Inside Palaeopitus

by Carolyn Zhou | 5/10/17 2:35am

It’s no secret: Palaeopitus Senior Society is made up of some extremely involved and dedicated Dartmouth seniors. As one of Dartmouth’s non-secret senior societies, Palaeopitus was formed in 1899 as a group of campus leaders whose purpose is to advocate for student interests to administrators. Current members Katherine McAvoy ’17, Jacob Casale ’17, Hannah Solomon ’17 and Christopher Yih ’17 explained what exactly the society does, what their class delegation has achieved and the challenges they face working in the society.

“Through my time at Dartmouth I got into a niche of how I was affecting change on campus,” said McAvoy, when asked to explain why she decided to join. “To some extent that’s useful, but heading into senior year, I was realizing there were broader things I wanted to accomplish with my time here.”

Palaeopitus is different than organizations such as Student Assembly in that it has greater access to administrators. To Yih, this was one of his main motivations for joining.

“To me, the administration is clouded in a lot of mystery, and I wanted to understand what their motivations are, where their priorities lie and what really matters to them,” he said.

Working with administrators has proved challenging at times, according to members.

McAvoy has had a lot of experience working with administrators because of her other commitments on campus, so she already knew what to expect.

“Administration has all of these other things they have to work through,” she said. “Their timeline is slower, but they tend to be working as fast as they can be. A lot of students can feel frustrated, especially if they haven’t worked with administration before.”

Solomon expressed a similar feeling of understanding how slow administration can be.

“Any administration or hierarchal institution will have a lot of hoops to jump [through],” she said. “Some people get frustrated because despite having direct connection with administrators, they don’t see much change, even when they’re putting a lot of energy into it.”

Yih, who had never worked closely with the administration before, learned about the difficulties and inconsistencies working with different staff members. He spoke of the varying support Palaeopitus receives from administrators.

“We might have support from one administrator, but when we’re trying to get something passed, there are other people dragging their feet who are not responding as quickly,” he said,

This year’s delegation started out with three sub-committees, each of which worked on a different issue: mental health, support for faculty and people of color on campus and community building.

Yih, a member of the faculty and people of color committee initially, quickly found out that there wasn’t much Palaeopitus would be able to achieve in that realm.

“We put in a lot of work and hours and were never able to get any headway on the issue. In many ways, I think that was because we faced a lot of resistance from the school,” he explained. “The school had their own way they wanted to tackle the issue. Therefore, our ideas were not really considered by the administration.”

For example, Palaeopitus and the administration disagreed over the tenure selection process. Palaeopitus wanted to involve students more in the selection of tenure and other positions such as the dean of the faculty. According to Yih, the school plans to increase the number of faculty of color by pipelining current people of color at graduate schools and fast tracking them into tenured positions at Dartmouth. While he said he thinks this is potentially a sustainable, long-term solution, he is also skeptical about whether the school will actually fix the problem.

Besides running into walls when working with administration, this year’s delegation has struggled with what they , have described as “a lack of institutional memory.” Since each year of Palaeopitus brings a new delegation of seniors and because each class only has one year to solve the issues they identify, the Class of 2017 delegation has struggled to see the implementation of the changes they want to make.

According to Casale, part of this was due to the fact that the previous delegation did not give much direction to his group when they joined last May.

“Without a sense of what the group has been able to achieve in the past, without a sense of what the group can achieve in a year in the outset, it was hard for us to get our bearings as fast as we would have liked,” he said.

Casale said that the group wants to establish a culture of institutional memory. He reports that they are creating sheets of information about the routes within the administration that Palaeopitus has access to. Solomon added that current members will be creating a better archive of what projects can be feasibly completed in such a short amount of time.

Yih said he thinks that initiating a road map for future classes is one of the most productive things the 2017 delegation has achieved.

Another one of the delegation’s accomplishments is its work on mental health. McAvoy described a project in which her committee put together a list of resources available to students through Banner. However, she said that the list is not up yet, since there is a hold up on the administrative side, an example of one of the barriers that Palaeopitus faces when working with the administration.

Another project regarding mental health that Palaeopitus has worked on is creating policy recommendations for Dick’s House through conversations with various stakeholders and collecting data.

“It’s been a lot of behind the scenes work,” Casale said. “You won’t necessarily see results of that immediately, but hopefully that work can serve as bringing the student voice into the conversation about mental health that’s happening at the administrative level.”

Moving forward, Yih said he believes that there is much to be done regarding mental health on campus.

“We have identified a gap between demand and ability of Dick’s House to meet that demand,” he said. “There’s a cap on how many times you can go and long wait times. It shocks me that money is being spent on renovating the [Hood Museum of Art] rather than on counseling services.”

Yih said he thinks that the best solution is to establish a fund, collect donations from community members and ask for the administration to pledge verbal support. However, as he has realized, the ’17s simply don’t have enough time to implement this particular project.

Given the fact that this year’s class has dedicated a significant amount of time to documenting and structuring the organization and its abilities, its members agreed that they are hopeful future delegations will be able to pick up where the ’17s will leave off on when they graduate this spring.

Solomon commented that she has seen interest in tackling similar issues on campus through the applications of the ’18s who will potentially take over next year.

“We’ve seen a lot of people concerned about [mental health],” she said. “We have put structures down that could be followed through, so that if they choose to focus on mental health, that’s an area in which lasting changes could be made.”