In June of 2020, amid concerns about institutional and overt racism at Hamilton College, President Wippman and the administration formed an Advisory Council to form proposals that would make Hamilton a safer and more inclusive institution for students and staff of color. Many students immediately protested the formation of this seemingly undemocratic body that would serve as the college’s main response to their desire for racial justice. These protests continued until March 2021, when the Advisory Council finished its proposal and disbanded.
This article will first provide a timeline of the events surrounding the Advisory Council and will include additional information about developments that have occurred in the past couple of months that have not yet been covered by other campus news organizations. I will then analyze these developments and decisions with input from interviews I have conducted with some of the people involved with the story.
Timeline of Events
June 2020- President Wippman announces a “comprehensive plan of action for advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at Hamilton,” which includes the formation of the Advisory Council. The council is composed of “faculty, students, staff, alumni, and community members appointed by the president.” While two students were originally chosen by the administration to join the Advisory Council, only one would stay on the Council for a meaningful amount of time. No effort is made to replace the other student representative.
June 18th, 2020- The Black and Latinx Student Union (BLSU) sends an email asking President Wippman why they were not consulted about the creation of the Advisory Council, and criticizing the administration's decision to falsely publicize BLSU’s consultation and engagement with the college’s racial justice plans. President Wippman responds but does not explain why BLSU and other identity-based student organizations were not included.
June 24th, 2020- BLSU sends an email to all students criticizing the creation of the Advisory Council. BLSU calls attention to the exclusion of Professor Shelley Haley, a Black tenured professor who had worked at Hamilton for over three decades. BLSU also criticizes the exclusion of all identity-based student groups and democratically chosen or elected student representatives. Each of these groups directly requested membership on the Advisory Council and President Wippman denied their requests.
BLSU makes a number of demands, including the abolition of the Advisory Council and the creation of an Action Council, which would “produce and implement equity programs and policies on a rolling basis” and act as more than just “an advisor to the President.”
December 31st, 2020- Esquilin Consulting for Equity and Inclusion, a consulting firm hired by the college at the behest of the Advisory Council, releases its final report and recommendations for Hamilton. The report notes that the creation of the Advisory Council “left many of the participants feeling voiceless, harmed, invisible, and disempowered.”
January 25th, 2021- The Advisory Council shares its draft proposals “to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)” publicly. This document, which has since been removed from the college’s website, is criticized by students for its brevity and lack of detail.
On the same day, the new Student Assembly administration, President Saphire Ruiz ‘22, Spring VP Kavya Crasta ‘21, and Fall VP Eric Stenzel ‘24, announces the formation of an Audit and Action Council (AAC), which was created “to review the draft recommendations of the Advisory Council, comment on them both with the dedicated body and the greater Hamilton community, and create [its] own set of recommendations.”
March 2nd, 2021- Hamilton Employees Against Racism (HEAR), an organization formed by Hamilton faculty and staff, voices their support for the Student Assembly’s demands and actions, including the formation of the AAC, in an email to President Wippman, the Advisory Council, and in a public Letter to the Editor of The Spectator. HEAR specifically calls for “(1) that the Advisory Council wait on final recommendations until the AAC has completed its own work; and (2) that President Wippman “commit in writing to a negotiated and binding agreement with the new Audit & Action Council codifying how racial justice policy will be developed moving forward in perpetuity.”
March 4th, 2021- President Wippman responds to HEAR’s email, writing that the Advisory Council is just “one of many groups” on campus dedicated to fighting racial oppression, and declines to adhere to either of HEAR’s specific requests. This is President Wippman’s first written and public response to the comments and demands of the AAC.
March 8th, 2021 - HEAR responds to President Wippman, writing that he “clearly [has] not heard the pain in our students’ voices when they say that they were excluded from the process by which the Advisory Council was set up and operated.” President Wippman does not reply.
March 15th, 2021- The Advisory Council publishes its final proposals and disbands. The Council recommends that the College create a chief diversity officer position, add more people of color to the Board of Trustees, enhance communication with student organizations, and much more.
A number of students have claimed that the College’s decisions betray a deep lack of interest in hearing the voices of the student body. Saphire Ruiz, Student Assembly President, argues that the Advisory Council was “intentionally designed by President Wippman to exclude the voices of community members most likely to criticize the College,” and that “it was an effort to create the appearance of community-led racial justice policymaking and "listening" while at the same time preventing tangible action which would actually challenge the fundamental roots of Hamilton's racist history.” These arguments are similar to ones made by BLSU and other student advocates for racial justice on campus who feel as though the Advisory Council was an attempt to stop radical change.
President David Wippman told The Monitor that “it was not feasible to include on the council everyone who expressed interest, but the council was designed to include a broad cross-section of the community, with members from every constituent group affiliated with the College.” While this may be true, there are few sufficient explanations for why the College couldn’t at least allow one elected student representative to the board. Furthermore, as HEAR wrote in their March 8th email, “You misunderstand that concern when you talk about the Council consulting “all members” of the community. Racism does not affect a cross-section of the Hamilton community equally; once concerns were noted about the Advisory Council, the Student Assembly, and other student and faculty groups that have been addressing racism on campus for decades should have had a more prominent role in these efforts."
Wippman’s lack of communication on the issue of the Advisory Council has also frustrated student activists. As Ruiz told The Monitor, “it is my belief that Hamilton is intentionally side-stepping this criticism and pretending it does not exist, as it has done since June 2020.” The fact that President Wippman never felt the need to respond to the Student Assembly’s Audit and Action Council in writing and publicly until faculty members contacted him is shocking, as our elected representatives deserve attention from the administration for their input on this issue.
Hamilton’s Advisory Council may have been disbanded, but its students will remember its impact for many years to come. With student-administration relations already strained due to the issues of divestment and the College’s responses to allegations of sexual assault, the Advisory Council has not convinced students that they are being heard.
Eric Stenzel provided information for this article.