By Eric Santomauro-Stenzel, Managing Editor
Additional reporting by Madison Lazenby, Editor-in-Chief
ELIHU ROOT HOUSE, Accessibility Resources Department - Basil Brown, formerly Class of 2024, never expected they wouldn’t graduate from Hamilton; but after their health rapidly declined following a February 2022 Covid-19 case during one of Hamilton’s outbreaks which infected approximately half of students by the end of the semester, life at Hamilton became unbearable. They began to use a mobility aid, a rollator, and quickly found that getting across campus was difficult, if not impossible at times: cracks and potholes on major walkways like Martin’s Way, endless stairs and push doors without alternatives, and curbs too high to move over; all this and more caused them physical pain. Their efforts to get the College to make the necessary changes for their well-being made little progress, and eventually, Brown decided it was too much. They withdrew from Hamilton College the summer between their sophomore and junior years, penning an article in Monitor concluding that they were “systematically excluded and harmed here.”
Brown’s article sent shockwaves through the community when it was released on the first day of Fall 2022 classes, August 25th, rapidly becoming Monitor’s most viewed article to date and being shared by hundreds of accounts across Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, according to Monitor’s internal analytics. Brown’s withdrawal and article has since triggered a broader campus discussion on physical accessibility, though it remains to be seen whether it will cause stronger administrative action.
Word quickly reached policymakers at Hamilton, including Student Assembly (SA) President Emily Jiang ‘25. Jiang posted an Instagram story on August 26th saying they would be meeting with President David Wippman and the new Dean of Students, Christopher Card, to discuss the matter in two weeks.
Other student leaders had a strong response, too. Elian Sorensen ‘23, Co-President and founder of the Disabled Students Network (DSN) who last year conducted an investigation into the campus’s inaccessibility for Spectator, told Monitor, “It is a uniquely devastating experience to find that the place where you live and work is unwilling to care for you and your needs. Though not an uncommon situation for disabled people, it is always infuriating and demoralizing, and there is no question that Basil’s loss will be felt by our community.” They concluded, “An administration that cared about their needs, and the needs of disabled students generally on this campus, would not have forced anyone to make such a choice.”
Brown told Monitor their article drew significant attention from the community, both on and off campus. “Overall I got the impression that speaking out about disability justice in my personal life really resonated with people and that they took me seriously, which had a really wonderful emotional impact on me.” They were grateful for this support, “I want to thank everyone that shared sympathy with me and took my lived experience seriously and let me know that I would be missed as well, and that I'm glad I got as much time there as I did.”
Last Monday, September 12th, Jiang reported the events of their accessibility meeting to the full Assembly at a general meeting. The accessibility meeting included SA Vice President Marvin Lopez, President David Wippman, Dean Chris Card, and Dean for Accessibility Resources Allen Harrison. Jiang told Assembly members that they had discussed whether Hamilton is compliant with federal accessibility law, which Wippman said it was, how those laws are not all encompassing, the potential cost of renovations, the availability of funding for psychological testing for students, and some specific ongoing projects, like the Martin’s Way bridge. Jiang, when recounting Wippman’s framing of College expenses, said Wippman asserted that the College has to prioritize its expenses, and as of late they have prioritized mental health.
President Wippman told Monitor he was traveling and would not be able to answer all questions by publishing time. Still, he said there were “significant inaccuracies” in Jiang’s recollection of the meeting.
Dean Harrison declined to comment on the discussion, deferring to President Wippman.
In response to Wippman’s claim that their recount was inaccurate, Jiang told Monitor, “I believe these minutes accurately represent what happened during our meeting, as I read directly from notes I took during the meeting. I took pains to represent what was said fairly, and prioritized mentioning new ideas for collaboration and solutions. Some of the information - the “too expensive or complicated” part - about ADA compliance came from online resources about college ADA compliance.”
Advocates also raised concerns about the continued focus on compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, as a standard for accessibility. While the law does make many provisions for increased accessibility, its standards do not require College administrators to make all of their buildings accessible, particularly those that were built before the law was passed. Sorensen told Monitor, “If President Wippman’s assessment of the College’s compliance is correct, then it should be obvious to everyone that Hamilton needs to consider other standards for accessibility. It is absurd to me that someone can in good conscience state that this College is accessible for disabled students because, by mere fact that the ADA does not require changes to many old structures, it is ADA compliant.”
They recounted that in their own experience, it has been difficult to navigate attending Hamilton even with accommodations. The fact, “That I can enter my own dorm without difficulty does not change the fact that many of my friends live in dorms that are difficult for me to access. Similarly, my accommodations require my classes be held on the first floor of buildings or in buildings with elevators. This accommodation, which on multiple occasions has moved my classes to entirely different buildings, allows the College to meet accessibility guidelines without renovating campus. These reasonable accommodations actively discourage the College from making long-term changes, and force students like Basil to withdraw.”
