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STUDENT GOV’T INSIDER: Senators begin engaging in productive dialogue

Kaitlynn Riely | Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The 28 representatives who sit on the Student Senate have meshed well this year with the top three leaders and the nine committee chairs, allowing for productive dialogue and effective resolutions.

The ingredients that make a successful Student Senate are vocal senators who will speak their mind about issues, student body president Liz Brown said last week.

When the Brown-Braun administration began in April, the senators seemed hesitant to challenging ideas proposed by the top three executives or the committee chairs. Brown said wariness on the part of the senators is typical at the beginning of the term.

Last April, Brown made the first of three State of the Student Union addresses required by the Student Body Constitution. She told senators to move from dialogue to action. She and student body vice president Maris Braun set the tone for action at the first Senate meeting this year, when they announced that two of their campaign goals had already been met – the introduction of Domer Dollars in the Stadium and Joyce Center and the creation of a guest meal exchange program.

Frivolous discussion about meaningless or ill-prepared resolutions is indeed a waste of time. But Brown and the senators must remember that senators need to engage in productive dialogue if they are to stimulate new ideas and improve old ones.

At the first meeting of the Student Senate last April, Braun encouraged the senators and the committee chairs to actively engage in their administration.

“I encourage you to always voice your point of view, no matter what. The point of Senate is to create conversation and debate,” Braun said in April. “Senate has the capability to get a lot done, and Liz and I would really like to see that happen this year.”

Senators have moved from their initial hesitance to ask questions and argue opinions to greater engagement in dialogue and debate, to the benefit of the entire Senate.

When Academic Affairs chair Carol Hendrickson first presented a resolution that urged faculty members to increase use of electronic reserves, in place of more expensive course packets, many senators opposed the resolution, mostly because of language that stated a switch would be environmentally friendly. Many students would still print out the pages from the electronic reserves, they argued.

Hendrickson was able to collect enough feedback from senators to draft a revision of the resolution that omitted reference to the environment. The resolution’s passage showed how legislative input improved the resolution’s effectiveness.

Purposeful dialogue again produced tangible results when Siegfried senator Jim Lockwood proposed his amendment to dictate presidential responsibilities.

Lockwood presented an amendment outlining the way in which the student body president should interact with the Community/Campus Advisory Coalition, or CCAC. The CCAC is a group created by the South Bend Common Council composed of representatives from the city and community, as well as from the administration and student bodies of local colleges. It was created by the South Bend Common Council in late September as part of the resolution to the debates about requiring student renters to register large parties with the city.

The CCAC is intended to foster dialogue about problems between colleges and the wider community. Notre Dame’s student body president was invited to attend meetings of the CCAC.

Lockwood’s original resolution was well intentioned and filled a void in the Student Body Constitution, but it contained stringent language that dictated exactly how the student body president should interact with the CCAC and what he or she should report back to the Student Senate.

Many senators and chairs spoke against the specificity of the amendment, blocking its passage. Senate Oversight chair Ian Secviar reworked the amendment in his committee and presented it to the Senate a second time. The senators’ dialogue allowed effective revisions and resulted in an amendment less restrictive of the student body president’s actions. The resolution passed.

Since August, several senators have strengthened their participation in Senate meetings. Some, like Fisher Hall’s Stephen Bant and Lyons Hall’s Kelly Kanavy, have presented resolutions on course packets and on University divestment from Darfur to the Senate on behalf of the committee chairs.

If the Student Senate is to be effective, senators must take deep personal interest. Senators must provide a check on executive members and committee chairs by questioning them about the accuracy and meaning of resolutions.

They should also bring to the Senate’s attention any issues students are discussing in their dorms, as some senators have started to do in the last few meetings. If they continue this next semester, they can help student government better address the concerns of its constituents.

The committee chairs have done well taking up Brown’s call for action. They have created passable resolutions and organized student events. Secviar and Hendrickson have been outstanding as chairs of the Oversight and Academic Affairs committees. Secviar’s release of the revised Student Body Constitution has finally rid the document of its previous errors and discrepancies.

