Members of the Student Organization Oversight Committee (SOOC) are charging that College administrators took unilateral action against the Bowdoin Labor Alliance (BLA) for hosting a mutual aid fund on its website, pushing back against administrators’ account of the committee’s role in persuading organizers to shut down the fund.
The fund, which had raised over $15,000 to support Bowdoin students and community members affected by coronavirus (COVID-19) related expenses, went offline on April 21 after organizers learned that it violated both College and SOOC policies prohibiting independent fundraising by student groups.
In a virtual town hall on Wednesday evening President Clayton Rose said it was “simply not true” that the College had shut down the fund and suggested that Bowdoin Student Government (BSG), of which SOOC is a part, had played a more significant role in forcing organizers to take the fund offline.
“[Rose’s] remark that ‘the BSG took its own decisions based on its own set of rules’ is untrue and completely overplayed the role of the SOOC in this matter,” wrote SOOC Chair Sonia Shah ’22 in an email to the Orient. “This was not a matter of students enforcing student policy. The administration played a role as well, [a] much larger role than the one [Rose] made it out to be in the town hall.”
In his comments during the town hall, Rose said that the College had not requested that the BLA shut down the mutual aid fund, only that organizers dissociate the fund from the College and the BLA by removing the College’s name from the fund and any associated promotion material, in accordance with the College’s policy that prohibits independent fundraising by chartered student groups. Rose suggested that administrators’ involvement ended once the group clarified the fund’s independence from the College.
On April 7, after Senior Vice President and Dean for Student Affairs Janet Lohmann initially contacted BLA, organizers changed the name of the fund to exclude Bowdoin’s name and posted a statement on the fund’s webpage clarifying the fund’s independence both from the College and the BLA. According to organizers, they continued to host the fund on the BLA’s website for technical reasons.
“They complied with [our request], which was great,” Rose said.
Later in his comments, Rose suggested that the SOOC subsequently enforced its own fundraising policies after it learned that organizers had failed to remove the fund from the BLA website, and that this is what led to the fund’s eventual shutdown.
“The BSG took its own decisions based on its own set of rules, and I think there’s been some confusion and some conflation between … what the BLA did with respect to that longstanding [College] rule about fundraising and whatever it is that the BSG did with relation to the BLA,” said Rose.
Rose declined to comment further on his statement made during the town hall.
Members of the SOOC have contested Rose’s comments, however, claiming that administrators took independent actions to sanction the BLA even before the SOOC had asked the organizers to remove the fund from the BLA’s website.
According to a number of students who participated in a video call with Director of Student Activities Nate Hintze on April 16, Hintze informed SOOC members that the College had ceased to recognize the BLA as a student organization “in good standing” at the direction of Lohmann, because the organizers had failed to remove the fund from the BLA website. The students said that Hintze explained that this decision allowed the College to revoke a number of the privileges that the BLA was granted by virtue of its SOOC charter.
“My committee and I were told [by Hintze] that anything that required the Student Activities office would not be processed. For example, the club would be able to request SAFC fundings but the SAFC allocations would not be processed by Student Activities nor would clubs receive any reimbursements,” Shah wrote. “They also would not have access to resources like reserving rooms or a Blink Page.”
Hintze did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Shah emailed the organizers of the BLA on April 17 to ask them to remove the fund from the BLA website, in compliance with SOOC policy. But by this time, the group existed as a chartered organization “only in name,” Shah said.
In a phone call with the Orient, Shah said she was not aware of any past instances in which the College had exercised its authority to take away the privileges clubs retained by virtue of their SOOC charter or to limit a chartered club’s access to College resources.
“To my knowledge, I’ve never seen a decision made like this by the College to ‘un-recognize’ a student group. It was hard for everyone to understand what the meaning behind it was and what the consequences of it were,” she said.
Neither the SOOC guidelines nor the Student Activities Club Leader Manual outline the College’s authority to recognize or un-recognize a student group.
Shah added that the timing of Student Activities’ communication with SOOC—after the College had already revoked the BLA’s privileges—made it seem as though “they [were] pushing the consequences of their decision onto a student-led committee.”
“My committee has tried its best to work out the best possible solution in these circumstances, especially when they felt pressure from the administration to take a certain stance,” wrote Shah. “I think the SOOC is also disappointed in the way the administration has responded and misrepresented our work during these times. The administrators were clearly involved and it’s sad to see them hiding their involvement and decisions in the matter.”
After student organizers shut down the mutual aid fund on April 21, the SOOC voted to retain BLA’s charter, prompting the College to re-recognize the club in good standing and restore its privileges.
Meanwhile, the fund’s organizers had not been informed about the temporary loss of the BLA’s privileges. The only communication BLA had received was on April 15, when Lohmann informed the fund’s organizers that she did not support the group’s standing as a recognized student group, but she did not specify the implications of that statement.
But Ben Ray ’20, an organizer of the fund and member of the BLA, was not surprised to learn that the College had taken drastic steps to limit the BLA’s activity and access to resources.
“It’s no coincidence that they are invoking authority over student organizations to suppress activities of a group that has historically pressed them to do better,” he said.
Ray added that while the group did not want to lose its SOOC charter, pressure from administrators played a significant role in the group’s decision to close down the fund.
“Our choice to shut down the fund was a result of pressure from multiple fronts, one of those being our limitations as a student group [as specified by the SOOC] … the other being pressure from the administration,” said Ray. “There were no concrete threats of disciplinary action, but from continued correspondence [with administrators] it was clear that they didn’t support what we were doing. It sent a message.”
“It was very clear that right off the bat the administration wanted this shut down,” said Diego Grossmann ’20, another of the fund’s organizers and member of BLA.
In an email to the Orient, Lohmann said she did not threaten the fund’s leaders with disciplinary action, but otherwise declined to comment on her involvement. She did not respond to subsequent requests for comment.
On April 24, the day the Orient published a story about the closing of the fund, the College updated its COVID-19 FAQ page to include information about the College’s pre-existing emergency relief fund, administered by the Office of the Dean of Students.
On Thursday evening, the BSG executive council announced in a school-wide email that it had offered $20,000 of the BSG’s surplus budget to supplement the College’s existing emergency funds.
“After communicating with the Dean’s office we have decided to trust that they are the best individuals to be making these decisions,” the executive council wrote.