Revived Palaeopitus Searches for Niche on Campus
Next year, the group is likely to regain its role as an advisory group to Dean of the College Kathryn Lively.
This article is featured in the 2021 Commencement special issue.
Prior to the advent of organizations like Student Assembly, Palaeopitus served as the principal student governance body on campus. Founded in 1899, some of Palaeopitus’ original responsibilities included collaborating with the administration on college policy, overseeing student parties and preserving campus traditions. In 1968, the student body voted to abolish Palaeopitus because the group “represented the kinds of institutions that students were fighting against in the ‘60s,” according to the Palaeopitus website. By the time Palaeopitus returned to campus in 1981, its previous role had been filled by Student Assembly and other campus organizations.
Today, Palaeopitus’s mission statement promises to organize events that bridge the gap between students and the administration, address threats to the campus community, advocate for student interests, and create a space for campus leaders to collaborate. Students apply to join Palaeopitus at the end of their junior year, and the organization seeks out leaders in other areas of campus life to join its ranks. There are also four ex-officio members: the president of Student Assembly, the editor-in-chief of The Dartmouth, the senior class president and the intern to the president of the College.
Co-moderator of the 2021 Palaeopitus delegation Marina Cepeda ’21 describes the society’s present role as a “project-based organization” that advises Dean of the College Kathryn Lively.
Ezekiel Vergara ’21, another member of Palaeopitus’ 2021 delegation, explained that Palaeopitus members split into committees that pursue different projects. Cepeda said that projects vary based on the interests of the members of each delegation. Her delegation, she said, focused on advocating for marginalized communities, addressing student mental health and improving transparency within the administration, and one of their projects included creating an organizational chart to help students navigate communicating with the administration.
“Sure, you can ask Dean Lively your questions, but perhaps there’s somebody else who can better answer your question, can get you funding, can connect you to counseling — whatever you need.” Cepeda said.
An important role of Palaeopitus lies in its direct communication with the administration. Cepeda met with Lively twice a month when she served as co-moderator, and the organization is able to bypass bureaucratic red tape to bring issues before Lively.
“Let’s say you had a concern. The next time I meet with Lively, I’m going to bring it up,” Cepeda said. “There’s no voting [whether] we want to bring up your concern — do we need to pass a resolution? Do we need to discuss it? It’s very informal in the sense that we will advocate and we will bring up issues.”
While Palaeopitus has a direct line of communication with Lively, its current ability to influence the actions of the administration is limited.
“We provide ideas to [the] admin that they can choose or not choose to follow up on,” Cepeda said.
The administration’s response to Palaeopitus’ varies somewhat, according to Vergara, and is dependent on the specific situational circumstances.
“Various factors, such as the member’s role at Dartmouth, perhaps institutional, or the issue itself, affect whether administration will respond,” Vergara said.
Palaeopitus is not the only student group that communicates with the administration on behalf of student interests. Student Assembly, which replaced Palaeopitus as a structure of student government before the society’s revival, pledges to “lend a voice to student concerns and opinions” in their mission statement. Palaeopitus differs from Student Assembly in its structure: While members of Student Assembly are elected by the student body, Palaeopitus membership is application-based and only consists of members of the senior class. Yet after Palaeopitus’ return, Cepeda noted that the group had to rediscover its purpose on campus.
“We sort of had to find our niche again because Student Assembly filled in the gap of communication,” Cepeda said.
Vergara noted that Palaeopitus has been “siloed” because so many other bodies also communicate with the administration. Some of these bodies, like Student Assembly, are more widely recognized among students. Vergara said that under the pandemic’s unusual circumstances, his delegation was relatively successful in communicating with students, but he feels that it is definitely an area in which Palaeopitus could improve in the future.
“I do think that there could be things to increase the student body’s awareness of Palaeop. I know we have a website that we’re currently trying to renovate, [...] facetime more students; we talked about perhaps doing office hours with students,” Vergara said.
Cepeda, echoing Vergara’s sentiments, noted that she does not think that the student body “knows the extent of what Palaeop does and can do for students.”
