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  • Saphire Ruiz

Final Reflections on My Time as President of Student Assembly

With 20 days left before finally graduating from Hamilton College, I’ve been reflecting on my four years here quite a bit. My last year at Hamilton has largely been defined by my time on Student Assembly (SA) as president of the student body.

I’ve written about my negative experiences being president and the racism and misogynoir I experienced at the hands of senior staff members and members of the Board of Trustees, in both my resignation letter and a reflection piece I wrote for The Monitor at the end of last semester. For the most part, I kept my critiques focused on the College, and made the decision to keep to myself and my inner circle the horrible experiences I had with members within the body itself. I did this primarily because I needed time away from the Assembly to decompress and start to really understand what my time meant to me and the impact it had on me, and also to protect the work of members of the Assembly who were genuinely trying to fulfill their responsibilities as elected/appointed student representatives.

With my time at Hamilton ending soon and it being almost seven months since I resigned, I feel like now is the best time to write about the full extent of my experiences, and the reality that while I resigned primarily because of the behaviors of senior staff members, I also resigned because of the way that past and current SA members treated myself, Kavya Crasta ‘21 (Vice President for spring 2021), and Eric Santomauro-Stenzel ‘24 (VP for fall 2021), and because of many folks’ general refusal to take their positions seriously.

Never in my entire life have I had to participate in (and certainly not lead) such a disjointed, unnecessarily complicated, non-communicative, and irresponsible body. After months of trying to pull through until the official end of my term, by October 2021 I could no longer handle being part of a group with far too many members who were willing to consistently throw myself and both Vice Presidents under the bus (even if it meant outright lying) and protect and defend the College, Senior Administration, and white supremacy as a whole.

When Kavya, Eric, and myself were elected, we knew we had a huge challenge before us. Eric and I each had our own personal experiences with the Assembly (which we’ve written about) and we were all aware of not only the body’s general weakness and the students’ negative perceptions of it, but also that there were members of the Assembly who were ideologically opposed to many of the things we believed in and planned to fight for.

None of us, I think, were truly prepared for the extent that the Assembly had become a formality—its existence simply a mouthpiece (and scapegoat) for the College and as many have always seen it, nothing but a funding body. I’m not sure anyone who hoped to improve the Assembly in any way could’ve been prepared for its state.

Keeping in mind the pandemic, the growing mental health crisis on campus, and the reality of the extremely low expectations that had been set for Assembly members, Kavya and I tried our best in our semester to establish strong boundaries and expectations, while also respecting everyone’s time and health. Our biggest concern and request for the Assembly (which would be the same for Eric and I), was that people communicated, and did so in a direct and timely manner.

We knew that people would need breaks and leniency, and all we asked was that they tell us this and with as much warning as possible. This was so that we could make necessary adjustments and changes to projects, expectations, responsibilities, etcetera in a way that would ensure the protection of and commitment to both our work and the Assembly members as best we could.

Instead, throughout both semesters we experienced dropped projects, missed meetings, and unread emails and messages, all without any warning. The Audit and Action Council and Mental Health Task Force/Resolution all failed and went without follow-up because commitments went unfulfilled. In the second semester multiple people were at risk of being kicked off the Assembly because they weren’t attending their required committee meetings. Myself, the VPs, and other cabinet members often had to pick up others’ projects or complete projects on our own because either no one volunteered or those who did never followed through. Kavya spent most of her time (I wish I was exaggerating) chasing down committee chairs for their weekly reports (which would’ve taken 5-10 minutes to fill out every week). The only committee in my time that regularly made progress was the Res Life & Safety Committee, chaired by Jackson Harris ‘22.

We found that Assembly members regularly and consistently didn’t read our emails, messages, or the documents we sent out. Almost every time there was a statement, resolution, or proposal on the floor, we’d send out constant communication and reminders to look over the content at least a few days before our Monday meetings, and to let folks know if there were any questions/concerns/etcetera. Without fail, we’d hear radio silence for days, but when it came to discuss or vote on something, suddenly there were all kinds of issues that needed to be addressed, slowing down our work. When we would directly tell members we would appreciate more consistent responses or a notification they needed a break, we were frequently met with snide remarks or other negativity. Often, members would be against a proposal and then offer up nothing in return, forcing us to try and figure out what they wanted and make satisfactory changes.

If they didn’t like the changes we made while trying to guess what they wanted (or even if we simply stated our general disagreement with their suggestions), we were accused of being unwilling to work with those who disagreed with us. This, despite the fact that the few times people disagreed with us and then gave us suggestions and actively worked with us to find solutions, we were able to compromise, such as when the former President/VP, Eric Cortés-Kopp ‘22, disagreed with our initial solution to Kavya’s resignation in spring 2021.

