When the Associated Student Government passed a bill on April 29 to support Roxana Saberi, a Medill alumna imprisoned in Iran, some may have raised an eyebrow. Why would ASG focus its efforts on an issue so removed from daily student life?
But the members of ASG have been discussing and passing judgment on national and international affairs since the organization’s start in 1969.
Barely a month after its creation, ASG issued a resolution in May of 1969 to officially support a local march in protest of the Vietnam War. The idea of speaking out on larger political and social issues stuck. In subsequent years, our elected student officials have passed legislation ranging from a 1971 bill criticizing the draft, to a 1972 offer of aid for refugees in Bangladesh, to a condemnation the September 11 attacks.
For professor Mark Witte, who has been involved with ASG for nine years, just because some ASG bills call for action beyond Northwestern’s borders does not mean that they are irrelevant to students.
“Vietnam directly pertained to students,” Witte said. “People got yanked out of school. It relates to students directly, certainly, in the sense that students are in the United States, and what happens on the national level rebounds to everyone at the local level as well.”
According to ASG Senate Speaker Samir Pendse, resolutions with national or international focus usually don’t originate from the Senate itself, but from students outside of ASG.
“It’s not something that we seek to do unless it’s a special case like the Saberi case,” the Weinberg junior said. “In the event that it comes before us, we sometimes decide to say yes, we will take a stand or sign on to it for something that we feel strongly about.”
But these resolutions aren’t just for show. ASG has generally included in the resolutions, in addition to its basic opinion, more practical ways of showing support. Most notably, the senate created an ad-hoc committee to focus on divestment from the apartheid regime in South Africa. But most resolutions have either allocated a money to go to foundations or to help students attendi rallies, or have encouraged members of ASG and the Northwestern community contact their state representatives.
But even as early as the Vietnam War, students have questioned ASG’s ability and authority to pass legislation on issues outside Northwestern. On Oct. 29, 1970, a bill passed two weeks earlier endorsing “anti-war activities” was revoked because of the “lack of consensus within the student body.” There were several instances of senators calling for the passage of an “extraneous resolutions” policy limiting non-campus-related legislation, but these efforts never led to much.
For Witte, even if ASG’s actions on national and international issues stay in the realm of symbolism, they are still important.
“ASG exists to handle lunch pail and pothole fillings, and sort of prosaic day-to-day things, and to some extent, it exists to allow students to speak with one voice on important issues, be they university or Evanston, national or in the world,” he said. “I think it’s symbolic, but symbolism can be important. Martin Luther King’s ['I Have a Dream’] speech, what was that but symbolism? It’s articulating a sense of how the world should be.”