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STUDENT GOV’T INSIDER: Leaders respond promptly to student issues

Kaitlynn Riely | Tuesday, December 11, 2007

From the time they took office April 1, Liz Brown and Maris Braun have worked to fulfill the requirements of their positions by representing undergraduate student interests, responding to student opinions and maintaining regular communication with the student body.

Brown and Braun came into office under unusual circumstances. Neither they nor their opponents in the run-off election last year received the required 50 percent plus one of the vote needed to win, so the decision about who would lead the student body was made in a closed meeting of the Student Senate.

Brown and Braun emerged victorious, but without the strong backing of a majority of students.

They did not let this deter them.

“Since it was such a close election, that’s motivating to me,” Brown said in April. “We have to step up on our game and prove that the right decision was made in the end.”

The test

In August, Brown and Braun erased any doubt about whether they could handle their positions.

While most students were still immersed in summer jobs and internships, the pair took action on an issue of undeniable relevance to their constituents: an ordinance proposed before the South Bend Common Council that would require residents of boarding houses to notify the city before hosting an event at which more than 25 people would have access to alcohol.

The ordinance defined a boarding house as a building in a residentially zoned area in which more than two non-related people live. Its requirements would thus affect the many upperclassmen living off campus as well as any students who would spend time at their residences.

The student body president and vice president sent an e-mail to all students Aug. 4 to notify them of the proposed ordinance and state their intention to fight it.

Student response to the ordinance flared on Facebook and other online message boards. As students began their return to campus, the issue dominated campus discussions and the editorial pages of The Observer.

Brown and Braun could have let themselves be cast by the Common Council and local press as angry students defending their right to party without concern for neighbors.

Instead, the pair displayed professionalism and integrity in meetings with Council members, listening intently to all sides of the issue. Their goal was to remove the permit process from the ordinance and seek other ways to address concerns about disorderly parties.

Brown warned students that their behavior at off-campus parties would determine her bargaining power with the Common Council. Through Student Senate meetings and a letter to The Observer, she asked students to be respectful of their South Bend neighbors. In coming weeks, Council members cited an improvement in behavior. On Sept. 24, they passed a revised ordinance that did not enact a permit process, though it included language for possible future implementation.

The passage of the revised ordinance was a major success for Brown and Braun. The alacrity they showed during the ordinance debates has been characteristic of their approach to pressing issues. Braun recognized this when she and Brown spoke recently with The Observer.

“A lot of how I would rate Liz’s and my success is how we’ve responded to unforeseen events,” she said. “We’ve been able to think on our feet, and I think that’s helped us out a lot, as things have arisen that were not planned for.”

Moving on

It would have been easy for Brown and Braun to become complacent after the successful outcome of the ordinance exchange.

But Brown and Braun have not slowed in their attentiveness to student concerns. Through their own initiative and with collaboration from Student Senate committee chairs, they tackled the downsizing of the student ticket exchange program and the jump in the price of course packets. Student government made some progress on both, and Brown and Braun said they are confident changes to the exchange program and the course packet distribution and pricing system will be implemented. Brown said it appears the student ticket exchange program will be open to more games than this year, when students were only allowed to exchange tickets for the Notre Dame-USC game.

Senate Academic Affairs committee chair Carol Hendrickson said course packets for Arts and Letters classes will not be sold from the bookstore next semester. Other course packets will still be sold from the bookstore, she said.

Hendrickson had been told that there will be changes next semester regarding course packets still sold through the bookstore, but she was not sure what those changes would be. Hendrickson also spoke with the Hesburgh Library about increasing use of e-reserves. The library has said it will be able to accommodate an increase in e-reserves in January.

Brown and Braun are attuned to the opinions and interests of the student body, as they demonstrated this fall, when they suggested that students wear green on a designated day in support of the flailing football team. Though the gesture did little to improve the team’s fortunes, it showed that Brown and Braun consider various ways to engage their constituents in University issues.

Brown and Braun first demonstrated their ability to respond quickly and thoughtfully after a gunman killed 32 students at Virginia Tech last April. They led a discussion among senators about how the Notre Dame community could express its condolences after the massacre. Their compassionate approach to an issue that rocked not only Virginia Tech, but college campuses across the country, came two weeks after they had entered office.

Moving from dialogue to action

Though unexpected problems have taken up much of their time, Brown and Braun have still acted quickly to fulfill their campaign promises.

Shortly after she took office last year, Brown, who served as chief executive assistant in last year’s Lizzi Shappell-Bill Andrichik administration, urged student government to move past dialogue toward action to make “concrete, positive changes to student life at Notre Dame.”

Brown and Braun set the standard for action at the first Student Senate meeting of the 2007-08 school year, when they announced that two of their campaign goals had come to fruition. The concession stands at Notre Dame Stadium and at the Joyce Center now take Domer Dollars, and students who live on campus have the opportunity to purchase up to five guest meals, for five dollars each, per semester.

Their chief executive assistant, Sheena Plamoottil, oversaw the launch of the new student government Web site, a much needed change for the organization.

Brown and Braun owe a great amount of credit to their Senate committee chairs for advancing the goals of the Brown-Braun administration, as well as for generating their own initiatives.

As Brown and Braun enter their final months in office, they must ensure their success with the ordinance is not the only defining moment of their administration. Brown said she and Braun don’t expect their efforts to taper off in the spring – though, she said, those efforts may lack the dramatic tone of past achievements.

“I think we still have a lot of work to be done,” Brown said. “I think my concerns are that we’ll run out of time. I don’t really see that happening, since we’ve put in a lot of work this semester. Maybe our successes won’t be as blatant next semester as they were this semester, but we are still pursuing good initiatives. There’s a lot left to do.”

Brown and Braun said they will continue to address community relations concerns in the spring. They are working with the Campus Life Council to prepare a report on the future of community relations for Father Mark Poorman, vice president for student affairs. They are also working with the Student Affairs office on a good neighbor guide for students who move off campus.

Brown and Braun plan to follow up on this fall’s Notre Dame Forum on immigration through events led by the Senate Social Concerns and University Affairs committees.

Braun said she is excited about the emergence of student group GreeND and plans to support its objective to make Notre Dame a more environmentally friendly campus.

Senate committees are working on numerous other initiatives, many of which seem likely to come to fruition before the Brown-Braun administration ends in March.

Should any urgent issues emerge during their final months in office, Brown and Braun’s record suggests they will address it with speed and confidence. If they can bring that same drive to mundane matters of governance, they will conclude a successful run as student body president and vice president.

Campaign promises in review:

– Delivered:

Faculty-student debate series

ND Forum follow-up

Domer Dollars in the Stadium and the JACC

Guest Meal Exchange program

Sexual Assault Awareness Week

Darfur social action campaign letter to the University

– Pending:

Taste of South Bend

Community-based curriculum

South Bend airport shuttle

– Unsuccessful:

Martin Luther King Jr. Day as University holiday

Standardize academic advising