On the student commonwealth

By Daniel Stratford

Maria Uminski/Collegian
Maria Uminski/Collegian

The Student Government Association: it’s an organization that we all know, love and respect. Or well, at the very least, it is an organization known, loved and respected by its officials, and at least somewhat well-known by most others. Amongst the most prominent and public deputies of the SGA are, and have always been, the members of its Senate – which is considered by and large to be the most visible link in the tripartite chain of student government at the University of Massachusetts. By the time this column is put to press, the SGA Senate will have had its first meeting on Oct. 3. At the time of this writing, the Senate had recently concluded in its annual orientation, albeit elongated to two days from last year’s single-day training.

As a veteran Senator, it is astounding to see the breadth of new blood that will soon fill the chambers of the Senate with vigor and enthusiasm. However, it is important that this Senate, like all Senates that have preceded it, quickly grasps an appreciation of the multifarious and complex role that student government assumes, as well as a respect for the necessity of a harmonious relationship with the University administration. All things considered, it is imperative that the annual influx of Senators, both old and new, manifest itself as a stream flowing gently through a riverbed carved by history, not as a revolutionary deluge that crashes without warning, and unconscionably sweeps away all that lies before or behind.

The Senate, most agree, is incorporated as the sole and supreme legislative incarnation of student representation at UMass. It is curious to note that, despite the uncanny structural parallels that can be drawn between the SGA and the federal government, the SGA maintains a character more similar to that of a parliament than that of an independent, sovereign government. Interpreting the role and purpose of the SGA through this prism is, consequently, not just more sensible but much less taxing on one’s sanity.

Exercising this analogy to its fullest extent may draw an intriguing conclusion that completely upends the common understanding of the role of the SGA. Namely, the SGA, while often seen as a sometimes-rightful critic of the broadly-defined University administration, is in many regards a contiguous part of it.

Though student activists may cringe at the thought, the administration and the SGA are in certain regards codependent upon each other. The SGA is dependent upon the Administration – specifically the Vice Chancellor for Student Affair’s office for approval of the omnibus S-1 Budget Act and any bylaw modifications, among other things.

The administration is dependent upon the SGA for the dispensation and maintenance of structure, order and meaning to student life, as well as for the delegation of a limited degree of sovereignty over issues such as spending and Student Union office space. Thus, the two organizations should not be seen as rival coteries engaged in a perpetual academic cold war, but rather, two sides of the same proverbial coin.

These aforementioned examples of codependency are precisely why students and administrators cannot afford to be separated by an ever-widening gulf of mordancy and antagonism. Most pertinent to the goals of the SGA, this bilateral relationship exemplifies the need for prudent and deliberate policy-making, not just knee-jerk, reactionary measures against alleged “injustices” wrought by Whitmore. History demonstrates with unequivocal clarity that laying siege to Whitmore as if it was a latter-day Bastille is not merely futile, but oftentimes produces retaliatory or other internal measures by the arbiters of real campus power.

The SGA, even with a senate, executive and judiciary in complete lock-step with one another, would not be able to accomplish a paltry amount of its enumerated annual goals without the assistance of the administration in one form or another.

The reason for this, aside from the stated division of power, is that a unified SGA never has, nor never will, exist. As there are always at least two sides to every issue, there are at least two sides to every legislature. In keeping with the parliamentary analogy, in every legislature there is always friction of some sort, and the SGA is no different. This friction manifests itself in many forms, from relatively petty squabbles over parliamentary procedure to serious spending considerations that affect a great number of students.

Though some may decry what they perceive to be the “politicization” of the SGA – a most specious claim given the political nature of any governmental body – such a state of affairs is not just normal, but desirable. Political parties without government are tyrannical, but government without parties represents the impending tyranny of sloth and idleness. It is the presence of factions within the SGA that lend to it its idiosyncratic political flavor and dynamism. As such, they are forces that must be prudently reconciled and carefully cultivated to both strengthen and exploit the vast reservoir of talent that is the Senate, which in turn must assume its role as a junior partner to the University administration.

This is not to say that the SGA must simply be a mere sycophant or rubber-stamp for Whitmore. Balance is the rock upon which the student-administrator relationship is built, which oftentimes necessitates an exchange of criticism. However, the question must be asked: will the SGA Senate of 2011-2012 be constrained by stubbornness and hubris when dealing with itself and its partners in campus governance, or will our academic posterity note, as Niccolo Machavelli asserted in his Discourses on Titus Livy, that “… the blending of these estates made a perfect Commonwealth?” This is a conundrum as old as time, and its answer only time will reveal.

Dan Stratford is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]