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Minority decision causes diverse reactions

Karen Langley | Wednesday, April 5, 2006

The Student Senate’s defeat last Wednesday of an amendment to make the ad-hoc Minority Affairs committee (MAC) a constitutionally-recognized part of student government has angered some student leaders and prompted others to accelerate the completion of a revised amendment.

The issue at hand, leaders said, is the attention given to the minority voice within the student body.

“The number one issue is that MAC represents 20 percent of the student body,” said Rhea Boyd, who chaired MAC this past year. “To have that huge of a constituency without a voice in student government is un-fathomable. People’s racial and ethnic identities are such a huge part of their Notre Dame identities.”

Boyd said she was angered by the amendment’s defeat – a vote she said she had not expected.

But the issue will soon resurface. Student body president Lizzi Shappell said Friday she expects a new resolution to be ready within a few weeks after review by a newly established task force.

“In no way are we eliminating MAC,” she said. “It’s a matter of articulating it best.”

The Senate’s Wednesday meeting was the last of the 2005-06 student government term, which ended Friday.

The committee was formed in April 2005 with the goal of giving a voice in student government to racially underrepresented groups. Before that time, issues of race had been addressed by the permanent Senate Diversity committee. That committee now undertakes issues related to religious affiliation, sexual orientation and socioeconomics.

In March, then-student body president Dave Baron, then-student body vice president Lizzi Shappell, then-MAC chair Rhea Boyd, then-Diversity committee chair Sarah Liu and new MAC chair Destinee DeLemos met to compose the amendment, which would have established the committee permanently as a “means of expression for racially and ethnically marginalized students.”

Last Tuesday – the night before the Senate meeting – Baron, Shappell and Liu met with Boyd. At that meeting, they suggested the amendment be taken off the Senate agenda until it could undergo further revision.

“There was no attempt to cover up [the amendment],” Baron said. “We wanted to make sure the best proposal was put forth, but if Rhea thought this was the best proposal, that was it.”

Boyd asked that the amendment be kept on the agenda, and so it was presented to Senate the following afternoon.

“I wanted this amendment to go before the current Student Senate, who knows what [MAC has] done throughout the year,” she said Monday.

Baron and Shappell’s concerns centered on the amendment’s articulation of the differences between MAC and the Diversity committee – an ambiguity that, according to Shappell, has caused some conflict this year.

The use of the word “minority” in the committee’s name also caused some concern, as it is not used on the national level and could cause further confusion when contrasted with the name of the Diversity committee, Baron said, adding that hesitation about the name is sufficient reason to delay consideration of an amendment.

“A lot of what we do in student government is dependent upon the perception of people,” he said. “It is essential you have a name that makes sense immediately.”

Shappell said the amendment’s defeat was likely due to the Senate’s experience with the problems caused by unclear committee definitions.

“Senators lived this term with the Diversity committee and MAC and the confusion that ensued,” she said. “They recognized the need for clarification and research and student opinions brought forth on how the two overlapped.”

Boyd said MAC’s fate is “too tied” to that of the Diversity committee, a particular problem given that committee’s “nebulous nature.”

Liu also attested to the problems in definition.

“The two committees go hand-in-hand,” Liu said Tuesday. “You cannot change one without changing the other.”

While Liu said her committee “experienced a lot of frustration in [its] role,” she denied a lack of direction.

Along with Baron and Shappell, Liu had decided at the pre-Senate meeting that perhaps the amendment should wait, as she was uncertain about the structural specifics.

She and the rest of the Diversity committee thought a strong option would be to once more combine the two committees while allowing for various subcommittees.

But Boyd supported the amendment’s call for separate and distinct committees to deal with racial issues and other issues of diversity.

“The structure this amendment calls for is one I think is appropriate,” Boyd said. “To have one big committee undermines the importance of MAC being a separate voice.”

Boyd also questioned the necessity of delaying ratification based on the name of MAC, which she said was a “superficial” concern when compared to the importance of making MAC permanent.

Though the senators’ concern about creating long-lasting amendments is legitimate, this amendment would not require any more revision than others that have been recently passed, she said.

Shappell immediately granted MAC continued ad-hoc status when she took over as student body president at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. She then established a task force of minority and non-minority students to discuss how to best revise the amendment with regards to its wording and the structure of the two committees.

“I unequivocally want a permanent voice of minority students [in student government],” she said Monday.

Former Cavanaugh senator and new chief executive assistant Liz Brown will be responsible for overseeing MAC and the Diversity committee in the new term.

“The main dilemma is dividing them in a logical way so they both have a clear purpose,” Brown said.

Brown said students approached her after the Senate meeting to ask why the amendment had been rejected and what would happen to MAC. Though initially concerned, the students reacted positively “once they heard what the real concerns were … going back to make sure it was really done right,” she said.

Jason Laws, a current MAC member and former president of the class of 2007 freshman and sophomore years, expressed frustration at the outcome of Wednesday’s meeting.

“At the meeting, I just don’t know if people had their eyes open,” Laws said Tuesday. “There were [senators] who just wanted to get out of the meeting.”

Laws said the senators would have done well to consider the significance of MAC to a large portion of their peers and constituencies before rejecting it.

“The amendment is more than just a piece of paper,” Laws said. “It’s about the experiences of all minorities here at this university and their lifestyles here.”

The amendment seemed to have undergone more strenuous criticism than other amendments to make committees permanent, Laws said.

“I’ve never seen this much hesitation with any other amendment,” he said. “You have to be careful about the message you send not just to the student body but also to the minority community.”

As a candidate for student body president in the 2006 election, Laws campaigned on a platform that included the creation of a Black Student Union. He is now in discussions to investigate creating such a group, whose eventual name and form remain undecided.

The group would create a community in which black students could develop a sense of identity, communicate issues with other student government groups and become more active in the Notre Dame and wider communities.

Laws said the passage of an amendment making MAC permanent and the creation of a group tailored specially to the needs of black students would fill a gap in student government.

“As of now, there’s not a strong black voice in student government,” Laws said. “That’s a fact.”