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In Focus: Shaky start overcome by discussion and unity

Amanda Michaels | Friday, January 21, 2005

Vested by the new constitution with the majority of the student government’s policy responsibilities, the Student Senate faced the challenges of becoming accustomed to and utilizing this unexplored power to its full potential.

After a slow start, this year’s senators and committee heads were largely able to shake the stigma Senate carries as a stagnant and bickering group, working cohesively to push through legislation and approve actions that both directly affect the student body and establish long-term projects for future members.

A rocky start

The beginning of Senate’s term was not a very promising one, as members struggled to tie up loose ends on the new constitution left for them by their predecessors. They spent the last weeks of the 2003-04 school year in debate with departing student body president Jeremy Lao over the only section of the constitution not signed into law by April, bestowing power over the calendar to the Executive Programming Board.

Many of the incoming senators were new to their positions, and therefore relatively unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the process of restructuring that filled the previous seven months. This limited discussion to incumbent senators, and threatened to set the precedent of a group composed of a few dominant voices.

The first meeting of the 2004-05 term was less inspiring, as a communication error made it impossible for them to work with the new business on the day’s agenda.

The group then fell into a divisive debate over the failure of the Student Union Board to change its name to the Campus Programming Council, as demanded by the restructured constitution, and the merits of officially restoring the group’s name to SUB. The Senate was split between those frustrated with what they saw as a relatively trivial naming issue, and those convinced that their response to SUB’s disregard of the new law could and would dictate how future constitutional violations would be handled.

All in all, the prospects for the rest of the term were not bright.

Pulling it together

With a weighty agenda ahead for the Senate, the missing piece finally clicked into place. Suddenly, developed and multi-faceted debate took the floor, and senators proved they could work through resolutions without falling into much needless argument.

The group passed a largely symbolic but essential non-discrimination amendment to the constitution, forbidding discrimination of any kind based on color, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, social or economic class and nationality.

Leaders of the Committee on Gender Relations and the Committee on Academic Affairs brought the projects of the Gender Resource Center and Teacher Course Evaluation alternative, respectively, into fruition – both of which were started during terms long before the current one.

The most surprising and impressive action was the quick turnaround on a solution for the basketball ticket exchange problem. One week after concerns over the problems surrounding the purchase and trade of men’s basketball tickets, the Committee on University Affairs came back with a well-thought but quick fix – the Ticket Share program – and suggestions of how to pursue more permanent changes as well.

In contrast was the long, philosophical debate that surrounded the issue of election reform. Members expounded on everything, from other universities’ voting procedures to the fundamental ethics of democracy, as they tried to hash out the importance of an abstention option in the runoff elections, and the possibility of granting a senator the power to vote by conscience in the event of an exact vote tie in the runoff.

The final decisions – that the run-off ballot will retain the abstention choice, but abstaining votes will not be factored into total vote percentage calculations, and that senators will return to the old constitution’s system of voting as their dorm voted – demonstrate compromise and respect for their constituents.

The six standing committees themselves – led by two senators and four experienced student government leaders – either investigated or are investigating several projects that directly affect students. A small sample includes the feasibility of hosting Napster on the campus network, Sexual Assault Awareness Week, the addition of a gynecologist and rape kits to Health Services and the rising cost of laundry and vending machines.

As the clock winds down

Though the progress senators have made at the tail-end of their term goes far in making up for their shaky start, it doesn’t completely erase its memory. There are many great projects sitting in committee that will likely, and unfortunately, be lost in the transition between Senates.

So in their final weeks in power, senators should work toward moving things quickly to debate and resolution with the same efficiency and consideration that has possessed them at recent meetings.