When members complained we sent them too many messages and emails, we shortened and streamlined our communications. Then we were accused of purposely withholding information. In early fall 2021, a class/cluster treasurer accused us of purposely excluding her from the planning and creation of the Student Activities Fee Committee (SAFC), despite the fact that we had reached out to her on multiple occasions requesting her involvement and input, and each time was told she’d get back to us, if she replied at all. She resigned when, after making this public accusation, Eric responded with evidence of her misleading claims.

One of my final straws was a closed meeting in September 2021 following the Judicial Board fiasco where a member of the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (AHI) Undergraduates threatened to sue members of the Assembly. Earlier in the full meeting we had finally approved minutes from the SA meeting that was the main focus of the cease & desist letter. At the closed session, Eric and I were accused of not properly warning Assembly members of risks prior to voting on the minutes. I was absolutely enraged when I heard that, because we sent constant messages and emails that week practically begging for members to look over the minutes prior to their approval and make sure they were satisfied. One of the members who literally helped write the edited section of the minutes had the audacity to argue that Eric and I were being exclusive and secretive. The student who made the accusation was given extra information on top of what most members received because of their own risk (though they were absent for the SA meeting the cease and desist referenced). This accusation from this student was also right after I read out an email from Dean Martinez accusing me of being a liar, which led most of the members to gasp in shock, only to accuse me of the same thing in the next breath. It was a deep betrayal by someone we had sought to the greatest extent possible to protect from legal action at the risk of our own persecution by the student who threatened to sue or, at the time, what we thought as a possible punitive measure from the College. We never named this student as having aided in our decision regarding the minutes in this closed session meeting, even after they made this accusation. We never named the approximately ten students who were most at risk of a lawsuit that we had privately met with for hours to coordinate our response for their protection.

This, when we had given all of the members information regarding the cease and desist President Wippman and Dean Martinez told us was confidential and not to be shared. The College told us not to publicly discuss the contents of the cease and desist letter, refused to protect us from a suit which President Wippman himself privately told Eric and I had no grounding, and refused to give us a copy of the cease and desist letters threatening to sue individual students or to inform the full Assembly of what they had received. We gave the Assembly as much information as we could, a decision which at the time we thought could land us in trouble with the College. Yet for some, we were ultimately responsible for any lack of information available to the Assembly.

A few weeks after I resigned, The Spectator released a shameful “investigative report” on the resignations of the Assembly. Not only did the “reporter” take out of context some of the things I said in my interview with her (including conflating my reasons for resigning with Han’s) and exclude a lot of the other things I talked about, like my difficulties with members of the Assembly, she also never bothered to corroborate many of the claims of members who resigned (one of whom was the one who accused us of secrecy and exclusivity). Had she done so, she would’ve found that they were painting a very inaccurate picture of the reality of their last few weeks on the Assembly. Further, there was no disclosure that one of the Editors-in-Chief of The Spectator was a member of the Assembly (who resigned weeks after the article came out). The article did not quote a single voting member of the Assembly who had decided to stay, many of whom had their own frustrations about some of the members who left, and expressed as much in internal Assembly communications. Three of the former members who were quoted, Sorensen, Geller, and Mathews, had met privately before their final SA meeting and then coordinated their simultaneous resignations the following day. One of these three had been in direct contact with the student who threatened to sue members of the Assembly both before and after the “no” vote on his J-Board confirmation, was friends with him, and at no point disclosed this information to the whole Assembly. The article’s sensationalized first page skewed the story in one particular direction, a direction that to some degree was coordinated on the part of some (not all) resigning members. There were other smaller factual inaccuracies that I won’t address in this piece.

Simple research into the minutes of the Assembly would’ve found that the former members of the Assembly who accused Eric of speaking more than anyone else were wrong. In fact, this reporter could’ve asked us for our speaker tracker, which actually tracked how often members spoke, for the purpose of balancing out speakers and encouraging those who took up a lot of space to back up and those who didn’t to speak up. Since this reporter didn’t do that research, I did it for her:

Looking at the minutes from the start of the semester until my resignation, I found that Eric spoke a total of 17 times (not counting specific times he spoke with regards to his position as Chair, like accepting a motion or moving on to the next agenda item). By the time of the resignations, Representative Sorensen spoke 6 times, Representative Geller 11, and Representative Han and Representative Mathews both spoke 19 times each. When looking at our talk tracker, the member who spoke the most was counted at 41 times by the end of September, yet there seemed to be no issue with that for those who resigned. Notably, at least four SA members have resigned this semester, and more are opting to not run for re-election for similar reasons to my resigning, yet The Spectator apparently sees no story to tell.