Hendrickson took great initiative in addressing the spike in course packet prices this year. Her dogged determination to prevent price gouging of course packets came across in the PowerPoint presentations and the statistical assessments she made to the Senate.

The chairs must display thorough knowledge about the intent of and research behind their resolutions. A number of resolutions passed this semester, including a Multicultural Affairs letter to University President Father John Jenkins encouraging increased recruitment and retention of minority faculty and a Residence Life committee resolution to the Office of Residence Life recommending improved workout facilities, had preventable holes in logic or research. To maximize impact, chairs must solidify resolutions before presenting them to the Student Senate.

If the Senate continues to have productive discussion and produce meaningful resolutions, it can accomplish a great deal this year.

Grade Awarded to the Student Senate: A-

Productive dialogue among senators and chairs has led to an efficient semester. Senators should continue bringing their dorms’ perspectives to Senate business. Committee chairs have taken Liz Brown’s charge of action seriously. They should focus on bringing forth more resolutions – but only after solid research and preparation.

Grades for Student Senate Committees:

Multicultural Affairs : C+

The committee has yet to make real progress. The Senate approved a letter to University President Father John Jenkins encouraging him to prioritize minority faculty recruitment and retention. The letter had good intentions, but chair Ninny Wan provided no research showing why or how Jenkins could achieve this. The committee’s Native American exhibit was a good idea, but Wan’s goal to cancel classes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day has not gone smoothly. Look for the committee to institute a day of service instead.

Community Relations: A-

The committee was overshadowed this year by the efforts of Liz Brown and Maris Braun. Chair Colin Feehan quietly led the committee in other projects while Brown and Braun addressed the South Bend Common Council’s party permit ordinance. His group’s accomplishments include a voter registration drive, a community block party and an off-campus legal aid clinic. Next semester, look for the Taste of South Bend, a food-tasting event. Feehan’s plan to create a community-based curriculum with the Center for Social Concerns will be a challenge to accomplish by April.

Gender Issues: B

Typically, this committee has achieved its greatest accomplishments in the spring semester. Chairs Patrick Tighe and Brenna Doyle, an Observer ad executive, changed the name of last year’s Eating Disorders Conference to the Health and Body Image Conference to appeal to all genders. The event is scheduled for March. The committee quietly staged a sexual assault awareness week this fall to correspond with Loyal Daughters and Sons.

University Affairs: A

Unlike many student government-sponsored events, the committee’s student-faculty debate series has attracted student interest. Senate passed a resolution sponsored by Callie Pogge’s committee to urge the University to pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2015. Pogge has gone green. She organized a successful Energy Week and said she plans to launch an environmental campaign next semester. Her biggest battle may be finding an on-campus location for cabs to pick up students.

Academic Affairs: A

Carol Hendrickson’s leadership has been impressive. She addressed student concerns about a hike in course packet prices by speaking to administrators. She told senators it appeared that course packet costs will be down next year. Her committee also passed resolutions recommending faculty increases their use of e-reserves and asked the Office of Information Technologies to create an online deposit system for print quotas.

Social Concerns: B

Chair Karen Koski has done a good job coming up with new initiatives for the Social Concerns committee to tackle, including a resolution commending the University for divesting from companies that support the Sudanese government while human rights violations continue in the country’s Darfur region. Koski needs to improve presentations to win the attention and enthusiasm of other senators.

Residence Life: C

Residence Life must refocus its agenda on achievable goals backed by research. The University is unlikely to make laundry free in dorms. Chair Mariana Montes succeeded in recommending that more emergency call stations be added on campus, but a recommendation to improve exercise facilities in the residence halls, though well-intentioned, lacked solid research.

Oversight: A-

Chair Ian Secviar has shown impressive knowledge of the Student Body Constitution. His committee’s release of a revised Constitution may prevent misunderstanding that arose last year from errors in the document. However, Secviar must be careful not to over-revise the Constitution. At a recent meeting, he proposed a resolution that would redefine the vote to abstain. The Senate must not stifle progress with quibbles.