On Wednesday, Nov. 30, the WSA hosted a Town Hall to discuss the fate of the space at 200 High Street, which is now occupied by Music House and was possessed by the Eclectic Society from its founding in 1838 until this semester. The Undergraduate Residential Life Committee (URLC) of the WSA is considering Eclectic’s proposal to return to 200 High Street next semester. The Argus has previously reported on the allegations of sexual assault, racist pledge forms, and hazing that caused the society to lose its housing status.
The Town Hall was led by Lizzie Shackney ’17, Chair of the Student Life Committee; Joanne Rafferty, Director of Student Activities and Leadership Development (SALD); and Fran Koerting, Director of the Office of Residential Life. The purpose of the meeting was to facilitate a discussion between Eclectic members and concerned students over the institutional progress Eclectic has enacted to change its culture, the future of 200 High Street, and the implications of a residential Eclectic.
“This meeting is not only about the URLC making a decision, because they have gotten survey responses and Eclectic’s proposal, but we want this discussion to be about pain on this campus and Eclectic’s role on this campus,” Shackney said. “We want to fill in gaps where we may not always get to come and talk as a community and consider what Eclectic can do to rebuild trust in our community.”
At the onset of the meeting, the frustration in the room was palpable as many students in the room appeared viscerally upset at the prospect of Eclectic returning to 200 High Street. People were asked to go around and share their name, preferred pronouns, and current emotions. Words like “anxious,” “nervous,” and “frustrated” were used, while some students shared feelings of “curiosity,” “eagerness,” and a “readiness to listen.”
Before the introductions and guidelines could conclude, tensions boiled over as one student spoke out after spotting a student sitting across the room behind a row of Eclectic members.
“I’m sorry, isn’t this a perp free zone?” they asked.
Shackney responded affirmatively, and the student pointed out an alleged perpetrator of sexual assault in the room, asking them to exit.
“Are you going to let yourself out, or do you need to be shown out?” they said.
The student left the room shortly after, and Shackney asked for the meeting to resume. The same student soon spoke again, opening up the conversation by arguing that claims that Eclectic is solely a “rape-enabling society” were reductive and not considerate of the positive experiences that queer people of color have had in the House. While acknowledging Eclectic’s tortured history, they believed that the society was not always filled with “a bunch of white boys ‘just living’ doing drugs,” and that serious institutional changes (like the Zero Tolerance Policy and bylaw changes the Society instituted this semester) could facilitate meaningful change. The student also contended that Eclectic was one of the only spaces on campus for queer artists of color to have an outlet and receive funding.
Other students asserted that Music House had failed to use the 200 High St. space effectively this semester. Without Eclectic’s name recognition and resources, students felt the concert venue had been underused. A Music House member in the room countered by arguing that new SALD guidelines regulating the size of parties had limited the scope of Music House shows.
One senior immediately responded to the claim that Eclectic was in the process of redeeming itself, suggesting that as an exclusive society, there is no way for Eclectic to meaningfully reform itself because it will always have the power to govern itself in secrecy. Because the society would once again control one of the most prominent concert spaces on campus, it would not need to be accountable. The student spoke on their frustrations at seeing what they perceived as just a list of reforms rather than a sincere admission of past mistakes and a desire to educate new members.
Another senior agreed, recounting their own experience as an Eclectic member earlier in their time at Wesleyan, and the series of disturbing incidents that caused them to disassociate from the society. They asked that the current members of Eclectic explain the society’s history to the room themselves.
Eclectic President Owen Christoph ’18 and Vice President Kafilah Muhammad ’18 responded by speaking about the Society’s handling of a former Eclectic member who became a vehement critic of the society after they were raped in Psi U in 2013. When the survivor asked that Eclectic ban the accused rapist from the house, their concerns were largely disregarded. While Christoph and Muhammad were hesitant to discuss the case’s specifics, primarily because they were not active Eclectic members at the time of the incident, a current member and former president of Eclectic was called on to speak about the case. This student characterized the society’s response to the survivor as “appallingly unsympathetic.” Several Town Hall participants raised questions about Eclectic’s fading institutional memory impeding its ability to teach new members about its troubled history, since few of the society’s current members were present for this episode.
Discussion shifted to the more recent incident concerning a racist pledge application. As The Argus reported last year, the society came under fire for a racist zine that was distributed as part of an application for new members. The zine featured a hangman game with the letters “N blank blank blank blank R,” along with a lyric from a YouTube video that read “Chickity China, the Chinese Chicken.” Koerting stated that, while Eclectic had been given leeway on the points it had accumulated over the years, the application was the distinct incident that caused the society to be removed from the 200 High St. residence.
Christoph and Muhammad said that the problematic application page had been inserted after Eclectic members had already reviewed the application, and only the page’s author and the former Eclectic president were aware that it had been included.
“As soon as I saw it, I almost had a panic attack, and I stopped handing out applications,” Christoph said.
Both the author of the application sheet and the former Eclectic president are no longer associated with the society, and Eclectic members repeatedly stressed that the organization had turned over a new leaf by reforming the character of its leadership. Muhammad gave an impassioned response toward the end of the Town Hall, acknowledging that Eclectic had deeply failed the community in the past, but hoped that students and administrators would take into account the positive change it has initiated during the past semester.
“I’m actually glad that we didn’t have the space this semester so that we could reform the society,” Christoph said. “I want to make this a space that I care about and can be proud of.”
Update 12/4/16: The URLC voted on Eclectic’s proposal and announced in an email Friday that the WSA would not restore the society’s program housing status. The vote was 0 in favor, 4 opposed, 2 abstained and 1 recusal.