Letter to the Editor | Tuesday, February 23, 2021
This Wednesday, the student body will be faced with an important choice: it must decide which presidential ticket it wants to represent its values, its concerns and its dreams over the next academic year.
Yet, as dazzling as the personality politics of this election can be, we want to take this opportunity to shine the spotlight upon another less alluring vote that will be settled on this week’s ballot.
Due to the success of a recent resolution proposed by the Judicial Council at the student senate, there will be a referendum presented regarding the number of signatures required for student petitions to receive a hearing from the senate.
The question that will be posed on the ballot is as follows: “Raise the standard of valid signatures required of petitioners to the student senate from 200 to a number between 5-8% of the Undergraduate Student Body (442-707) to be determined by the Student Senate? Options: Yes, No, Abstain.”
As members of the student senate and the student body at large, we want to urge you to vote no on this issue.
Before we outline why we think voting no is the right choice, we will first explain why the referendum is being considered. The answer is simple: Complicating the petitioning process is more convenient for the senate.
One student leader described the problem as follows: “[The petitioning process] immediately forces the senate to talk about it within one week. … Whenever there’s some constitutional bar that says you must do this in a week, it really slows down business.”
However, instead of seeking solutions to this problem — for example, lengthening the time that the senate has to consider a petition — many have resolved to instead make the process more difficult for students.
This is an unnecessary change, and one that carries negative consequences. Forcing students to get more signatures — or have an enumerated position to get a say — hampers the voices of minority and special interest groups on campus.
The senate exists to represent every student, not just those in the majority. Raising the bar does more to obstruct students from expressing their beliefs and does nothing to address the procedural problems about quick senate action.
The main issue of representation within the Student Union can be observed in the demographics of Notre Dame compared to many of the peer institutions the Judicial Council used to construct benchmarking slides brought to the student senate to structure their argument.
These institutions, which include Duke University, Baylor University, Washington University and Indiana University, require 5% or more of the population to sign a petition for it to be heard by their student government. There is a significant exclusion of information in these benchmarks: the population and minority percentages.
Notre Dame has both a smaller population than these institutions, but also a smaller proportion of minority students. For example, in 2018 it was reported that Notre Dame’s Black student population accounted for approximately 3% of the undergraduate student body. Based on recent trends, it is unlikely that this percentage has increased significantly in the past two years.
At Indiana University, the Black student population accounts for 7.5% of the population, at Washington University,10.42%, at Baylor, 6.21%, at Duke, 7.19%. If every student who identifies as Black at Notre Dame signed a proposed petition with a minimum percentage of 5%, the petition would not be brought to the senate.
It is no secret that diversity of thought at Notre Dame, in any form, is not always appropriately represented in student government. We urge the student body to consider the communities of students with different sexual orientations, religious beliefs, racial identities and socioeconomic backgrounds on our campus and remind themselves of their rightful seat at the table.
Petitions have always been about providing a platform to students who struggle to have their voices heard. This is not about limiting the democratic rule of the majority; it is about ensuring that minority opinions are always represented.
In response to the argument that specific student government organizations geared towards representing minority groups can and will represent minority student opinions, we say that in the event that these organizations do not represent some opinion, for any reason, students should still have the power to bring their concerns to the senate.
Petitions are a lifeline for small groups of students who struggle to reach the halls of power, and we believe that protecting that ability is more important than any inconvenience the process might pose to the student senate.
Even the argument that the petitioning process somehow wastes the time of the student senate seems to be flawed. Over the past decade, students have seldom taken advantage of this democratic procedure in the Student Union to make their voices heard. This year, however, the student senate has received unprecedented levels of direct student input through the petitioning process, perhaps due to the unusual circumstances posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A prime example of a petition representing a minority opinion brought to the senate this semester is the petition calling for the resignation of Fr. John Jenkins following his appearance at the White House in September. With only 213 signatures, this petition barely passed the threshold to be brought to the senate. Although it was voted down, hearing the petition was still a crucial part of fulfilling the duty of representing student interests. In spite of the lack of support for Jenkins’ resignation, it was an issue that needed to be addressed.
This demonstrates the power of the petitioning process to allow groups of people to coalesce their voices around the pressing issues in their lives and be heard. Petitions empower students who might not have some visible, official position to make change and take part in the work of student governance.
This year’s concentration of petitions represents students’ increased agency in the policymaking process. It is a trend to be celebrated and nurtured, not strangled in the cradle.
Editor’s Note: Dane Sherman and Renee Pierson are former news writers for The Observer.
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.