Palaeopitus’ role also currently has overlap with the Dean of the College Student Advisory Board, which Lively described in an interview as an “ad hoc group of students [...] which advise [her] and respond to the College’s COVID policies.” The members of this board were nominated by administration members, and Lively noted that some of the students appointed were drawn from Palaeopitus.
Despite this overlap, Vergara feels that Palaeopitus is “well-situated to make institutional change alongside organizations like Student Assembly.” He served as a member of Lively’s student advisory board along with the President of the 2021 Class Council and Student Assembly president. Vergara added that Palaeopitus’ structure somewhat differentiates its role from other representative bodies.
“We’re not an elected body, and that’s something that should be recognized, but I think we do advocate for students in a way that might be different from Student Assembly [...] because Palaeop is composed of a variety of different groups from all across campus,” Vergara said. “Our role is advocating for students as opposed to representing students.”
Cepeda thinks that Palaeopitus’ unique composition of campus leaders strengthens the organization. She sees value in having members in “different pockets of campus” that have experience leading their community.
“It's definitely a strength to have people from different backgrounds and identities as an advocate for their communities,” Cepeda said.
However, the group’s structure has its weaknesses. While each member can bring a valuable perspective, Cepeda noted that the members’ heavy involvement in other areas of campus life can limit their ability to dedicate time and energy to Palaeopitus’ aims.
“It's hard when you only select leaders because that means that everyone’s capacity isn’t as big, because you're committed to several communities already,” Cepeda said.
Palaeopitus’ position as a project-oriented organization is another factor that contributes to its struggle to carve out a permanent campus niche, according to incoming senior class president Alexander Klein ’22, an ex-officio member of the 2022 Palaeopitus delegation. He attributes Palaeopitus’ present lack of a proper niche partly to the fact that there is little continuity between delegations, which makes it difficult for Palaeopitus to serve a consistent role on campus. This, he said, limits the scope of its projects.
“Each year, we try to do something different or work on a new project, and there’s no continuation of past projects, and sometimes, that’s a problem,” Klein said. “Some of the advice that the graduating seniors told us was not to make too big of a goal because it’s really easy to think of a really big great project and then not have enough time to finish it — especially since you only have a year, really.”
Klein hopes that the society can adapt its structure to remedy this lack of continuity.
“We’re trying to find a way to have a focused goal that can be a continuation from year to year to build upon,” Klein said.
Although the purpose of Palaeopitus may currently be nebulous, its role on campus may become clearer in the coming months. Lively acknowledged that there are presently a number of student advisory groups that somewhat overlap in purpose, and she expressed an intention to remedy this.
“At some point, we all sat down and said, ‘this is a lot of advisory groups, and they’re sort of all working on the same things. How might we streamline this and also make a clear distinction between the two?’” Lively said.
As the College recovers from the pandemic and returns to normal operations, Lively said she did not feel the student advisory board would still serve a necessary role on campus, given that it was initially formed to respond specifically to College COVID-19 policies. Lively, who said she has decided to abolish the board, added that she wants to keep an advisory board of students and that Palaeopitus will fill this role in the upcoming year.
“I asked Palaeopitus if they would be willing to step down from some of their project-based work where they were often overlapping [...] to be a longer-term student advisory board where we can begin to think about some of the larger structural and cultural problems that we’re going to be facing, particularly coming out of COVID-19,” Lively said.
The details of the transition are not yet finalized, but there are a number of issues that Lively said she hopes that Palaeopitus can provide student input on, including questions surrounding reviving campus life post-pandemic, improving communication between students, faculty and the administration and addressing student mental health.
“Some of the questions that I would like student input on are: How do we reboot the feeling of community, given the fractured year that we had last year? How do we think about leadership transitions when there are students on campus that missed an entire year? [...] How can we think about mental health and getting the entire campus community involved?” Lively said.
Lively added that she will begin to meet with Palaeopitus members over the summer to decide the details of the organization’s new role. The 2022 Palaeopitus delegation will begin actively serving in its renewed advisory role come fall 2021.
“My greatest hope is simply to reopen lines of communication and to be able to create a space where we can be creative again, where we can bring our best ideas and come up with workable, implementable solutions to solve tough problems,” Lively said. “I would like to be able to help use Palaeopitus to help restore a greater sense of collaboration, cooperation and partnership between students and administration.”