The Measure of a Government

By Daniel Stratford

Marsha Gelin/Collegian
Marsha Gelin/Collegian

The University of Massachusetts is, at times, not so much a university as a small city. Indeed, UMass – with its 20,000-plus undergraduate students and plethora of graduate students and staff – is oftentimes cited as being far more voluminous in nature than the town from whence those students hail. This columnist can personally relate to that, for my hometown is composed of just over 16,000 people according to the United States Census – though if one takes a measurement of its social interactions it is much smaller. Coming to UMass from a small town is simultaneously one of the most exhilarating yet intimidating journeys that students have to make. For this columnist , it was less of a journey than it was a well-warranted reprieve from the stifling provincialism endemic of post-high school life.

As with any city, one of the most fascinating aspects about UMass is its diversity, ranging from hundreds of clubs and associations to the great cauldron it provides for the intellectual fermentation necessary for the proper function of any true university. When, during my freshman year, I counted no less than three different languages being concurrently spoken around me whilst on a bus to Northampton, I knew that I had made the right choice with regards to higher education, or, at the least, fate had been kind enough to point me in the right direction.

Like all cities, however, this diversity must be reconciled with order, stability and balance. When most people think of university governance, they oftentimes think of individuals such as the university chancellor, the concomitant vice chancellors, the plethora of academic deans, academic honesty boards, and pretty much everyone who calls Whitmore home. However, students are roused from their political apathy when two organizations enter their consciousness: the Student Government Association (SGA) and the Residence Hall Association (RHA).

Both of these organizations are august and mighty, and possess an inextricably shared history.

The SGA is primarily known for its role as arbiter over the allocation of long-term budgets and emergency funding from the Student Activities Trust Fund to the multitude of chartered clubs and agencies that are under its purview. However, in a role that is of comparable importance, it plays a vital part in advocating on behalf of student interests and serving as the equivalent of the Department of State with regards to relations with the Town of Amherst and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In those dual roles, the SGA excels like no other organization; its budgeting process is fair, forthright and relatively swift, and its diplomatic steadfastness and adroitness with both the administration and all outside governmental agencies is of a stature that can only be described as peerless.

Like all governments, however, divisions of labor are oftentimes needed to ensure a reputable degree of efficiency in areas that the tripartite SGA lacks the oversight or infrastructure to deal with effectively. Historically, ensuring proper programming for residence halls was a cause for concern, and as residence halls are oftentimes the genesis of many a great leader of the Student Government Association, proper care would have to be taken to ensure that their interests were not neglected in the dynamism inherent in any governing body. As such, the Residence Hall Association was created in the 2009-2010 Senate term, though elections for House Council were, and still are, under the jurisdiction of the SGA Elections Commission.

To many people, this represented – and still represents – a glorious compromise, with budgeting and policy work left to the SGA proper, whilst programming and other local activities for house councils handled by the nascent RHA. Area-wide events were, and still are, executed by Area Governments that are still within the legal and financial jurisdiction of the SGA proper.

This is not to say, however, that the relationship between the SGA and the inchoate RHA has been perfectly amiable. There were tensions in late 2010 regarding the creation of the position of SGA vice president, whose creation was opposed by RHA due to what its leadership perceived to be the over-broad influence that the prospective vice president would have over its executive board. Those more predisposed to intrigue, or those who enjoyed working full-tilt at grinding the flour of suspicion at the proverbial rumor mill, even uttered tales of frightful conspiracies. In any altercation, however, rumor and innuendo spout from all belligerents like noxious gas from a geyser, and there was no shortage from both SGA and RHA of lurid tales fit for the yellow journalism of the nineteenth-century.

Thankfully, though, any notion of conspiracy and intrigue that was propagated in those furious days turned out to be patently false, as was made plainly evident by the fact that the relationship between RHA and SGA has warmed significantly, and, in fact, has never been better. What is the measure of any organization if not its integrity under the dual constraints of external pressure and internal dissent? If that is in fact the measure that we use to assess an organization, never mind a government, then both RHA and SGA came out with flying colors, and have settled into their respective, complimentary places next to each other at the right hand of Prudence.

Both organizations should not at all view each other as rivals in a Cold War-style contest for supremacy, but as allies enjoined with the same, sacrosanct task – to uphold and keep careful vigilance over student interests. Though RHA was incontrovertibly begotten from SGA, the two organizations can rightfully celebrate a happy, pleasant coexistence that speaks more to the adoration between siblings than the cold, impersonal nature of bureaucratic alliances.

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