilton ’12, Vice Chair of the Academic Affairs Committee. “Roth came last week, and I think one student group was there. And one other student. And we did send out an all-campus e-mail….It’s either our fault for not communicating well, or the people’s fault for not taking the 30 seconds to log onto the website. Maybe it’s a little bit of both.”
Others involved in the meeting seemed to think that the issues were more foundational.
“I don’t think that we have a student government,” said Virgil Taylor ’15 after the meeting. “I think that we have a body of students that is in charge of finance and is involved in secret conversations with the administration. And I don’t think it’s their fault, but I don’t think that it needs to be maintained. They are members of a body that I think is not serving its purposes.”
Taylor also echoed a broader sentiment, felt by many at the meeting—including some WSA members—that the WSA needs to find a way to include more student voices in its decisions.
“Yes, I voted for my representatives,” Taylor said. “But I don’t feel comfortable with that being the end of the conversation. Yes, I voted for someone, but that doesn’t mean that I give up my rights to represent myself with the administration.”
Liu seemed to agree with this idea as well.
“I think that the model could be improved to include more people,” he said. “I can’t imagine the majority of the student body interacting with the WSA, mostly because I don’t think there’s a majority that’s interested in doing so….I want to be involved in the political process here, and I don’t want to be involved by getting myself elected.”
Liu, like many at the meeting, also expressed the view that the WSA wasn’t entirely in touch with the student body.
“In terms of representing students, I think the WSA still has a ways to go before we can confidently say that they are our representatives,” he said. “And I think that’s clear in the conversations that people have about the WSA. We don’t altogether put all of our faith in the WSA when we want something to get done. We often try other things first before we go to the WSA.”
Several members of the WSA, both inside and outside of the meeting, expressed concerns that their own organization was somehow failing to completely understand the needs of the student body.
Christian Hosam ’15, a member of the Academic Affairs Committee, attributed this to an institutional flaw in the WSA community.
“It is a very big commitment to be on the WSA,” he said. “It’s upwards of 10 hours a week. The result of that is that a lot of people get entrenched in the WSA, and you don’t really realize it until you’ve been on there for a very long time. When you’re putting out these emails, you’re putting out these things to the people around you, the people on the WSA. So you’re like, ‘Oh, why aren’t other people seeing this.’ Well, you can’t understand that you’ve been so entrenched in this community that you can’t really see that the model that you’ve been using might be broken.”
Grace Zimmerman ’13, Chair of the Community Outreach Committee, was similarly concerned about the WSA’s potential lack of contact with the student body and seemed excited about the opportunity that the meeting presented for this dynamic to change.
“I see my role as a facilitator,” she said. “I know the administration, I know who to talk to. I don’t know what you want me to do. And that’s really where I’m coming from, that’s really what my knowledge is. This [referring to the list of suggestions from the meeting] is exactly what I want to do, and you have to chase me down to make sure that I do it.”
Andrew Trexler ’14, Chair of the Student Affairs Committee, seemed to see the WSA in a more traditional role on campus.
“I personally feel like the structure of the assembly is pretty good for what it does,” he said. “There are some minor changes I would like to make…but I feel very strongly about sacrificing efficiency for the sake of broader democracy….It does very good work, and I don’t want to see that erode simply so that we can try and get more people’s opinions, which sort of slows everything down. I think getting people’s opinions is very good but I also like to have people educated before they make those opinions.”
Trexler feels that many students tend to be idealistic in their demands for change.
“When I first ran for the assembly, I had all sorts of crazy ideas, like, ‘We should do this, we should do that,’ and then I spent a couple of weeks sort of learning things and then realized why most of those ideas were kind of silly or just wouldn’t work on this campus and I think a lot of times people say, ‘Well, the WSA should be doing this, or the WSA should be doing that,’ and nine times out of ten, we either do it already, or we know why it isn’t happening right now.”
Scott Elias ’14, member of the Student Affairs Committee reiterated the concern of many that the University itself is not as progressive as they had once imagined.
“I hope that WSA members take this as a reminder of our duty to expand our role,” he said at the meeting. “A lot of time there’s talk, like, we shouldn’t do these sorts of things because it’s not realistic. The New Deal didn’t happen because Roosevelt just immediately agreed, but because people made more radical demands. I think the WSA needs to incorporate some of these more radical ideas so that we can actually move in that direction. A lot of people came to this school perceiving this school as a progressive institution, and on many many levels, the institution that we are in is failing to adhere to those progressive ideals.”