At this point, it’s certainly starting to feel like one.
A few weeks ago, I was disappointed to see the removal of the commons system. I felt very strongly about it, in large part due to my position in SGA as a commons senator and as one of the members of the Wonnacott Commons Council. Mostly, I was disturbed by the implications which the commons change holds for the structure of student representation in SGA moving forward.
As a result of that frustration, I drafted a bill. My bill would effectively maintain the current SGA Senate structure by replacing the five commons senators with a similar senate position (to be put into effect next school year). While my initial proposal was not passed, it sparked conversation. In particular, the SGA Senate found itself debating: what is the most effective way to structure our student government in a method that best represents students, increases SGA legitimacy and holds us accountable as a body?
In ensuing conversations, our 17-person senate offered a diverse range of opinions. Some believe the solution is an 11-person senate (created by removing both the Commons senator positions and the co-chair of Community Council from the senate); others believe the solution is adding another class senator position. At the end of the day, there is one idea we agree on without question or doubt: there will be changes to the Student Government Association’s structure moving forward.
I have had a lot of time to reflect throughout this process. I have thought about questions of representation, legitimacy and accountability time and time again over the last two weeks. I’ve come up with over six potential models based on the successes and failures of SGAs in comparable institutions. And yet even in light of research, reaching out to peer institutions and drafting and redrafting different models, I still felt something missing from my equation.
I realized that, as a student representative, I need to do a better job of representing the ideas of others on this issue (instead of behaving singularly). As a representative of approximately 20% of the student body, I needed to be consulting people on the system they want to represent them moving forward. That is what I have been trying to do for the last few weeks.
Generally, I try my absolute best to do speak candidly with my constituents to get their feedback. I am in constant conversation with a variety of people both inside and outside of my commons, trying to understand more about what other students at Middlebury care about. In doing so, I have gotten an incredible amount of insight into the things that matter to a broad cross-section of the student body. That is the type of work that is important to me. That is the type of on-the-ground work that promotes a student government’s sense of legitimacy and encourages accountability.
Last year’s Campus’s Zeitgeist survey showed that 53.4% of respondents felt indifferently or negatively about the performance of SGA. This trend has developed over the course of many years, during which people have had a net negative or indifferent opinion on the SGA as a whole. Historically, similar sentiments were recorded in which many students do not know what the SGA does, how it operates or even who is in it. This suggests that, in part, people were apathetic due to a lack of knowledge. That’s a problem. It’s a problem that is only solved by direct interactions, communication, transparency and gaining the input of the student body.
At the end of the day, SGA operations shouldn’t be comparable to a magic trick. There shouldn’t be a veil or smoke and mirrors disguising what’s going on. There shouldn’t be any magician’s secrets or keeping the best tricks of the trade from the public. These instances would only further the apathy of students as a whole and act counter to constructing a senate that is accountable and legitimate.
This is in no way meant to be antagonistic or an overly-harsh criticism; however, it is an unapologetic call to action for being deliberate, on both the part of SGA and the general student body. The way forward in this process is conversation, and that is a two-way initiative. Students should be well informed by their representatives on what is going on. To that end, students should feel enabled — and are encouraged — to use their voice to speak to their SGA representatives.
This isn’t a magic trick. Still, I think students and the SGA can do wonders together.