STUDENT SENATE: Members tackle responsibility with effort
Maddie Hanna | Sunday, December 11, 2005
The Student Senate has the greatest responsibility of Notre Dame’s student government organizations as a policymaking body, and for the most part, this year’s group has taken that responsibility seriously. Senate leaders are some of the student body’s hardest workers and have pushed through a number of important resolutions after intelligent discussion.
The Senate’s eight committees – Academic Affairs, Community Relations, Diversity Affairs, Gender Issues, Minority Affairs, Oversight, Residence Life and University Affairs – each have their own agendas and periodically present resolutions to the full Senate.
But after long, heated debates, the Senate sometimes runs into problems producing what it promises.
It should be noted that student government, even a relatively powerful body like Senate, is and will always be unable to push any measure past an unwilling administration. The Senate’s passed resolutions are essentially recommendations that members of the administration can choose to pursue or disregard. It’s the way the system works.
The difference is that this year, senators seem to be learning to work with the system rather than against it.
This year’s Senate has struck a balance between sweeping goals and tangible achievements.
While it’s easier to evaluate the second category, both paths have led to success.
The University Affairs committee, chaired by Matt Walsh, was in constant communication over the summer with the Office of Business Operations while the University was negotiating agreements with TRANSPO and FedEx Kinkos.
Now, partly due to the committee’s insistence that student input be considered in the negotiations, students can ride TRANSPO buses throughout the community for free and take advantage of improved copy service options.
Gender Affairs committee chair Ali Wishon has devoted herself to her group’s tasks, and her dedication is apparent. Over the summer, she worked extensively with the University to revamp the Freshman Orientation sexual assault program, “From Football to Finals.” The change has contributed to an increased number of sexual assault reports, something student body president Dave Baron said indicates that more students have found the courage to report incidents.
Wishon’s committee also ran a smoothly coordinated Eating Disorders Awareness Week and is planning a Sexual Assault Awareness Week for nest semester.
Other concrete Senate accomplishments include the Residence Life committee’s to-go cups in the dining halls and Carroll and D6 parking lot crosswalks, as well as a “Stand against Hate” poster campaign and International Education Week coordinated by the Diversity Committee.
The Senate’s most commendable quality is arguably its willingness to devote serious attention to weighty matters. Since taking office, senators have not shied away from complexity.
Senators passed a resolution on Oct. 12 to increase the student activities fee by $15, a two-part proposal contingent on the group’s later passage of a resolution to modify the fixed allocation percentages in the Student Union constitution.
The explanation was complicated – Baron and Academic Affairs committee chair Chris Harris put an extensive amount of work into the proposal with the eventual goal of implementing the College Readership Program – and the debate was back-and-forth.
But after careful consideration of the alternatives, the Senate passed the resolution, presenting a good example of how government should work.
Mark Seiler’s Residence Life committee has worked alongside the University on getting printers in the dorms – a pilot program started last year by the Office of Information Technology – and informing the student body of procedures surrounding the upcoming installation of cable and wireless in the residence halls.
These projects are indicative of the more open and cooperative conversation between the University and student government, a conversation initiated by Baron and Shappell that Senate has continued to build.
Senators have also confronted intangible and controversial topics that encompass the entire Notre Dame community.
The newly established Community Relations committee, chaired by Nick Guzman, has an ambitious list of seemingly feasible projects – incorporating a community element to the freshman orientation program and publishing a South Bend opportunities guide, for example – designed to build the relationship between Notre Dame students and members of the South Bend community.
This year’s other new committee, Minority Affairs, is chaired by Rhea Boyd and recently presented a resolution urging the creation of a University committee to examine “cultural competency” at Notre Dame, a modification of last year’s proposal for a diversity course requirement.
While the resolution is currently stalled in Faculty Senate until February, Boyd said her committee has been in continual dialogue with high-level administrators who support the committee’s goals and have used Boyd as a resource for their efforts in promoting diversity at Notre Dame.
The Senate spent several meetings discussing the University’s new institutional spot “Candle,” which first aired Sept. 10 and incited debate about the face of the University and the advertisement’s impact on admissions.
While no policy change came of the discussion, the range of passionate responses demonstrated the group’s belief that its decision to send or not to send a letter to administrators mattered.
There is a clear difference between discussion for the sake of discussion and discussion with the eventual intent of implementation. While the Senate has certainly approached topics of this magnitude in past years, they were not always considered with an actual end in mind – something that sets this Senate apart.
Next semester, the University Affairs and Gender Issues committees will present a comprehensive report assessing existing resources for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning (GLBTQ) students to determine what needs are currently not being met.
Even though many positive changes have emerged from Senate this year, the group still shoulders its fair share of shortcomings.
It became evident early in the new term that a few senators have a tendency to speak without a clear point, repeating comments with the type of nuanced wording that can only belong to an elected official. There are only so many ways to say the same thing, and senators who like the sound of their own voices should be careful not to wear them out.
The problem of repetition extends to committees who report the same news week after week. When a committee chair’s main news is that “the process is underway” for a particular project, a statement that becomes the only news reported to the Senate over the next few weeks, it appears that no progress has been made.
At other times, it appeared that a project’s feasibility was not fully considered or that the goal was inadequately pursued. An example is the proposal to put the TicketShare basketball ticket distribution program online, an idea that had been floating around Senate for months. But when the week of ticket distribution arrived, TicketShare was nowhere near the Web.
Senate members justified the situation by saying they’d rather have a quality program tomorrow than a passable program today. When frustrations regarding basketball tickets have been mounting since last season, however, pushing an improved TicketShare system to next year doesn’t seem logical.
Less glaring is the truth that not everyone is a leader. This isn’t a characteristic unique to Student Senate or even this year’s group of senators, but it is nonetheless a weakness. This year’s committee chairs are exceptionally motivated, and their participation in the Senate’s affairs can easily overshadow that of the senators.
In order for the Senate to reach its potential for success, all members must take an active role and remember why they were elected – to serve as advocates for their dorm constituents and strive to improve campus life.
Halfway through the year, they’re well on their way.