UPDATE: The previous SGO Constitution can be accessed at http://wayback.archive-it.org/230/20120413210441/http://swarthmorestuco.tumblr.com/
Co-president Josie Hung ’19, Chair of Student Life Ivan Lomeli ’19 and Senator Christian Galo ’20 resigned from Swarthmore’s Student Government Organization last week as the group debated improvements on its structure, communication, and efficiency. The body will hold elections for these open positions after winter break.
In an e-mail to SGO members announcing her resignation, Hung said she left the post for “personal and mental health reasons.” She also described her goals for the organization, which included making structural changes and increasing its inclusivity and ability to represent all students. Hung expressed frustration at the difficulty of achieving these goals.
“There are times when I was disappointed that the effort and time dedicated to pushing for these changes did not play out to the same degree in results,” she said in the e-mail. “However, I encourage people to still engage with these complex issues, no matter how difficult they are to address.”
SGO Senator Akshay Srinivasan ’21 echoed Hung’s call for persistence.
“I respect her decision,” he said, “and I hope we can carry on and enact the plans she had set out to achieve.”
Galo was also annoyed with SGO’s structure, which was one of his reasons for leaving. He expressed a desire for the group to experiment with other forms of team organizing. As a first-year in SGO, he said, it was unclear what his committee actually did, and he spent significant time discussing that. The Academic Affairs Committee, according to Galo, doesn’t have much power other than to make suggestions to the Chair of Academic Affairs, because the Chair is the only one included in the college committee meetings where the action actually happens. Galo was more interested in committee work than debating SGO structural politics.
“I felt like I was just sitting there listening to people deliberate on what it meant for SGO to do something,” he said about Senate meetings. “I don’t understand why I’m a necessary part of this conversation because I’m not saying anything.”
Last week, senators discussed the effectiveness of the organization’s use of point teams and committees to turn initiatives into the concrete proposals it submits to the administration. SGO is structured on a system in which senators appoint members of the Senate to committees covering different policy areas. These committees then meet and draft proposals advocating for a certain policy which can be sent to members of the administration. However, these committees have vastly differing obligations. For example, the Student Life Committee has only four members, but its responsibilities are vast.
“Anything that’s not sustainability or academics could essentially fall into student life: dining, dorms, everything else,” said David Pipkin, co-president of SGO.
This is what necessitated the creation of point teams, which are more informal teams — not listed on the website — created to deal with specific issues, like dining for example.
Appointing point teams on a voluntary basis, according to Pipkin, “makes more sense … because frankly, you have to advocate for things over a longer period of time, and you have to do it consistently, and having only four people do that for a wide range of issues isn’t a rational expectation.”
Srinivasan argued during last Sunday’s SGO meeting that the committee and point team system, as it exists now, takes too long to turn ideas into concrete results, and the fact that many of their directives overlap adds to the confusion.
“It becomes really convoluted when we try to create all kinds of teams to address problems and we don’t have a clear directive,” said Srinivisian. “It’s not necessarily that the committees aren’t effective, it’s just that it’s really hard to find a time to meet and then review for things that I think, personally, are very simple and we can do quicker.”
The body has created a Constitutional Review Committee to fix some of the structural flaws that give SGO the impression of being inefficient. Pipkin said that the document was put together hastily and has some practical issues that need to be addressed.
“SGO as an entity has in its construction deep flaws,” said Pipkin. “The SGO constitution … as it exists now was drafted because they lost the first one, so they did it hurriedly without really thinking through everything.”
One of the major problems with the document, according to Pipkin, was that Senate elections and the executive board elections take place in different semesters. Executive Board elections happen in March, but Senate elections six weeks into the fall semester so first-years could participate. Pipkin suggested that having Senate elections in April would allow the executive board and Senate to plan their initiatives for the next year and be ready to get to work on the first day of the fall semester.
“The fact that I have an executive board for four months of half student government is hobbling,” he said. “And then you have the added problem [that] you had the school year start later than usual.”
Also, while Senators are on the committees and have the power to vote on who is on those committees, the constitution doesn’t give the Senate any power to vote on amendments. All this power is given to the executive board. The Constitutional Review Committee is working to change this.
Srinivasan believes the new constitution needs to give the Senate more of a voice and include clear goals for each committee. A voting process for passing amendments should also be present, and the document should be four pages and easily readable.
SGO has put a focus this year on listening to different student groups and bringing their concerns to Senate meetings. While it has received input, Srinivasan believes it hasn’t been able to make big policy pushes because of the long lines of communication between the Senate, point teams, and committees.
Srinivasan said, “We try to get a lot of input, we’re hosting more events to get input, but the big thing isn’t that we’re not getting their views. It’s that we’re not actually able to act on them very quickly because if I went to visit SASA, they gave me something to do, and I brought it up in a meeting two weeks later, it would be sent to a committee and we’d do something in like March.”
SGO has also been focusing on being more transparent and communicating better with the student body, Srinivasan said. It has worked to increase the number of e-mails it sends out, and to be more transparent in its operations, especially when it comes to the charter process for new clubs. One of the reasons this is the case, according to Galo, is that many students just don’t care what SGO is doing.
Pipkin noted that part of this problem comes from the fact that Swarthmore has issues with communication in general. SGO is currently trying to use the TV screen in Pearson that displays notifications as a place to reach students.
Despite getting a late start to the semester and coming up against structural problems, SGO has lofty policy goals this year. These include striving for greater transparency, clarifying the club chartering process, and revising and simplifying SGO’s constitution.