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Senate considers restructuring student government

| Thursday, April 23, 2020

In a Zoom meeting, the Notre Dame student body senate discussed the possibility of reorganizing the entire student body government, a topic which has been extensively discussed in the past as well.

To begin, junior student body president Rachel Ingal delivered her state of the union address, in which she recognized the hard work and sense of community practiced not only by the student government but also the general student body. 

“We have begun this term in what is truly unprecedented times in all of our lives, and we are grateful for your adaptability and spirit through it all,” Ingal said. “If anything, this time has reinforced what I already knew, that Notre Dame is filled with good people.” 

Although hallmark student government programming events — such as Back the Bend, an initiative to volunteer in South Bend, and Take Back the Night, an initiative to support sexual assault survivors — can no longer occur in person, the executive cabinet is eager to create new programming as well as find solutions to ensure such programming is implemented in the fall. 

“We were excited to launch our #stayhomend initiative this weekend, starting with our student taught yoga and dance athletics class over Zoom,” Ingal said. She said the executive board looks forward to expanding this virtual programming in the coming weeks with online cooking classes, additional mental health resources and more. 

Wednesday’s meeting saw the swearing in of many student executives as Henry Jackson was sworn in as senator of Keenan Hall and seven individuals were approved serve as 2020-2021 Student Union Board (SUB) executives. The board approved is as follows: junior Cameron Lucas, Co-Director of Programming; sophomore Matthew Luneburg, Co-Director of Programming; sophomore Katherine McLaughlin, Co-Director of Programming; junior Megan Baumbach, Director of Finance; freshman Nicole Campbell, Director of Art; junior Jesse Bordallo, Director of Publicity; and junior Elizabeth Soller, Director of Operations.

Sophomore Matthew Bisner, newly appointed Judicial Council president for the 2020-2021 term, then presented a case to the senate suggesting a thorough reordering of the Notre Dame student body government. An argument which stemmed from research conducted on peer institutions, years of identical requests from Bisner’s predecessors and a particular concern about the efficiency of the student body government.

“Just looking at what our peers do, we are ages behind,” he said. “Our constitution is filled with minutiae that are more detail oriented than the purpose that we were put here to do, which is to serve the student body.” 

Bisner’s research analyzed the student government systems of peer institutions such as Washington University, Baylor University, the University of Mississippi and Duke University. Of all these institutions, Notre Dame is the only one to have a unicameral system chaired by the student body Vice President and has the longest constitution, which is 34 pages longer than the United States federal constitution. Additionally, Bisner also noted the ND Judicial Council has no published or constitutional rights which allow students in hearings, which is unprecedented in his research. 

Bisner had several suggestions on how to reorder the ND student body government including: integrating the ten branches of government into three, simplifying the constitution through the publication and expansion of bylaws, considering the position of a separate chair of the senate and creating a bicameral system with one chamber responsible for financial affairs, which is precedented at other universities. 

“This is coming out of a term in which we spent seven to 10 entire senate meetings dedicated to just club funding, and yes that is an important issue to talk about, but it bogged down the senate to an extreme extent. If we can empower a financial body to handle those debates then the senate can get back to looking at student needs in a more policy driven way.” 

Bisner said he is not the first Judicial Council president to make these recommendations. “I think we are at a turning point,” he said. “This is not the first time that these recommendations have been brought up in the Notre Dame Student Union.” 

Bisner offered three routes the senate could undertake to address the problem of governmental efficiency. The first would be a formal, legalized route involving a full constitutional overhaul led by a constitutional convention. The second would be a less formal route involving moving parts of the constitution to bylaws through a gradual process. The third option he said is to do nothing, “I call this the Groundhog Day approach,” Bisner said. “Because for the past decade, everyone holding my position has made these recommendations.” 

The new Chief of Staff, junior Aaron Benavides, put forward that an overhaul of governmental structure could be difficult to achieve in the time of the pandemic, “I do think this process might not be as favorable right now,” he said.

Benavides expressed the concern other policy efforts could fall behind in such procedures. Additionally, a number of senators expressed concern over the ability to successfully be engaged in conversation with students since the senate is not on campus and many expressed concern about not returning for the fall semester. 

Bisner recommended that the senate brainstorm and conclude on a path forward either through committee, resolution or convention before the end of the academic term. 

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