At a town hall meeting last week concerning the ongoing search for Sarah Lawrence College’s eleventh president, students voiced their frustrations with representatives from the Presidential Search Committee, particularly on the lack of tangible student representation in the search process.
Three days later, the committee’s undergraduate student representative, Alex Wah (’19), was impeached from Student Senate.
At a packed senate meeting last Thursday where members of the body voted on his impeachment, students who took the floor argued that Wah was not fulfilling his duty as an elected representative. In an email sent to student leaders on Thursday afternoon urging them to attend the meeting, Madrikha Saturne (’19), who organized the impeachment with fellow senator Asmahan Malow (’17), explained, “Despite [Wah’s] efforts; his lies to the students body, his lack of transparency, and his inability to constructively use the tools he’s been given makes him negligent as a Senator.”
She also emphasized: “This meeting isn’t just about Alexander Wah. It’s about students rising up so that administration and Senators are held accountable for their actions and the lack thereof. So they know that we, as a student body, will hold all levels of this institution accountable.”
Noted during the senate meeting was that Wah’s impeachment from his role as senator is independent from his role on the Presidential Search Committee, though this was the subject of some level of confusion. In advance of the town hall meeting on Nov. 14, there was a petition outside the Pub to have Wah removed as student representative on the Presidential Search Committee, and his conduct in that position was discussed to some extent on Thursday evening.
But for the most part, the discussion focused on Wah’s role as a senator, in which he represented the student body on the Committee on Student Work. Students described Wah’s failure to make himself known to various students groups on campus and his remarks and actions during meetings they felt were insensitive and problematic.
Ayanna Harrison (’17) explained at the meeting how Wah’s presence on senate affected her experience attending on behalf of the college’s Black Student Union. As this group, also called Harambee, was preparing to attend a Black Solidarity Conference in New Haven this February, they budgeted $3,600 for hotel expenses. Wah proposed cutting that budget, which he later argued he was doing with the best interest of the group in mind, but Harrison said the way in which he did so felt disrespectful of the group’s purpose and as questioning the competency of others to make decisions.
“I felt highly disrespected and disregarded, and I felt personally attacked. I felt that my work wasn’t good enough,” Harrison said. “I have not gotten [an apology] from Alex, and it’s been three weeks since that meeting, and that’s hurtful.”
Emphasized several times during the meeting was that the criticisms offered were not on Wah’s character, but on his conduct in his senate position. “The argument in question is not about Alex Wah as a person but rather his representation [of the student body] on the senate,” Saturne said.
Despite this, Wah said he felt much of the criticism directed at him was ad hominem. While he said he accepts the outcome of the senate meeting, he maintained that the frustrations with him were representative of a more general frustration with the school as a whole.
“This was personal,” he said. “But at a certain point you need to let people be personal.”
Wah admitted to the validity of the criticism, but defended his competency. He said of both his senate tenure and his Presidential Search Committee position, “I know that the reason I’m there is because I really care.”
In his defense, another representative, Ian Gonzales (’19), highlighted Wah’s initiative over his senate term.
“He compared the prices in Hill to Go with those in Yonkers and showed that there was a 200% increase [in Hill to Go’s prices],” Gonzales said. “I don’t see any other senator doing that.”
The impeachment came after several tense weeks in which students and administrators clashed over the inclusion of student input into the presidential search process. At the town hall meeting last Monday, students expressed their need for representation in administrative decisions that directly affect them.
Topics covered over the meeting’s hour and a half included the resolution of what committee member Tom Blum called “terrible problems” regarding accessibility for disabled students, and the representation of diversity among the committee itself and in the presidential candidate pool.
“Can I just ask what you’ve done specifically to diversify the applicant pool?” one student asked. “Because I would like to look at the next president of the college and see myself reflected back.”
Much of the meeting was devoted to an at times heated discussion between students, the Committee’s undergraduate representative and Vice President of Administration Tom Blum, regarding the safety of Sarah Lawrence’s students of color in light of recent bias incidents and the representation of marginalized voices in the presidential search.
Tensions between students and Sarah Lawrence’s administration were represented in the exchange, in which Blum repeatedly expressed his own frustrations with what he referred to as an “assailant tone” from frustrated students.
The most prevalent theme of the night was student representation, which many students feel has been severely lacking from the Presidential Search Committee thus far. In some effort to change this, last Friday, individuals from the administration met with several student leaders to discuss the presidential search going forward.
Alex Wah was not present at this meeting. Despite being impeached from Student Senate, Wah remains the undergraduate student representative on the Presidential Search Committee.
Ricky Martorelli '19