Advertise - Print Edition

Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Reviewing the Review Committee’s actions

Published: March 19, 2010
Section: Opinions

Many of us are frustrated with Washington these days. We speak of broken promises and weak leadership, powerful lobbyists who control policy agendas and congressmen who run perpetual reelection campaigns. I have never worked in Washington, and I certainly cannot pinpoint the exact reason why voters have lost confidence in their representatives. But during the last four months, I have been a part of a smaller attempt to make policy changes right here at Brandeis. We were not discussing health care, unemployment, or a war in Iraq–instead, our charge was to look at the Student Union Constitution and suggest changes that would benefit the entire student body. The recommendations we made would then need to be signed by ten senators and approved by two-thirds of student voters. Like our Washington leaders, however, we fell far short of representing our constituencies.

The committee held regular meetings, but many of the members failed to show up. One alumni representative who lives in Washington, D.C., participated only once via webcam, and even then, she did not remain online for the entire duration of the meeting.

Of the committee members who made appearances, many did not represent the views of their entire constituencies, such as the representative for religious organizations and the representative of the intercultural community, both of whom represented a far more diverse constituency than they themselves could speak for. Overwhelmingly, only the representatives who had previously been active in the Union appeared knowledgeable about or interested in reform.

Some representatives started with big ideas. Get rid of the whole thing and start again. No more secured clubs, no more presidents, no more senate. Not surprisingly, these big ideas amounted to all talk and little action. Even at our final meeting, these representatives spoke of large changes, even after four months when they had failed to introduce any written proposals.

Other representatives mocked the entire process, arguing that students do not actually care about Union government and that nothing would change that reality. Instead of focusing on ways to make the Union more accessible, they delayed meetings with uninformed comments.

Committee meetings became a time to vent about problems with the Union rather than to make actual proposals. As is the case in Washington, everyone had a 30-second message, but few took the responsibility to see their ideas through to the end.

Of all the changes the committee proposed, the largest changes are to restructure the Student Union government and to vote by Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). The troubling aspect to these changes is that they met little resistance in the committee. Government restructuring had the backing of the entire Union Executive Board and IRV made intuitive sense (after all, most of the Ivies are doing it). Unfortunately, committee members were instructed not to share specific proposals with campus media, meaning that few students had any knowledge about these changes until recently. As a committee, we received no input about these proposals and heard no opposing viewpoints. No wonder the first change didn’t pass.

The committee should also have included more students in more debates. While we held multiple town meetings (mostly at 11 a.m. on Saturday mornings), we never held one to specifically discuss the position of Senator for Racial Minority Students, even though many in the Union government promised to do so at last year’s Union Judiciary trial. The title of Representative for Historically Underrepresented Races was introduced to replace the old title without engaging the community about the merits of either the position or the title.

As is the case with Washington politicians, blaming individuals for the failure of the group is difficult to do. I don’t blame the members of the committee who worked diligently to try to make substantive changes. Our committee received little advice from current Union members and no advice from former Constitutional Review Committee members, and many of us did not know what to expect. As the process moved on, what became apparent was that good ideas were being dismissed readily and the format was not conducive to a frank, inclusive discussion of issues. Then, time ran out.

Instead, I blame the process. Sit three people around a table and you might come up with one good idea. Sit a dozen and the process moves much slower. Then add some students yelling about how when they were speaking someone else cut them off and you get a wasted meeting.

Future review committees should follow these three simple rules: (1) Be inclusive of students, (2) require written proposals for everything, and (3) split up committee members into smaller groups.

As Americans saw at Obama’s health care summit, sweaty men sitting around a table can argue, but little gets done.

The only way to ensure a better process is to have honest, clear, and focused debates about issues that can be solved.