This past year, I served on the Wesleyan Student Budget Committee (SBC). On the SBC, we allocate money to fund student activities such as concerts, talks, and other events on campus. At Wesleyan, we have an enrollment of 3,000+ students, who each pay $300 a year in student activity fees, which puts the SBC in charge of close to $1 million each year. To my knowledge, the three largest expenses are the same every year: for the 2016-2017 academic year, we spent $82,000 on Spring Fling, $80,000 on Concert Committee, and allocated $50,000 to Senior Class Officers (Spring Fling is an annual school-wide concert; Concert Committee funds concerts on campus; Senior Class Officers organize graduation celebrations for the outgoing senior class). In other words, $212,000 is automatically funneled into the party culture at Wes every year. If we include all the other smaller requests that the SBC funds toward similar activities, it would be closer to a third of a million dollars a year.
Spring Fling, in particular, is one of the most hyped up events of the year. All elite schools in the U.S. hold their own versions of Spring Fling, and it has become a sort of status symbol among students. The fame of the act brought in by your school becomes a form of social capital when talked about with peers from other schools. I’ve heard many people complain about how Wes’s Spring Fling usually comes up short against peer schools. To be at a school that brings in a top tier act like Rihanna is to be cool. The whole set-up becomes a competition to be cool, to see who can bring in the best performers, who can throw the best party.
When Wes pulled an April Fool’s joke last spring about measures to tone down the party culture of Spring Fling, it provoked an outcry. A student activist accused Wes of “taking away the one day [they] really live for on campus.” In late March, the SBC received a request from the Spring Fling Committee asking for an additional $5,000 (on top of the $82,000 they had already spent) to appease “administrative concern regarding binge day drinking during Spring Fling” by “booking another artist on the night of Spring Fling…to provide an additional event for students to attend on the night of (Spring Fling) to encourage them to pace themselves substance wise.” In other words, we spend $82,000 on a concert where everyone gets drunk, and then another $5,000 on a side concert so people don’t get too drunk for the $82,000 concert. The money that goes to the Concert Committee and Senior Class Officers fulfills the same purpose: catering to students’ desires to get drunk and hit that weekly high. Most of the dialogue I hear surrounding Spring Fling at Wes comes from a place of privilege and expectation: Spring Fling is a right, and Wes should do a better job of fulfilling that right. It does not recognize the privilege inherent in a system where Spring Fling even exists.
More broadly, the ability and preference to participate in Wes party culture is classist in many other ways. Those who grew up exposed to partying tend to come from wealthier backgrounds and fancier schools, and they are more likely to continue that lifestyle into college. Alcohol and drug expenses are a financial barrier, and lower income students tend to have busier schedules, balancing jobs and being pressured into taking more demanding majors because they have larger financial responsibilities. A typical party night begins at about 9 p.m. with hanging out and pregaming, which then transitions into hours of house-hopping in search of the best parties. It lasts into the wee hours of morning. The next day, partygoers sleep in and wake up with a hangover, hampering the day’s potential for productivity. The high opportunity cost of time spent partying limits the activity to certain segments of the student population that can afford it.
Partying at Wes is sustained by low income service people whose labor facilitates many of the events. Aleyda Robles ’18 wrote an article in The Argus titled “Toxic Party Culture at Wes, from the Event Staff Perspective,” denouncing the racism and classism prevalent in Wes party culture.
“Our labor as Event Staff literally facilitates the college experience for students because you can be as rude as possible to me, but if you get sick or hurt inside the event, I still have to go in and make sure you get the help you need. Many times, we cannot have our weekend nights to hang out with our friends or do our own thing and have our college experience because we are out here facilitating yours.”
Sun Services and Physical Plant, Wesleyan’s cleaners and fixers, are the ones who have to deal with vomit in the hallways, beer cans and red Solo cups littered all across campus in drunken stupor, and clogged sinks and toilets which pop up every weekend. Although party culture at Wes is a big part of the problem, there are systems of privilege and oppression that affect our ability to our ability to engage critically with it.
An Army of Servants
The cost of attending Wes is $67,000 a year, which goes towards serving the students’ needs and wants. These student fees make up most of Wes’s $200 million annual revenue. According to Wes’s Annual Financial Report for the 2015-2016 academic year, half of that revenue was spent on faculty, and the other half on “support.” A breakdown of operating expenses reveals that $93 million was spent on “student services,” “institutional support,” and “auxiliary services,” which comes out to $30,000 to support each student at Wes.
