Interview with the new Student Assembly Administration
This interview has been transcribed for clarity and brevity.
Note: Saphire Ruiz and Eric Stenzel are Staff Writers for the Monitor.
How will you change the role of student assembly with respect to how it interacts with both students and administrators?
President Saphire Ruiz (SR): We’re really imagining an assembly that is working collaboratively with as many groups as we can. We want to be working with other student groups on campus, we want to be working with the administration, and we want to be working with staff in getting everyone’s goals achieved. We want to utilize all the different skill sets that we all have to make sure that the college is actually serving the students in the ways that they want to be served.
Vice-President Eric Stenzel (ES): Our working relationship will depend on the issue at hand. We very much acknowledge that at times a polite discussion will be necessary, but other times the student body and the assembly will come out stronger to advocate for things. There is a structural imbalance between the decision makers and the students, compared to other colleges where other student assemblies have actual power. Hamilton Student Assembly has no formal power to make change besides funding, and we’ll be fighting to expand those powers while working with what we have now.
Student Assembly is constrained by the administration, and in many respects holds more symbolic power than actual force. How do you plan to leverage your power to create actual change?
ES: We envision Student Assembly as a student union, not a government- an organizing body that seeks to mobilize as many students as possible to speak out on the things we need as a student body. Instead of institutional power and leverage, we will be building student power and leverage, and use that to affect change. I am very confident that a lot of the student movements of the past two years have produced changes not necessarily because we convinced the administration that this is the right way, but because students are demonstrating and the college needs to respect students’ desires. We want to continue applying this pressure when it's necessary.
Vice President Kavya Crasta (KC): Part of building that student union is identifying the overlaps in the goals of different organizations. In a lot of the conversations we've had, there've been many overlaps, as the student body as a whole wants similar things. Hamilton is diverse, but we have overlaps in our goals, which is an incentive for different organizations to collaborate.
SR: We have an understanding that all of the issues we’re working with are connected with each other, and that all our liberations are connected. We’re all interested in different issues that affect each other. What we’re thinking about is how SA can be a facilitator of those issues, and work to connect students in different areas. An example is SMART’s work with sexual assault, and how this can be combined with Greek Life societies that are focused on preventing sexual assault. Our question on the Student Assembly is how can we work with these organizations on Title 9 training, policy and investigations?
How will you build student power?
SR: This will first require bringing everyone into the room, and having conversations with student leaders and assembly members. The question we’ve posed to different student organizations is how can the assembly start to bring different groups together. This includes changing committee structures, as there are issues committees are working on where it would be very beneficial for them to collaborate with different organizations on campus. The Community Affairs Committee handles a lot of mental and physical health concerns, so we’re thinking about how we can collaborate with Minds for Change. We’ve also considered how the Equity and Inclusion Committee can work with groups on campus to think about racial justice initiatives on campus. The first step is thinking about how SA can collaborate intentionally with organizations. From there, we’ve created the expectation that we’re going to work together.
What are your top priorities this semester?
KC: Our top priority is COVID 19, and talking about the mental health of students during the pandemic. Currently, we are putting together a task force to think through different recommendations to bring into fruition once we enter office. Our other priorities concern our areas of expertise- our ticket brings together different aspects of campus activism. For me, I’ve done a lot of work around survivor advocacy, Saphire has done a lot of work on racial and queer justice, and Eric has done a lot of work around climate change. We will each be advocating for those different groups.
ES: I want to focus on the mental health task force, as that is a lot of what we are envisioning the work of the Assembly to continue. Part of our work includes a mental health survey that we designed together and recently sent out to the student body. That task force includes members of the assembly, includes Minds from Change, Peer Counselors, and more. This is a recognition that we in the Assembly don’t have a full understanding of the issue, and that when other people on campus are working on the same thing, the wider community has the answers. We are going to work with the community to develop ways in which we will pursue these priorities.
SR: We are focusing on creating a student union, and having serious and genuine conversations with members of the community about how we are being intentional about all the work we are doing, and creating the cultural shifts that we want to see happen. Mental health is one of our main priorities, and we want representatives to honor their own mental health. Mental health should be everyones’ priority in a pandemic, so it should be acceptable to rest and take breaks.
How would you characterize Hamilton’s administrative response to COVID-19, and where does it need improvement?
ES: The first thing I would say is that the communication from administration was less than ideal. I took a leave of absence this past semester for a large part because I felt that I was extremely uncertain about what it would mean to actually be on campus, and how safe I would be. Communication has come up time and time again, including in our mental health survey results. One of the things that we want to do is to make information about guidelines more understandable by putting out infographics that explain what students are required to do. The Student Assembly will make sure that communication is clear when the administration is not clear.
SR: Another thing that we are keeping in mind as we’re doing this mental health task force is thinking about the particular struggles marginalized students are dealing with, and advocating for equitable policies. We have to keep in mind that some students are in significantly more vulnerable situations than others, and ask how the assembly is going to fill in those gaps where they are feeling less supported by the administration.
What does the current make-up of Representatives in the Student Assembly look like? Are most Reps. supportive of your platform, or do you expect significant opposition and debate over your policies?