The accusations against us about “cancel culture” and not letting those with ideological disagreements from us speak or engage in their own work are again, simply false. The issue wasn’t that we were unwilling to compromise or work with those who disagreed with us, but rather that concerns were often brought up to us super late and stalled our work, people often had critiques but no suggestions, or our calls for feedback and participation were outright ignored. At times, it also seemed members expected that their expression of disagreement would equate to our own opinion changing; rather than using the parliamentary procedures to overrule us, as we specifically laid out how one could do early in the semester, these students took to campus media to paint themselves as victims. Further, “cancel culture” literally doesn’t exist and is a tool used to silence and vilify those who are most often fighting for change and liberation; it’s the same excuse President Wippman and Dean Martinez use to protect far-right, white supremacist students and faculty (which I wrote a little bit about in a recent piece).

One of the biggest points of conflict between Kavya/Eric/myself and those on the Assembly who disagreed with us was the relationship between SA and senior staff, and the reality that the Assembly has become a mediator between the Administration and the student body, rather than an advocate for the student body, as student governments in general have historically been.

When we entered our positions, we did so with the intention of doing our best to collaborate with the College. We were going to be strong, willful, and have our non-negotiables. We were going to demand respect, and in return we’d respect senior staff.

Unfortunately, President Wippman is a racist, many of the members of the Board of Trustees are racists, and most senior staff and many other administrators are committed not to creating a safe and encouraging educational environment for all, but to upholding and protecting the legacy and image of Hamilton College. And as I’ve painstakingly demonstrated in my research, that legacy is one of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

As I explained in my resignation letter and first reflection piece (linked above), by the time fall 2021 came around, I had decided enough was enough, and I would no longer play the games of respectability politics and try and collaborate with those who clearly didn’t care about genuinely improving the experiences and material realities of marginalized community members on campus.

Even the Assembly “advisor,” the Director of Student Activities, demonstrated her commitment to the College and Dean of Students above all else early in my term. She regularly overstepped as advisor, often going directly against us and ignoring our concerns, telling us one thing in a meeting and writing another in an email. When I made her aware of the fact that many would often refuse to go against her whenever she decided to speak on something because of the power imbalance and the authority she held as a staff member and long-time “advisor,” she completely ignored this and continued to speak on issues. Rather than advising us, she often attempted to take control of situations, and the stances she took on different Assembly issues were often those of Dean Martinez (she admitted so herself a few times). It was clear that administrators saw her as the official authority of the Assembly, as they often reached out to her about Assembly concerns instead of us, the people who were actually leading the Assembly. She didn’t bother respecting our requests to Dean Martinez and President Wippman that they go directly to us with any concerns or questions about the Assembly, regularly acting as the middle person and our point of contact with senior staff. Once an administrator had BCC’d her on an email chain between us and them, which we only discovered because she responded to the email and we couldn’t see where she had been added to the chain.

Today, the Assembly struggles with membership (as it has for years), has dealt with multiple presidential/vice presidential resignations in the last few years, and is still deeply disrespected and manipulated by the College. So where does that leave its future? In abolition.

Although the Assembly came out of a combination with the traditional Hamilton Student Senate and transformational Kirkland Assembly (which gave equal decision-making power to students, faculty, staff, and administrators), and its first president was from Kirkland College, it has long left behind its more student-centered, advocacy-based roots. The Assembly has fully fallen to the pressures of the College, and has become completely ineffective because of the chokehold of the College. With an “advisor” who’s clearly interested in ensuring the Assembly continues to be ineffective at anything beyond putting together events and celebrations, a constitution that makes absolutely no sense and that many seem unwilling to rewrite, a President of the College whose job is made easier with a useless Assembly, and many past, current, and probably future Assembly members more concerned with boosting their resumes and keeping the College happy, there is no hope in its current structure.

The Assembly will never be effective, purposeful, or a body that protects and advocates for students if it continues on this path. It’s become rotten, and the only solution is to chop it down and create something new. Something that sets clear boundaries between students and other groups, especially administrators, and understands its role as advocates and organizers rather than stenographers and focus groups for administration.

If the Assembly must continue to exist, the single most important step to be taken is to remove the administrator from the role of “advisor” and replace her with a variety of tenured faculty who do not report to administrators whose interests are inherently counter to students.

There is, however, hope in many of the first years (on and off the Assembly), in a few of the upperclassmen on the Assembly, and likely in students to come. Despite my experience with the Assembly, I still fully believe in student government and student representation, and I do think that there are people on campus and will be people on campus who genuinely have the ability and care to create something new and beautiful; something that remembers the roots of student governments as bodies that are meant to defend and protect all students.

It is this hope in people (not systems) that has driven my organizing at Hamilton, and is this hope that I prefer to embrace and this hopeful future I prefer to imagine as my time at Hamilton comes to a close.

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