Want student power? End the SGA

By Emily O'Neil

(Justin Surgent/Daily Collegian)
(Justin Surgent/Collegian File Photo)

The comment I heard when I went into the Student Government Association office this week to pull nomination papers for the senate race was enough to explain the problem with the fall elections cycle:

“Commuter area is going to be a tight race again this year – hope you can manage to get elected.”

That’s a joke. This year, there are eight people on the commuter ballot and 17 spots available. In fall 2013, half of the people elected to the SGA’s sixteen senate seats designated for off-campus students received less than 10 votes each. In other words, get your roommates to write your name in on the Campus Pulse ballot and you’re in. Across campus, there have been similar issues with distribution of candidates for SGA Senate; too many passionate candidates in the Southwest Residential Area, not enough in the Northeast Residential Area.

Our current SGA system throws up roadblocks in front of those who are not already involved and rewards those who exploit a flawed system. The SGA senate is currently made up of 50 students, distributed proportionally around the eight residential areas on campus. But how much does living in Northeast really qualify a person to represent the other people living there? And how is a student living in Southwest unable to understand the experiences of students in the Central Residential Area? The SGA ends up full of political science majors who are too busy playing Frank Underwood to garner real support of the measures they propose from their widespread and often uninformed constituencies.

While there are certainly benefits to having a clear picture of where to find your constituents, this does not guarantee that their voices are heard. Instead, the SGA should allot senate electoral districts proportionally by college. This would ensure a greater diversity of experience and greater representation of the different academic backgrounds that the University of Massachusetts provides.

Of course, current SGA senators would see this move as making their future election more difficult, and many will ask if it is less feasible to reach the fellow members of your college than the people you live and eat with. While it certainly would make campaigns more difficult, it would also force candidates to do real voter outreach, making SGA elections more democratic. The elections commission could make many changes in order to actually reach more voters, such as extending the voting period, demanding a minimum turnout percentage in order to validate a senate election, allotting a slightly larger campaign budget to each candidate or scheduling public debates for senate positions.

The SGA does not represent the interests of actual students, and for this reason, we need the SGA to dissolve itself. Let me explain: while the members of the SGA may strive to represent student interests and, indeed, some students may feel that their senators do productive work regarding the issues they care about, what the SGA lacks is a proper channel for student power.

What is “student power,” really? As students of UMass, we’ve seen the bureaucratic nightmare that is the daily function of this campus – you’ve seen it if you have ever stood in line at the Bursar’s office trying to dispute your financial aid package. Student power means being able to cut through these institutional obstacles and make meaningful change that will last long after we have graduated. I want to make our campus care about divesting from fossil fuels, creating more supportive processes for reporting sexual assault and making internships an option for all, not just an option for those who can afford to take a summer off from paid work. As it functions now, the SGA is not able to propose measures with lasting effects. Rather, it is mainly a rubber stamp for administrative measures that require some measure of student consent. And the consent of a few SGA members is not worth much if it doesn’t truly represent a larger and more specific constituency than areas of campus.”

In an ideal student governance body for UMass, there would be no division between the undergraduate senate, the graduate senate and the faculty senate. This collective senate would serve as the legislative branch to the administration’s executive branch. Legislators may propose motions that then can be passed and approved or vetoed by the administration, and any executive action on behalf of the administrators would require consent from a senate that is more powerful and comprehensive than the three senates could ever be if kept apart. It would still be subject to the quick turnover that any student organization experiences but would ensure fuller understanding of student demands and university actions.

As a rational student of this university for the last two years, I understand that this proposal will seem ludicrous to the administration. But I firmly believe that the SGA must take the first step toward truly democratic student power and reassign senate electoral districts by college. Not only would it involve and interest more students in a process that affects their everyday lives but it would also ensure a more representative and responsible student government than the senate we are about to elect.

Emily O’Neil is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]