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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Broken constitution to blame for Union senate woes

Published: October 21, 2011
Section: Opinions

The Student Union senate has lost the respect of the Brandeis campus.

It isn’t just 18 percent voter turnout in elections or uncontested races. It isn’t Senate Money Resolutions (SMR) requesting pizza for senate meetings or more votes for abstain and Mickey Mouse than real people. And it isn’t the invisibility of the senate’s work on campus.

The problem lies with the Union Constitution. While structural changes to the senate’s function may be difficult to implement, the potential benefits are well worth consideration.

A lack of interest

This past week, residents of the Mods and Charles River received an e-mail message from Union President Herbie Rosen ’12. “Next Monday, the Student Union will be holding elections for the Senate seats which represent your Quads,” Rosen wrote. “As of now, no one is running for either seat.”

What a humiliating e-mail to have to write, not for Rosen, but for Brandeis. Elected office should be seen as a privilege, something that students want in order to make their school a better place. Brandeis students are active in so many different facets of community life that indifference to the work of the Union cannot be the reason students choose not to run for office.

One problem is the lack of recognition of the senate’s work. In his e-mail, Rosen explained that work: “The Student Union isn’t just about Midnight Buffet & F-Board allocations—the Senators represent each class/quad advocating for renovations, supporting clubs, planning events and initiating changes in dining, housing & transportation.”

Rosen is right: The senate is not just about Midnight Buffet. But, to date, the senate has also not convinced students of its effectiveness and responsiveness to student concerns. Executive sessions of the senate, at which the press is asked to leave meetings, aren’t helpful in promoting the work of the senate.

If actions speak louder than words, the senate could gain greater recognition if students saw that it made a difference in their lives. The problem is that the structure of the senate makes this task difficult.

Toward a more perfect legislature

Today, the senate is far too large and has an unnecessarily broad mandate.

In spring 2010, the Constitutional Review Committee, of which I was an at-large member, proposed changes to the structure of the Union senate that would have fixed these problems. The student body unfortunately rejected the proposals.

I never blamed the students for that vote. Our committee had developed the ideas over a period of months, yet received no student input throughout the process and was not permitted to share any ideas with the student press. The process ensured that such a radical change to the Union structure had little chance of success.

But here’s a little known fact: Changes to the Union constitution don’t require a constitutional review process. Union leaders should consider reintroducing our plans abandoned a year and a half ago to finally bring real change to the senate.

The plans of the Constitutional Review Committee as developed by a team led by then-Union President Andy Hogan ’11 would first split the senate into two parts to create an Assembly and a Club Support Board. As explained in the committee’s proposal, the Assembly would be a smaller version of the senate and would no longer have quad representatives. The smaller senate would foster more competitive elections and would ideally allow senators to work more closely with administrators.

Although not proposed by the committee, other additional improvements would help strengthen the senate. Ideas include abandoning the Robert’s Rules of Order, which would be made possible by the smaller size of the Assembly, requiring open meetings to help foster community engagement in senate activities and barring the senate from using its funds for anything other than projects to benefit the community.

The other change that the committee proposed would be to remove the function of chartering and de-chartering clubs from the work of the senate and creating a new Club Support Board. Today, this idea appears particularly insightful given the recent increase in chartered clubs and the resulting decrease in available funds for clubs. A Club Support Board would work alongside clubs to ensure not only the appropriateness of financial requests but also the effectiveness of clubs in fulfilling their stated missions.

The Assembly and the Club Support Board are certainly not the perfect solution. But, with a lack of focus and direction in the senate today, the change would be welcome. Splitting the functions of the senate in two would focus the work of each legislative body, improving the efficacy of each.

It’s time Union leadership recognized that the current senate’s structure isn’t working. Fixing a broken system is one path; the other path—staying the course—will only perpetuate the senate’s increasing irrelevance.