Activism and the WSA: A History of Social Justice
Wesleyan’s relationship with student politics is, almost predictably, long and complicated. Student government at Wesleyan has at times taken a radical and activist presence on campus by purporting to more accurately represent the student body and attempting to incite it to action. Sometimes, the body has worked in conjunction with the administration; at other times, it has critiqued and challenged school leadership.
In 1903, the first institutional student-run organization, The College Body Senate, was established. For 60 years, the organization functioned smoothly, but in the 1960s, students called for a more structured student government and elected five undergraduates to the “College Body Committee.”
In 1975, after yet another call for more effective and accessible student government, the Wesleyan Students’ Union was formed in order to lobby on behalf of student interests. Finally, in 1978, the Wesleyan Student Assembly was formed: it now comprises of seven standing committees, with members elected by the student body.
The dawn of 1980s saw the WSA taking an explicitly activist presence on campus. Members attempted to support the prevailing opinions of the students, while also acting as liaisons to the administration. They began by addressing university topics, such as admissions policies and tuition fees. Soon, they expanded their scope to tackle human rights concerns on campus.
The faculty asked the Student Affairs Committee, a subdivision of the WSA, to gather a subcommittee—titled, “Committee on Human Rights and Relations”—to address the matter of sexual intimidation on campus.
In 1981, this sub-committee expanded its role to deal specifically with minority students experiencing racial discrimination in the community. The group gathered testimonials of 250 Asian, Black, and Hispanic students who related their encounters with racism on campus. The committee reviewed the statements and attempted to brainstorm ways to ameliorate these experiences of racism.
The second semester was spent meeting with academic departments and faculty members to open a dialogue about race relations on campus. In this case, the WSA took an extremely active role in improving relations between students and faculty and among the students themselves.
In 1982, the WSA switched topics and took a stand to save aid-blind admissions, a move that was far more aggressive toward the administration than any Wesleyan student government had made before. The WSA ran a “Save Aid-Blind Letter Drive,” for which members distributed envelopes and fliers (in all-capital letters) explaining the ramifications of a need-aware admissions policy:
“On February 6, the Board of Trustees will meet to decide the final fate of aid-blind admissions at Wesleyan. This affects all of us. It will determine the make-up of future classes at Wesleyan. If you value the ideal of equal access to higher education, if you like going to school with all sorts of different kinds of people, you have a stake in keeping aid-blind admissions and financial aid policies at Wes.”
The fliers urged active student participation by providing examples of letters the student body should send to the Board of Trustees. The Board responded less favorably toward the letters than the WSA had hoped and countered the protest by explaining that aid-blind admission was just one of many factors affecting campus diversity.
In response, students then led a sit-in at North College. The WSA endorsed this sit-in with a position statement on the coalition sit-in and its demands:
“We share the anger and frustration. It is clear that many students felt a dramatic, confrontational response was a necessary reaction to the abhorrence of the aid-blind decision. The Coalition’s actions clearly reflect a deep concern [about] which the WSA and all members of the Wesleyan community should care.”
In this public statement, the WSA directly addressed then University President Colin G. Campbell and requested that the Board of Trustees restore aid-blind admissions. The remainder of the document outlined specific points for which the students demanded change, ending with a statement of disappointment in the administration’s actions thus far.
“The students have offered constructive alternatives for all these problems and have received only a pat on the back. Our ideas are not considered important because we do not have a genuine role in the planning process; yet it is the students, and not the Administration, who provide creative ideas to improve educational quality at Wesleyan.”
This ruffled enough feathers for President Campbell to respond personally. Although he claimed that the sit-in was “not necessary to establish a dialogue on financial aid policy and governance issues,” he attached the position statement issued by the WSA with suggestions on it. Though the trustees did not revoke their proposal, the University managed to raise enough money to insure that the policy never went into effect.
The WSA next directed their attention toward the University’s investments. In 1983, the University held $2.4 million of assets in companies funding the nuclear arms race. The WSA conducted a campus-wide poll on the issue of nuclear weapons. Included was a query as to whether the WSA should write a letter to the trustees and President Campbell asking them to pull out investments from all corporations that were highly involved in the nuclear weapons industries.
73% of those who were polled indicated that they wanted this divestment.
The WSA sent this letter to the Board of Trustees, stating that, by investing in these companies, Wesleyan was investing in the arms race. They stated that it was the Board of Trustees’ responsibility to act in accordance with the views of the campus, especially in light of national and global politics. The letter ended with a very blunt request.
“We ask you to transfer our stock from nuclear weapons corporations.”
Their activism was effective, as in 1984, the University disassociated with all companies involved in the production, testing, deployment, storage, or transportation of nuclear arms.
In 1987, the WSA moved to tackle gay rights. One member of the WSA wrote to all of Connecticut’s Senate and House members requesting that they vote to pass a gay rights bill in Connecticut. Both Senators as well as several House Representatives wrote back to the WSA member, personally thanking her and assuring her that they would vote to pass the bill. The bill was defeated in a tie vote, but many thought that the University’s initiative to see the bill passed influenced the legislative bodies to a certain extent.
In the years since, however, the WSA’s tendency toward activism has waned. The organization has taken a backseat role in campus activism, deferring to the dozens of student groups working for human rights, social justice, and underprivileged groups. Now, the WSA works mostly on policies that subtly affect students’ day-to-day lives, adjusting administrative policies such as class and major availability, WesCard points, and transportation. Only time will tell if the WSA’s more radical history will repeat itself.