Late last month, a petition with the objective of increasing administrative transparency at Wheaton morphed into a swiftly growing and well-advertised Facebook group.
“Wheaton College Student Advocates,” as the group is called, aims to bring to light the goals of a petition launched last semester on the grassroots website Change.org, particularly after several crimes had been committed on and around the Wheaton campus (including the graffiti incident at the Jewish Life House).
Early posts from the group — and the group’s description — called into question the apparent silence with which the college administration responded to the petition.
“Our catalyst was simply that a lot of effort went into the petition, hundreds put their names on the line, and the response was deafeningly silent,” wrote the group, whose members prefer to remain anonymous.
“We don’t think that is right, especially not when we collectively, our parents [and] other family members, sacrifice so much to scrape together tuition money and become consumers of everything the college has to offer, from classes to [residence halls] to meals to career resources to campus safety.”
The apparent lack of response, however, may be a result of unavoidable factors rather than conscious ignorance on behalf of administrators. In fact, the primary administrator called upon in the petition and the Facebook group, Dean of Students Lee Williams, has been off campus on medical leave after undergoing surgery on December 31. Though she will be returning soon, her current medical condition has made it difficult for her to adequately respond to the students’ requests.
Beverly Loew ’86, a frequent writer on the Student Advocates page, was recently retained as legal counsel for the group and its organizers. She is also a sponsor to the group, which has purchased advertising space on Facebook.
“In light of the fact that it came out at the end of the semester . . . to them the appropriate response . . . would have been some sort of statement that these issues would be addressed when the students returned to campus,” said Loew, speaking in a phone interview on behalf of the group’s organizers. “It seemed to them something that someone would get out in front of, [rather than try to] . . . quell it.”
Loew also stated that while the group had not been aware that Dean Williams was on medical leave, they felt there were other administrators that could have acted in her capacity to respond to the petition and its supporters.
“Whether it was Dean Williams or anybody else in a position of authority . . . [the group feels that] there are other members of the administration, that should have been as capable, that could have addressed this or could have been tasked with addressing it,” said Loew.
Wheaton College Communications Director Mike Graca insists, however, that a response from administration officials was not only existent but also prompt. Graca, in fact, attempted to set up a meeting late last semester with one of the students responsible for drafting the petition.
“I had corresponded with [one person associated with the petition] and expressed an interest in talking with them about some of the issues,” said Graca. “We set a date, and then it was [winter break] . . . and [we decided to] do it next semester.”
“[Around] the same time . . . President Crutcher contacted [SGA President] Lindsay Powell . . . and they had agreed at that time to set up . . . a town hall meeting . . . and that’s what’s happening now,” he said.
“That’s why when [the students] came back two weeks ago … originally I was going to reach out to the student right away . . . But by then I knew I was going to be superseded [by a broader discussion],” added Graca.
SGA released an announcement on its Facebook page last week saying that a community forum would be taking place during the week of February 18.
When it comes to releasing information regarding safety incidents on or around campus, however, the college is somewhat limited in the information it knows or can provide.
“We’re constrained in all kinds of ways,” said Mike Graca. “ . . . When it’s a crime and it’s an open investigation, the police department in many instances are the people who are doing the investigation . . . . So the college often does not have all of the information that students might want, or that we might want . . . . Sometimes students [request] information that seems very reasonable to ask for . . . [But] I can’t tell you what I don’t know.”
Graca said this lack of knowledge can be difficult for students to understand. “Sometimes . . . I sense that students receive that with a certain amount of incredulity . . . That’s where we are at the moment.”
Although the group calls for greater transparency and less censorship, the organizers of Wheaton College Student Advocates do not seem to apply these goals to their own institution. Numerous posts from the group’s Facebook page draw attention to the group’s lack of any official, named spokesperson, while also underscoring the boisterous, aggressive tone set by the group in its initial postings, which were often contrary to the relatively polite language of the initial petition.
Last week, however, a number of these posts — both critique and responses to it — were taken down. After the SGA announcement regarding the open forum, the group purged its page of nearly all comments, from supporters and critics alike, posting a note to its subscribers announcing the start of “Phase II” of its goals.
“We will take time to cull through the thoughtful ideas of everybody who submitted them to develop a series of points that we hope to advance at the meeting,” wrote the group on its page. “We will be putting [the points] together, and hope to post [them] in the next few days so that all who have shown how much they care . . . can provide input.”