On Monday, the Student Government Association (SGA) held a town hall to hear opinions from the student body on five referenda under consideration. Among the submitted referenda was a proposal from Students Against Institutional Discrimination (SAID) to initiate a democratic redrafting of the SGA Constitution to make the group more responsive to the student body. The referendum proposal is supported by a broad coalition of student organizations who have been frustrated for years by the Association’s structural flaws, which prevent representatives from being accountable to their constituents.
Though the Association requested the presence of several NUPD officers at the town hall, they neglected to confirm that there would be enough space to accommodate community members and representatives (all of whom were required by senate leadership to attend the event). This led to 30 students being escorted out of the Senate chambers by NUPD and then forced to wait outside. In an attempt to make space, the mandatory attendance requirement for senators was waived. This step was insufficient in ensuring that student voices were heard. Monday’s events were a display of the structural flaws that prompted our proposal: Access to decision-making was restricted, while the opinions of Association members were privileged above the perspectives of other students.
The Student Senate, our “representative body,” is hardly representative. Senators typically stand in for academic programs, but in a heavily nonproportional fashion. The D’Amore-McKim School of Business is represented by 10 senators; the College of Arts, Media and Design is represented by one. There are also very few senators of marginalized backgrounds representing the diverse needs of students. These disproportionate demographics are reflective of the minimal, 30-signature requirement to become a senator. The lack of identifiable constituencies and the absence of electoral pressure structurally insulates SGA members from communication communicating with the student body. Without active transparency in the Association’s processes, a disconnect between it and the community is inevitable.
This trend is best exemplified in the Association’s Direct Elections, which exhibit low voter turnout. There have been only two elections in the past ten years where the participation threshold to validate the results was reached. Both of these elections were distinguished by the presence of referenda.
Referenda are an opportunity for students to directly express their interests. These elections facilitate active participation, allowing students to offer input on the direction of the university. In the past two years, this process has been utilized with great effect, providing students with the platform to speak out on the sexual assault crisis and our university’s investments in the fossil fuel industry.
Many senators believe that SGA could be improved. It is our belief, however, that a referendum is a necessary first step toward beginning this process of self-reflection. Public recognition that a problem exists and an open invitation to students to participate in restructuring would lead to a strengthened Association. A holistic approach will eliminate the blind spots and biases that would pervade any internal attempt at reform, and will serve as an affirmation of the student body’s judgment.
This is what makes our referendum so crucial: it recognizes the need to wrest back the student body’s ability to self-determine, while creating the space to imagine a more just university. The only thing standing in the way of that ideal is, ironically, student representatives.The final say lies with SGA’s Executive Cabinet. Seven individuals – two of whom were directly elected, five of whom were elected by their peers within the Association – will vet our referendum proposal tonight to determine if it will be placed on this year’s ballot. We call upon them to do so, including individuals who plan to run for higher positions.
SGA’s mission statement holds that it “serves as the voice of the undergraduate student body.” The Executive Cabinet has the opportunity to amplify that voice directly by giving students the vote and trusting that doing so will lead to a stronger student government.
– Joely Barrios, Chelsea Canedy and Austin Williams are members of SAID.
Photo courtesy Austin Williams, SAID