SR: We have been meeting with assembly members for the past couple weeks, and there is a genuine desire among assembly members to actually be helping students. We are all on the same page that we want to support students. We have found lots of areas that we want to collaborate on with assembly members. In any given body there is going to be disagreement, but on a general level we are all on the same page that we are here to support students. On the big issues of racial justice and climate justice, assembly members are largely in agreement with each other. It won’t necessarily be easy all the time, but we all want to work with each other to support students. We campaigned on issues that members have been previously advocating for, and have even worked with each other before, so there is lots of opportunity.
KC: On top of this shared goal to do what is right for the student body, we are in a unique moment in Hamilton where there is a little bit more of an urgency to represent the voices of the student body. This is largely due to a lot of frustration and burnout related to the pandemic, which has provided a real sense of urgency and unity.
ES: If you were to ask me that same question in April, I would have had a pretty different answer, but so much has happened since then. It has come out that our main differences are strategic, and not deep seated ideological differences. A lot of people are fed up with the way that student governance has been treated on campus. This body has a lot of ways where it can be more involved with the community, and where it can hold real power. If we look at how the college responded to BLM protests and the advisory council, the sentiment among the assembly that something hasn’t been working, and we need to start organizing to get what we need.
In your platform you describe how SA funding has been cut by tens of thousands of dollars, forcing student organizations to deal with major budget issues. If you are unable to convince the administration to further fund our organizations, how will you manage this budget crisis and make difficult decisions about defunding clubs?
SR: What’s difficult about this is that we are not in charge of how the administration budgets money. One thing that has come up in my work around saving money is thinking about intentional programming on campus. We have a lot of organizations on campus that put on similar events to one another, so we need to think about how we can have more student organization collaboration events to maximize the budgets that are available to us. We can pool resources together to make an event that both organizations would want to create, and also maximize audiences. We need to think strategically about how to use the money that is available to us, including by finding cheaper and more sustainable items in budgets. The important thing about this issue is that we need to make sure that we aren’t reducing the quality of life on campus.
Student governments at Swarthmore, NYU, Barnard, and many more have passed resolutions in support of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement against Israel. What are your stances on the BDS movement, and if you do support it, how will your administration take action?
SR: On a personal level I definitely support that movement, and I am open with that fact. We would have to have a very critical conversation with the student assembly and the student body before we took any action. We are a student union, so we would not want to take unilateral action. If a club was created to support this issue, we would have to fund them as an official college organization. I’m not sure what the student outlook is, or if students are thinking about doing this work, as it has not come onto the radar of the assembly. If this issue is brought by the students, we will have a conversation about it with the student assembly and our constituents.
The Board of Trustees has not been affected by calls for divestment from fossil fuels for almost a decade. How will you change SA’s relationship with the Board of Trustees, and what will be your strategy for making them take action?
ES: The trustees still do not seem to understand that fossil fuel investment is a stranding asset, which will eventually lose the college money. On purely a financial level, they should get rid of those assets. In terms of how to engage with this issue on a college level, the Student Assembly passed a resolution calling for student members on the Board of Trustees, which is something that we absolutely support. The Board has not yet agreed to put full voting student members, which makes us extremely disappointed. Ideally, we would also have some spots for recent alumni, as having that perspective would change the direction the college is headed. The Chair of the Investment Committee sits on the board of directors for seven fossil fuel companies, and there is no way to convince him that fossil fuels are harming the environment. We are going to continue organizing to apply more pressure on the trustees, and moving beyond student protests, to build leverage beyond what is currently there.
Texas A&M and Auburn University both changed their university’s policies towards public speakers after hosting Richard Spencer by requiring speakers to get the backing of a college affiliated student organization. Would you support this at Hamilton?
ES: I think there’s a lot to consider on this. I’ll start by saying that Paul Gottfried should never have been allowed to speak on Hamilton’s campus, as he is a full blown white nationalist. In terms of college policy on speakers being brought to campus, it gets to be a messy issue. What I will say is that the college itself should never be bringing these types of people to campus and there should be safeguards to prevent this from happening. These include policies like if you have ever expressed pro-fascist or white nationalist comments, you will never be invited to Hamilton’s campus by any organization or group affiliated with the college.
We should also note the decisions that Hamilton makes about who it decides to bring to speak, particularly with the events like Common Ground and Great Names. I believe it was Professor Westmaas who wrote in the Spectator a few years ago that Martin Luther King Jr. would never be invited to campus to speak, and we are never seeing anyone that represents that kind of perspective at these events.
SR: It becomes a murky legal issue, and I’m sure that those universities immediately got lawsuits. I will say that we are anti-racist and anti-fascist, and if Hamilton wants to bring a white supremacist to campus, we will be explicitly saying that they should not be doing this. It is important now more than ever with the Capitol attack that we cannot be giving these people a platform under the guise of free speech, as the speech incites violence- both literal and psychological. These people can’t be invited because they can and will cause harm. We need to implement some kind of policy that draws these lines, while also making sure that we are constitutionally able to make these decisions, but I think it is easy for the college to take a much harder stance on this issue then they have before.
KC: I was on campus when Paul Gottfried came to speak, and I heard arguments that this would be positive for academic enrichment. As representatives of the student body, we want to emphasize that the mental and physical health of the student body will always come before academic enrichment. Personally I don’t believe that speeches such as these don’t provide any academic enrichment, but it is also important to center the health of the student body over any purported academic benefits.