A Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) resolution, calling for two WSA senators to be invited to private deliberations about the University’s proposed joint venture with Hengdian Group and asking for the University to release all pertinent materials to the proposed campus to the WSA, was passed unanimously with one abstention on Sunday, Oct. 13. The resolution asks for a response from the University administration by Wednesday, Oct. 16—a shortened deadline, in comparison to the usual week—because President Michael Roth ’78 will be visiting China over fall break.
The resolution that passed is an edited version of a previous draft which was presented on Oct. 6. While the first iteration of the resolution took a more political stance condemning the proposed joint venture in addition to asking for access to meetings about the venture, the sponsors of the resolution—Ben Garfield ’22, Huzaifa Khan ’22, and Katelin Penner ’22—are now prioritizing accessing and disseminating information to the larger campus community rather than taking a stance on the venture.
“It just made political sense to take a more measured tone in our resolution, because we were also calling for involvement with the administration, and knowing President Roth, he wouldn’t have likely worked with us if we were also condemning what he was doing,” Khan said.
The current resolution calls for two senators, elected internally by the WSA, to be invited to these meetings. Having only WSA senators eligible for this position is, the sponsors said, a compromise based on past interactions with administration.
“That’s a concession to Roth,” Penner said. “He’s tended to feel more comfortable with that. Because Roth does have to agree to this, we as the WSA were like, ‘We have to do something so that he’s willing to take this.’”
In selecting these two senators, the sponsors emphasized that these representatives must put their own opinions aside in order to represent all perspectives on the proposed venture on campus fairly and report back information without bias.
“It’s on each representative to come back and say, ‘Okay, let me get as many people’s input in this. And not just the people who are willing to be out there pushing their perspective, but everyone’s perspective,’” Garfield said. “I think that requires them to go out there and have as many conversations with as many people as possible. It’s a tough task, and I wouldn’t say it’s going to be something that’s very easy for whoever those senators are.”
Garfield also pointed out that the role of these two senators would be not only to provide critiques of the project, but also to represent student interests and gather more information.
“I don’t think that the administration should feel as though those students’ input is going to be harsh criticism constantly, that they’re going to be coming after them aggressively,” Garfield said. “We really want to know what the hell’s happening, and why haven’t we been included so far, and how can we be included going forward, and how can we get more information about this and provide input.”
The resolution also calls for the WSA General Assembly (GA) to hold a town hall to facilitate conversation and more thoroughly understand student perspectives on the venture for interested members of the Wesleyan community.
Acknowledging the repercussions students may face for speaking out or showing up to a public event like the town hall, the sponsors also called for creating an anonymous Google Form for members of the community to share their thoughts. Khan said that the WSA has received mostly negative feedback on the joint venture proposal and wants to make sure that students who are either more neutral or in favor of the potential joint venture feel comfortable voicing their opinions.
“I think it is really important that we get honest feedback and not just have our perspectives skewed by the fact that more positive views of this campus would be the ones that aren’t public,” Khan said.
The resolution was conceived following the sponsors’ and other senators’ meeting with Roth on Sept. 30 after hearing of the proposed joint venture. The sponsors left the meeting feeling frustrated with the administration’s lack of transparency concerning the project so far.
“I had concerns with how this project was developing,” Khan said. “It seemed like the administration, as with a lot of their projects recently, wasn’t trying to seek student involvement in this, and my original concerns were just with the timing of this and what the administration’s thinking about. Why now? Why is now the best time to have this campus given the global events happening?”
Even students who typically did not have strong opinions on campus issues, Garfield said, were apprehensive about the proposed joint venture. This motivated him to find a way to make sure these concerns were addressed.
“I’ve heard certain students bring up concerns about this campus who I’ve never heard talk about campus affairs in that way,” Garfield said. “This is one of those things where people care about it and are concerned about it—and concerned about how this is going about in a way I haven’t really seen. So from a perspective of trying to represent the student voice on campus, that’s incredibly concerning, and the fact that the administration is very hesitant to take in any consideration as to what people have to say on it is very concerning as well.”
Penner was motivated to write this resolution in part due to past frustrations concerning administrative transparency.
“Working on the WSA, I’ve been disturbed several times by the administration’s lack of willingness to work with students, and I think a lot of where my personal stake comes in this is: I want a Wesleyan that works for all people who live, learn, and work at Wesleyan,” Penner said. “I think this resolution just kind of generally takes a step towards…where, other than nine people sitting in a room, a greater portion of our campus can take ownership and leadership in making decisions that have a huge impact on people that are members of our community.”
When the sponsors first presented the resolution on Sunday, Oct. 6, the first half of the resolution laid out reasons for condemning the venture, while the clauses containing calls to action focused on requesting access to information the University has. Members of the GA highlighted this discrepancy following the presentation, encouraging the sponsors to rewrite the resolution to be more consistent throughout.
The initial condemnation of the venture, Khan said, reflected the perspectives he had heard at the time of writing the resolution.
“At that point, the only student input had been against the campus, and I wanted to convey that to the administration,” Khan said. “Getting that message across that there are concerns with what that means for students on this campus affected by things happening in China and also what it means for students’ academic freedom…was a point I wanted to get across, but after hearing concerns from the senators about how the tone was both seeking access and also condemning the project, that that discrepancy was the main reason I took those clauses out.”
Penner added that following the sponsors’ meeting with Roth, writing these clauses condemning the venture was in part premature, considering they had not gathered enough student input, nor had all the information they believe the administration currently possesses on the venture.
“I think we were careless in the way that we wrote the first resolution and a little bit impulsive because a lot of people were very shocked by the fact that this was happening,” Penner said.
If the University administration responds by the Oct. 16 deadline and denies the resolution’s proposed two student representatives access to meetings, this will inform the GA’s next steps in how to handle the joint venture.
“If they say, ‘We don’t want these two senators on this project’…we want to know ahead of time so we can know what types of actions we can take in the meantime and what types of things we should be thinking about, what types of things we should do,” Khan said.
Hong Kong resident Joy Ming King ’20, who attended the second presentation of the resolution on Sunday and co-organized a rally on Friday against the joint venture, proposed a clause that would frame the campus as inextricable from politics.
“I want to suggest to add a preamble to this resolution to recognize that this is fundamentally a political issue, that specifically Hengdian Corporation, the corporation in question, has connections to the Chinese Communist Party, and that there are people on this campus from Hong Kong, mainland China, and elsewhere, who are living and resisting the oppression of the Chinese Communist Party and that issue should be taken into consideration in any conversation about this campus,” King said.
However, after hearing how GA hoped taking an apolitical stance on this resolution would allow them to gain the best access to getting information, King stopped advocating for including the clause and urged senators to consider the campus as an inherently political issue. In responding to King, Khan explained that the resolution is not meant to be political, but to gain access to administrative conversations about the venture.
“I understand the political dynamic of this issue, but this resolution is really meant to get our leg in the door, to understand this project, and to make sure that we have an active understanding of the development of this project,” Khan said. “So political discussions, in my opinion, can be had at things like the town hall and future upcoming resolutions, possibly…but really this resolution is mainly to get our leg in the door and have a student seat at the table.”
The sponsors will continue to seek out student input in order to understand the issues surrounding the proposed venture more thoroughly.
“We’re aware of how sensitive this issue is to students and we’re really trying to do our best to create the best possible solution that takes into account everyone’s ideas,” Khan said. “We want everyone to be involved in shaping Wesleyan’s identity and what Wesleyan’s going to look like in 10, 20 years from now. Our utmost priority is really valuing student input and student involvement in what Wesleyan looks like.”
Jocelyn Maeyama can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.