Indeed, everywhere one looks, there is an army of service people working full time to cater to our needs. In North and South College we have the much-viled administrators, including a University President, a Vice President for Information Technology & Chief Information Officer, a Vice President for Equity and Inclusion/Title IX Officer, a Provost, a Vice President for Academic Affairs, a Dean of Admission and Financial Aid, a Chief Communications Officer, a Vice President for Finance and Administration, a Director of Strategic Initiatives, a Chair of the Faculty, a Chief of Staff, a Vice President for Student Affairs, and a Vice President for University Relations (and that’s just the leadership team!) Full-time positions are created to serve every possible problem a student can face. There is a team of professionals working in Usdan, Allbritton, Exley, Olin, the CFA, Fisk, and all the other buildings at Wes, whose jobs are to serve students. In Usdan, Summerfields, and Pi, we have Bon Appetit dining workers; in Exley we have IT services and an underground network of engineers and carpenters; anywhere on campus we can see Sun Services cleaning up after us, Physical Plant workers fixing things we broke, gardeners keeping our lawns and fields pristine and manicured, and independent contractors setting up concerts and football stadiums.
Anti-administration sentiment runs strong among the social activists at Wes. This is understandable and necessary given the systems of oppression that hold power over us, but it can manifest itself in ugly ways. Take ResLife, for example. ResLife student staff (Resident Advisors, Hall Managers) and professional administrators (Area Coordinators, Central Staff) are predominantly female People of Color (POC), but often face accusations of implementing sexist, classist, and racist practices. Students blame ResLife for the year-end trash problem, saying ResLife is inconsiderate and thoughtless for not giving them more time to move out, and they call the move-out and lock-out fines classist because it affects low income students disproportionately. They do not merely critique the practice but also the administrator, because it is the administrator who has direct jurisdiction over these practices.
Yet these administrators themselves are POC and other minority identities. Often it is these identities that necessitate having to work these administrative jobs, positions which are vulnerable to verbal abuse and mistreatment at the hands of disgruntled students. They have decades of experience in their jobs and try their best to please as many students as possible, yet students think they know better after a one-time experience. When I speak to my ResLife superiors, all women of color, I sense their exasperation at these accusations which have grown all too familiar; these people who have studied and lived oppression are being accused of exactly what they are victims of. Buried beneath the barrage of accusations, the only thing left to do is to ask students what they want, only to be accused of classism again because now ResLife is making demands on students’ time, and the low-income students are too busy working jobs.
It is not just ResLife: members of the SBC, consisting of females, POC, and low income students, have been personally accused of sexism, racism, and classism. For social activists who claim that reverse racism doesn’t exist because minorities are unable to utilize current systems of oppression, surely it is inconsistent and hypocritical to call females sexist, POC racist, and low-income students classist.
In general, the power dynamic between students and administrators runs both ways: the administrators hold administrative power over university practices, while students hold consumer power because they are paying for the service that administrators provide. The recent high-profile Scott Backer case, which was indeed a terrible example of administrative failure, has made students angry at the Wes administration, and rightfully so. However, there have also been many cases where students abuse their power over administrators, especially when critiquing minorities who serve them.
Another component of the liberal arts lifestyle that is unaware of its own privilege is expectations surrounding food at Wes. There is much that can be improved about the Wes food system, but its sufficiency for consumption is not one. I have written about the logistical details of the Wes meal plan before, so I’ll go with a vague, personal anecdote this time.
Last semester, I spent quite indiscriminately and found myself with $12 per day left for the last month. The initial adjustment was difficult (what do you mean I can’t get a chai whenever I feel like it?), but after a few days I found myself developing a healthier, more sustainable relationship with food. I transitioned from a give-in-to-every-temptation mindset to a do-I-really-need-this mindset. Most of the problems we have in our world are traceable to greed—people who use more than they need cause others to not have enough. If we are purporting to better this situation, we first need to change ourselves, and ask if we are consuming more than what we need. Without getting into the figures, it is my opinion that our expectations of the Wes meal plan is way overblown. From the amounts of food students waste at Wes, it is obvious many of us take food for granted and do not respect it enough anyway.
The Liberal Arts Lifestyle and the Soul of Activism
These are some examples of components of Wes culture that are not conducive to creating activists that are aware of more than just global systems of inequity, but also cognizant of the ones in which they currently live. The lifestyle that requires a financial ecosystem for partying, an army of administrators, and an indulgent meal plan enslaves students to become focused on their own desires and distances them from the rest of the world.
