The echo chamber now invites you to shout. Or so it seemed once Associated Student Government’s “Student Representation Forum” started rolling, and senators dug into President Claire Lew’s proposal to slice the Senate by more than half its members.
A bit more than 30 people attended the forum in Norris’s Lake Room Thursday night. Many were ASG senators, and five or six were reporters. The forum may have lacked ASG-unaffiliated students — but that was just fine for those in attendance, as the discussion quickly morphed into a small-scale word skirmish between supporters and opponents of the plan.
Here’s what to take away from the two-hour debate:
1. The plan in a nutshell: Lew and a handful of other students have been working since January on a proposal to reduce the number of ASG senators from 49 to 20, and to elect them all via campus-wide — or “at-large” — elections. That’s a big break from the current system, in which senators represent four major caucuses: dorms, Greek houses, off-campus residences and a limited number of student groups.
Lew said there are a few problems with the present system. For one, not all students have the same number of senators — the more student groups call you their own, the more representation you have. Second, there is no single process for choosing senators: Some are elected, some win approval from executive boards and others are appointed.
“It’s very subjective representation,” said Weinberg senior Ben Armstrong, the Political Union co-president who served on the committee that developed the proposal. He said he didn’t understand why ASG chose to remain a body of collected interest groups, rather than a democracy in which all students cast an equal number of votes.
There are 15 student group senators, and every student group that wants a seat must apply for it each year. Lew said the process “alienates and ignores” groups that are not chosen. “Who’s to say that one student organization is more important than another?” she said after the meeting.
2. What would happen to minority group representation? A number of the student leaders in attendance worried that cutting student group seats from Senate would lessen their access to student government. Weinberg senior Nissi Orgill, head of African-American student alliance For Members Only, opposed the proposal, saying she thought it would rob student group members of a “personal buy-in” with ASG.
FMO Senator Justin Clarke said linking senators with student groups ensured that students had a trusted advocate in government. “As a senator, I was elected from my constituency. They know me. I know them.” Some attendees feared that at-large elections would disenfranchise voters from smaller demographics — like African-American students and those active in theater.
Many students called 20 an “arbitrary” number of senators, saying that it would limit, rather than expand, voter representation. Weinberg senior Reed Wilson, the whip of the off-campus caucus, said that the current system ensures that every student has at least one senator to represent them. “Whether they take advantage of that representation is an entirely different matter,” he said.
3. No matter what you say about ASG, they still have your money. Top-level student planning is a crowded field. There’s the Undergraduate Budget Priorities Committee, which lobbies the university for funding on special projects — think Fran’s Cafe and the Saturday inter-campus shuttle. Then there are the student advisory boards, which work on each school’s curricula. And, of course, there’s Deru, plotting snowball fights, senior events and more from the shadows.
What makes ASG different? The power of the purse — yours, specifically. Each year, Senate distributes nearly $1 million in student activity fee money to fund student group budgets. A&O Chair and former ASG senator Barry McCardel called the job “one of the most important duties of the Senate.”
McCardel said he believes it’s vital to choose senators who know how to fund student groups. A&O and Mayfest, who share a senator, brought in more than $400,000 from ASG last year. “Many of the most involved, proactive senators come from student groups,” he said.
Given senators’ deep ties to their student groups, it seems unlikely that many would be happy to part so severely from the status quo. They stand to lose too much in a total remake of the system: representation, clout, maybe even money.
4. But supporters of the proposal could bypass the Senate entirely. Lew says she’ll be meeting with student leaders over the next few days to talk about the proposal. And she says she still wants to have legislation ready for Wednesday’s Senate meeting. She has consistently said that this proposal is merely that — an idea that she wants the Senate to examine.
Nobody has to look to the Senate at all, though. The ASG Code allows for bills to head straight to campus-wide referendum — that’s Section 608.4.3, if you care. All it takes is a petition of 200 undergraduate signatures. After that, the going could be easy. Armstrong believes that the student body, faced with a yes-or-no vote on the 20-member proposal, would choose to sweep away the current Senate.
Internally, of course, that could be a political disaster. ASG would trash its relationship with major student groups like FMO, A&O, Mayfest, NCDC and the theater boards — all of whom value their near-guaranteed senatorial link to student government. Not to mention the senators themselves, who would suddenly find themselves out of a job — and would have to explain to future employers why they landed on the wrong end of a minor campus revolution.
5. It’s not clear what people want to change. Armstrong certainly stands behind the proposal. For him, it’s about democracy — ensuring that all students have equal votes and equal representation. His ideal ASG Senate is a “popularly-elected Deru,” a small team of upperclassman student leaders chosen by the student body.
But other members of the committee that floated the proposal weren’t as certain, and there was even open disagreement among them during the forum. Most emphasized that they wanted the forum to be a discussion, and that all details were up for debate.
And that’s something even proposal opponents can get behind. Wilson, during the forum, advocated for reforming Senate from within the current structure. “What I would hate to see,” McCardel said, is groups checking out of the debate. He called for “a wider conversation about how ASG can be fixed in general.” As McCardel and others wrote in their letter to North by Northwestern on Wednesday, that means digging into the executive board and committees.
ASG’s fate may be at the mercy, then, of two groups: an executive board looking to reform Senate and a band of senators looking to restructure committees. The entire organization could be on the brink of revolution, or on the brink of nothing at all.