Concerned Knox students have begun to circulate a petition to impeach Student Senate President Elaine Wilson due to her actions during recent Senate meetings.
The petition began largely as a result of Student Senate meetings regarding theme housing. Several students were dissatisfied with the way in which Wilson and Student Senate handled the discussion of, in particular, Queer and Ally House, Feminist House and Asian Cultural House.
“I would still be having this discussion if we’d gotten the house,” said junior Ashley Atkinson, one of a group of students who applied for Feminist House. “These issues are bigger than houses.”
Sophomore senator Alison Ehrhard said that Wilson and many other senators have discredited the issues, which include anti-feminism, homophobia and racism, by framing them in a way that vilifies those presenting allegations against Senate. Ehrhard quoted an e-mail Wilson sent to members of Student Senate’s executive board explaining that Wilson’s language discouraged further discourse by encouraging the executive board to believe that “attacks [were] leveled against Senate” as a whole.
“We were never attacking Senate,” said Ehrhard, “We’re attacking specific comments that were made.”
Ehrhard, who was also a Feminist House applicant, said that Wilson and many senators had and continue to characterize the movement as solely an issue of housing, thereby cheapening the allegations.
“The president is supposed to be the spokesperson for empowerment,” said Ehrhard, calling to attention a number of instances during the April 16 Senate meeting in which she felt culturally insensitive comments were made by senators which the president did nothing to reprimand or expand upon.
Following the events of that meeting, Atkinson and Ehrhard were contacted by a group of individuals who had, for some time, been concerned with Student Senate’s infrastructure. From that point, they decided to take action.
“People do need to be held accountable for what they say,” said Ehrhard, citing both the Knox College Student Senate Constitution and the Knox College Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.
Senior Senator Sarah Longhofer disagrees with the allegations made against Wilson.
“I don’t think she was silencing concerns about diversity,” said Longhofer of the president. “People weren’t allowed to speak off-topic; of course they weren’t. It wasn’t an attack against them.”
“Elaine behaved correctly,” said junior Senator Liesl Pereira. “She really tries to keep it very, very professional.”
Pereira assured that the e-mail sent to the executive board by Wilson was not meant to sway the opinions of those senators, but rather to comfort individuals on Senate who were taken aback by the charges posed against them.
“I have had faculty and other students allege that I was not a feminist,” said Longhofer who does identify as feminist although she was opposed to Feminist House.
“The fact is,” said Atkinson, “if they were truly feminist, they would not get angry. They would not call us self-serving. They would say, ‘Why are they upset?’”
Ehrhard concurred, implying that a subtle attitude of privilege and exclusivity often infiltrates the hall.
“Senate is not representative of campus. Minorities have come to me and said they don’t feel represented in Senate,” said Atkinson.
“People are represented,” said Senator Pereira. “They have their constituents and we are accountable.”
Both Pereira and Longhofer agree that in this situation small issues have been blown grossly out of proportion.
“They feel slighted,” said Longhofer. “They have reasons to be, but impeachment is rarely the way to go about it.”
Pereira expounded, “It became a deeply personal matter when really it was just programming.”
Pereira feels that the allegations are largely part of a personal agenda against Wilson. Atkinson admitted that she has felt stifled by Wilson both in and out of Senate, but maintains that larger issues are at hand.
“I feel frustrated with what the president represents and what she has represented,” she said. Ehrhard explained that, from her perspective, many Senate rulings benefit the personal interests of the senators, particularly members of the executive board.
The impeachment issue has, so far, been communicated largely via Facebook and e-mail. While there is a paper version of the petition to impeach Wilson currently gaining signatures, the petition online has been circulating since late last week. Ehrhard said that there will be tabling in Seymour Gallery in the foreseeable future. Many students who stand behind the petition remain anonymous. Signers of the digital version of the petition will remain anonymous until the number of supporters reaches 300, although only 270 are needed.
“One of the reasons the petition is anonymous is that so many people won’t be personally attacked or barraged by negativity,” said Atkinson.
Wilson had little to say of the issue, though she did briefly address Student Senate during the most recent meeting. Of the petition’s current anonymity she said, “If there are no names attached to a petition, it is, in my view, nullified and rendered illegitimate.”
She declined to comment for this article.
According to the Knox College Student Senate By-Laws, a petition must bear the signatures of “twenty percent of the full-time student body;” currently 270. Following the collection of the signatures and a presentation to Student Senate accompanied by a full description of the allegations posed against the officer to be impeached, an ad-hoc committee must be formed to evaluate the situation. The committee then presents its findings to the senate at which time the officer is granted an appeal. Two-thirds of the Student Senate must ultimately vote to remove the officer from his or her position.
Ehrhard acknowledges that Student Senate is unlikely to vote Wilson out of office.
“We’re sending a message of accountability to senators and a message to presidents down the line,” she said. “People say ‘it’s mean to impeach her this late,’ but going through the process will show what happened and make a statement.”
“What is there to change?” asked freshman senator and member of the executive board Gordon Barratt. “People need things to be offended about and there isn’t much [on a liberal campus].”
This issue has certainly sparked a debate, which is not likely to subside in the near future.
“People are on both sides of the fence,” said Atkinson. “They’re not talking to each other.”