The rapidly increasing sticker price for an elite, liberal arts education fuels unnecessary infrastructure spending in U.S. universities, creating an arms race between these institutions to attract the brightest students and faculty by boasting gross luxuries on admissions pamphlets. It feeds a vicious cycle where universities like Yale have an endowment of $25 billion, higher than the GDP of half the countries in the world. Bright students are spoilt for choice among these schools and come to see these luxuries as a right, expecting schools to serve such amenities on a silver platter. Schools themselves are trapped in this cycle because they lose their most important asset, human capital, to other schools if they attempt to scale back. We have reached a Nash equilibrium where all parties are incentivized to maintain their current position or suffer a loss. The intrinsic value of a liberal arts education is now commodified and warped beyond its noble purpose.
The work of social justice activists is to recognize and breakdown inequities in society, but there is a serious contradiction when they fail to recognize those inherent in the liberal arts lifestyle that they themselves are living in. In these cases, activism has lost its soul.
For an institution that prides itself on being a pioneer of social justice activism and commodifies that identity to raise alumni donations, Wes’s operating statement tells a very different tale: half of its expenses, a whopping $100 million a year, is spent on sustaining a bourgeois lifestyle for its students. How much do we spend on partying, and how much on activism? This is a trend that is generalizable to other liberal arts colleges, for Wes quotes with pride in its financial report that it “spends proportionately more on academic priorities and less on support activities than peer institutions.” Contrast this with humbler schools like Berea College, where education is free because every student is required to work on campus to offset the cost of attendance. It is undeniable that the class privilege of Wes over Berea will propel more Wes alumni towards success, but there is something perverse about the whole process.
In a world of finite resources, for each Wes student to be given the opportunity of this lifestyle, there is an equivalent imbalance somewhere else in the world. In the big picture, economics is not a zero sum game, but as a snapshot in time, the distribution of resources in a static equilibrium is a zero sum game. In other words, where there are winners, there are also losers, and we are the beneficiaries of an unjust system.
Points of Contention
At this point, we are faced with some questions: Are the party people and the social activists in the same crowd? Are partying and being a social activist mutually exclusive? Is there a way to party responsibly and considerately? Where do we draw the line between commodifying our personal lifestyle and spending our time and resources to help others? Most pressingly, what’s the alternative? Liberal arts colleges offer a unique education, which is arguably the most effective way to learn the skills we need to pursue our dreams (for a good cause or otherwise). Do we forsake that just to stay consistent with our values? Would we even have developed these values had we not studied liberal arts?
There are many party people who are not activists and vice versa, but I’ve seen enough overlap to believe there’s a contradiction in the community. Responsible partying is possible but unlikely because most students party with substances, which remove their inhibitions and consideration for other people. Unless one parties without littering, vandalizing, or disturbing other people’s peace; is respectful to other people; and cleans up after oneself, then participating in the party culture at Wes is inconsistent with being a sincere activist.
We do not have to forsake self-care for activism, but we do need to become better at differentiating our wants and needs. Of course, a life without satisfying any of our wants will become dull very quickly, so we should also prioritize our wants and treat ourselves to something every now and then; such is crucial to retain our zest for life. The most important thing is to recognize unneeded excesses and let them go. Donate what we don’t need. It is not just for the sake of others—it frees us from the trap of consumerism that leaves us perpetually unsatisfied with what we have.
The question of being part of a system that is flawed is the hardest one. Technically, there are only two ways to live completely independent of systems of oppression: as a lone, foraging hermit on a mountaintop, or suicide. Each time you purchase something, or if you’re a legal citizen of a country, you are complicit in a system of oppression. There is no easy alternative. The best we can do is to recognize and make better what we can. For the examples in this article, it is not difficult: party responsibly or don’t party at all; be respectful of those who serve us; be grateful for simple food.
On the individual level, it is easy to change our degree of participation in these systems of oppression and stop contributing to them; however, to enroll as a student at Wes is to willingly become complicit in its continuation and prosperity. Yet a high-quality education in the U.S. often comes hand-in-hand with the liberal arts lifestyle in a package deal; it is difficult to get the first without supporting the second. For many ambitious social justice activists, the most effective way to achieve their goals are through these institutions, and that is valid. But even after becoming a participant in the system, there is still a large degree of freedom on what we can choose to do with our time. Forsake the excesses and use that time to explore the other side of the oppression dynamic; you can never truly serve anyone without walking in their shoes. Wipe tables at Usdan and get to know the adult staff to understand the day-to-day struggles of working class people; volunteer at the Wesleyan Refugee Project or Middletown Potluck; socialize with people outside of your usual friend group…. At Wes, there are unlimited options for stepping out of your bubble.
This piece was originally published on Facebook and can be viewed here.
Justin Liew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.