SGO changes, comparable to peer institutions

The most recent round of student government elections included a vote on the amended SGO constitution that more than tripled the size of the body and created new positions for the core Executive Board members. With the changes, SGO is now more in line with the student governments of comparable schools, many of which are similarly structured and wrestle with similar issues. 713 students cast their vote to ratify the Constitution, which passed with 92 percent support.

The old Student Council was comprised of ten students, each of whom filled a specific position or represented a particular category of issues, such as campus life, educational policy, and student events. The areas of campus life that StuCo directly impacted did not explicitly include representatives of any particular affinity groups, instead lumping all groups into policy sectors like campus life and student organizations.

The newly-ratified constitution eliminates Student Council and replaces it with a dual-body organization known as the Student Government Organization, which houses a 12-member Executive Board and a 22-member Student Senate.

The Executive Board will have a similar makeup as the previous Student Council, with slight modifications. The position of Chair of Financial Policy has been eliminated; a new Chair of Diversity replaces one Student Life Policy representative; and the chairs of the Social Affairs Committee and the Student Budget Committee are now included in the Executive Board. The Senate, besides electing 16 people to represent specific class years or serve in at-large roles, will have six direct affinity group delegates, on behalf of the Black Cultural Center, Greek life, the Intercultural Center (two senators), the Interfaith community, and the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.

Comparable schools’ student governments are not necessarily as large as the new SGO, but they often are more visible in campus activities. Particularly relevant are student governments at Haverford and Bryn Mawr, both of which hold Plenary twice a year. Plenary is the name for the mass student body meeting that occurs every semester, in which students discuss, amend, and vote on their student code constitutions.

At Haverford, the Student Council is a 19-person organization with representatives from many facets of campus life, including diversity, athletics, and the arts. The body’s most visible impact on the school’s policies comes during Plenary. Plenary has a quorum of 50 percent, meaning that at least half of the student body must show up and participate for any policy changes to be valid. Haverford’s system is a unique example of direct participation and significant interaction between student body and government, in which the campus is heavily invested in and directly responsible for the policies that govern them.

Students and organizations on campus describe Plenary as a vital piece in uniting the campus and in practicing individual participation. “Plenary is an important part of the student self-governance process at Haverford,” Marcus Firmani, a member of the activity-promoting group Havertivities, said in an online blog post.

“How well we can work together — even (in fact, especially) through our differences — to make and keep this community strong is a sign of how effective we will be at leading and making a difference in the various fields we go into when we graduate,” he said.

Bryn Mawr, the third arm of the Tri-Co, engages in its own Plenary process, run by a 37-member group that calls itself the Self-Government Association. The name itself implies the importance of individual representation and student activity in policy-making. Bryn Mawr, with the association’s founding in 1892, was the first U.S. college to give a student-run organization responsibility for overseeing campus rules, behavior, and enforcement.

“Most Bryn Mawr students and alumnae cite self-government as one of the most valuable parts of a Bryn Mawr education,” the SGA mission statement notes.

Haverford and Bryn Mawr are unique structures of student government; their doctrines of self-governance and collective participation are tied to their Quaker roots. Most colleges have organizations that are less powerful. While government sizes vary, there is a general trend towards large numbers of positions within student boards and legislative bodies. However, these schools also suffer from major problems with campus detachment from government policy — an issue that is also salient at Swarthmore.

At Amherst College, no fewer than 47 students are directly involved in student government. Its three-branch structure, analogous to the U.S. government, includes eight senators per class, an executive board, a judiciary council, and even a presidential cabinet. Their organization was designed about a decade ago, apparently with some analysis of the Swarthmore system at the time, although it is unclear in what ways Swarthmore’s Student Council influenced Amherst’s.

Students at Amherst often lack knowledge of the role of its government in campus affairs. “Students are still genuinely confused as to what exactly the AAS does other than handle bureaucratic budgetary issues,” a 2011 Amherst Student article noted, well after the new organization had been created.

The government council at Williams College is a body of 26 people, serving as class representatives and in positions that are quite similar to the new Swarthmore SGO Executive Board. Like Amherst, the Williams system suffers from minimal participation and engagement with their government. A 2012 Williams Record editorial asserted, “The lack of student participation in the election process and in student government in general is concerning.”

In general, comparable colleges that do not have events or policies directly connecting students to their governments struggle with participation and interest levels. However, one of the unique aspects of the new SGO constitution, as compared to the structures at other schools, is the appointment of direct representatives for specific affinity groups, campus centers, and other organizations. Very few schools include such targeted representation and focus more on increasing the number of class senators.

For SGO, the hope is that the expanded size of the governing body and the variety of representatives voicing group interests will entice greater engagement from the student body as a whole and create more effective policies impacting all students.

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