Sorensen was also deeply critical of President Wippman’s degree of prioritization of the issue, saying his “statement about the need for the College to prioritize where it spends its money patronizing and unnecessary. Obviously, the College has to consider its budget. But for a college with a one and half billion dollar endowment to assert that accessibility, and by extension the inclusion of disabled students more generally, is not worthy of prioritizing tells me all it needs to about the values of this College. I am grateful every day that the attitudes of most of my peers and faculty do not reflect the attitudes of this administration.”
Hamilton College earned $20.3 million in net income for the most recent fiscal year on record, 2020, according to tax filings. Its endowment is $1.47 billion as of August 2021, a nearly 50% increase since before the pandemic.
Associate Vice President for Facilities and Planning Mike Klapmeyer confirmed that the College had invested into the consultants Jiang mentioned at the SA meeting. The two companies are Chiang | O’Brien Architects, based in Ithaca, NY, and Stimson Landscape Architects in Cambridge, MA.
Klapmeyer told Monitor, “Hamilton College values accessibility as one of many forms of inclusivity. Accordingly, the College constantly strives to improve its accessibility and makes use of major renovations, such as Root Hall, to deliver accessible approaches, entrances, interior circulation, restrooms, etc. Additionally, the College is actively partnering with several experienced consultants to assess general accessibility for the majority of campus buildings and grounds. The resulting studies will be used as a critical tool in evaluating, prioritizing, and executing future upgrades as part of our sustained investment strategy towards a universally accessible campus.”
Jiang told Monitor they were happy to see there would be a study. “I feel it will be a good way to evaluate the college’s accessibility measures in an unbiased way, especially since the college sought this audit out on their own and therefore is more likely to implement the recommendations. I also hope that weight is given to the input of students on campus as well.”
Brown’s withdrawal from Hamilton is not the only recent instance of someone leaving due to disabilities incurred on campus. Dr. Mariam Durrani, formerly a tenure-track professor in the Anthropology Department, resigned their position last semester, saying in their resignation letter, “Throughout my tenure, I raised my concerns about dealing with discriminatory harassment with my department, the administration, and faculty colleagues. These concerns have not been adequately addressed nor have I been adequately supported by the College.”
Durrani published their resignation letter on their office door and in Monitor, in which they said the harassment they experienced at Hamilton as a result of the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, an off campus organization with formal ties to Hamilton, caused fibromyalgia which eventually led them to decide to resign for their own physical and mental health. Their resignation spurred the Our Hamilton protest, which had hundreds of community attendees and the College did not respond to. She has since filed a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights against Hamilton College for failing to respond to her claims of discrimination; the case is ongoing.
Students continue to call attention to widespread physical accessibility issues on campus. Some say the College’s commitment hasn’t extended far enough, while they are grateful for what has been done already, “In terms of systemic issues, the largest is a long-standing effort to barely skirt ADA rather than addressing the problems. It’s like stopping a dam from flooding by putting your fingers in the holes: it’ll work temporarily, but there’s only so many leaks you can plug that way before the dam falls apart. And while the College is starting to put in the work to actually fix the dam instead of plugging the leaks, it’s starting that process very close to the dam just breaking. And that’s why this process, while it can be slow, can’t be glacial: this endeavor is starting far too late to keep that kind of pace,” said Anthony Scurto ‘24, a member of DSN’s executive board.
One issue oft overlooked on campus as a component of accessibility is the College’s response to Covid-19. Brown, for example, saw a massive decline in their health after catching the virus a week after they and their partner attended a large unmasked party; their partner getting sick shortly after and Brown a week later. “It is easier than ever to become disabled. The Hamilton COVID policy definitely does play into accessibility issues but student attitude and compliance with policy really is the make or break factor in managing the virus, although I do think greater policy measures (such as weekly testing) can be an essential support.” They continued, “I don't pass any judgement on anyone who parties at this point; I just want to directly acknowledge that my behavior was risky and this is what came of it.”
Hamilton College removed its Covid-19 protections going into this academic year, including required weekly testing and masking in certain spaces. The College no longer offers quarantining to infected students. According to a July 24th campus email signed broadly as the Covid-19 Task Force (the body is chaired by Vice President for Administration & Finance Karen Leach), “Students may be moved to an alternate location if they have a roommate who is immunocompromised or otherwise at high risk, as verified by, and at the discretion of, the Health Center.”
Jiang wrote to Monitor, “Since COVID19 is a mass disabling disease, and immunocompromised people are more affected by it, any strategy addressing COVID is one related to accessibility and disability. I believe that not requiring masks and weekly testing does affect which spaces are accessible to certain high-risk individuals.”
As the semester continues, SA and DSN will continue to advocate for increased investment into physical accessibility at Hamilton. Jiang plans to bring the issue up when meeting with members of the Board of Trustees this semester and DSN is having its interest meeting tonight. As the outside consultants conduct their study, many campus leaders wait with bated breath for their conclusions.