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Student Senate: Lack of enthusiasm slows progress, dulls impact

Mary Kate Malone | Monday, December 11, 2006

Though it’s the chief policy-making body within student government, the 2006-07 Student Senate has done an inconsistent job carrying this responsibility.

The Senate is made up of eight committees – Academic Affairs, Community Relations, Social Concerns, Gender Issues, Multicultural Affairs, Oversight, Residence Life and University Affairs. Each committee is charged with making recommendations to the Senate based on the interests it is serving.

So far, the work of these committees has been disappointing.

This year’s Senate meetings are marked by minimal debate and usually last no more than 30 minutes.

Some senators have not spoken once the entire semester.

Student body president Lizzi Shappell said meetings have been shorter because much of their work takes place outside the Senate walls – in committees, in the student government office, and in one-on-one conversations.

“This year I don’t see a decline in Student Senate activity,” Shappell said.

“It just happens to be occurring largely outside of actual meetings.”

Even so, Shappell and student body vice president Bill Andrichik should make an effort to thoroughly update senators on the progress of their initiatives, seeking feedback and delegating responsibilities to other Senate committees.

Top-down information sharing is essential, especially in the Senate. Without it, the disconnect between senators and top student government leaders is growing.

One of the first significant resolutions of the administration, passed last spring, created a new Senate committee, called Multicultural Affairs. The resolution also made a clear delineation between the responsibilities of Multicultural Affairs committee and the Social Concerns committee (formerly known as the Diversity committee) – ending debate about the necessity to have both.

The resolution was a wise one, and since it required changes within the Senate itself, it was quickly implemented. Creating two committees charged with addressing issues regarding underrepresented groups on campus reflected the Senate’s priority to include as many voices as possible on its floor.

But resolutions this fall have been broader, and less effective.

Social Concerns committee chair Sheena Plamoottil presented a resolution calling for Fair Trade coffee to be exclusively offered in all non-franchised Food Services operations.

The resolution, which was mostly drafted by members of the Notre Dame chapter of Amnesty International, passed almost unanimously. But it has since been stalled by Food Services officials, who said they have their own provisions in place to take such measures if they chose to.

A resolution calling for more resources for Native American students – including a Native American student advisor and a contemporary Native American issues course – is ambitious, but perhaps the most commendable resolution drafted so far this year. Unfortunately, it has been held up in the Campus Life Council for several weeks.

Residence Life committee chair Patrick Knapp drafted a resolution regarding cable television, wireless Internet and cellular telephone service quality in the residence halls. Creating a chart that outlined the level of service each dorm was currently getting, the resolution called for an additional cell phone tower to be placed on the Northeast side of campus, and more routers placed in residence halls.

A resolution should make recommendations that are realistic and well researched. Knapp’s was neither.

The impact of Senate resolutions is limited significantly by the University administration, which always has the final say. The passage of a Senate resolution means little, then, if those who draft it don’t follow-up on the proposal.

Shappell is keenly aware of this, she said.

“The real work comes after the passage of the resolutions, with Senate committee chairpersons and [Andrichik, chief executive assistant Liz Brown] and I working to make sure the resolution’s goals are accomplished,” Shappell said.

Even so, Senate resolutions are the most cohesive and powerful voice students can put forth, and it’s up to senators to make sure a wide range of resolutions are debated and passed in Senate meetings.

As chair of Senate, Andrichik should work to breathe new life into senators, asking for more ideas from their constituencies and more debate.

The Senate’s effectiveness is contingent on the enthusiasm and determination of its members.