Swarthmore’s Student Government Organization voted to add a new speaker of the senate position to its executive board at the end of the Fall 2016 semester. This change to the constitution, which required a two-thirds vote of the executive board, will create a position that will aid SGO’s senate in having productive and efficient meetings. The position was created with both the long term aims of making SGO more representative of the student body as well as the short term aims of making SGO more productive.
SGO’s constitution was ratified in 2014 and the speaker of the senate amendment is meant to fulfill some of the organization’s goals. In the long term, the change meant to continue the improvements made by the college after the Spring of Discontent. The Spring of Discontent references the high emotions felt by many groups on campus during the Spring 2013 semester as the college attempted to respond to a number of issues, including urination incidents on the door of the Intercultural Center, incidences of sexual assault which led to Title IX and Clery Act complaints as well as a referendum to change or abolish Greek life. While not an inclusive list of all of the issues that contributed to the discontent, the overarching complaint of the Spring of Discontent was that students were not properly heard by the administration.
The intent behind the creation of SGO, formerly a ten-member student council nicknamed Stu-Co, was to make student government more representative of the student body and to increase student involvement. The amendment creating the Speaker of the Senate position is meant to accomplish the same goals, according to SGO Co-President Benjamin Roebuck ’17.
“The [change] allows greater expression and representation from the senate, which empowers class representatives and at-large senators to do the work that is in line with […] why the current structure of student government came about, in the wake of the Spring of Discontent [and] the lack of representation [that students felt], […] to give a stronger voice to students,” he said. “[Adding the Speaker of the Senate] codifies that, brings [the duties] into a singular organizing position, so there is someone who can directly represent senators on the executive board.”
Roebuck also described what the role of the Speaker of the Senate would be during meetings and indicated that the position’s purpose would be to make meetings efficient.
“The duties of Speaker of the Senate are to work with the co-presidents, shepherding referendums [and] agenda, [and] generally directing the meetings,” he said.
The Speaker of the Senate position is intended to make SGO more productive and more representative. However, it is unclear to many students what SGO does and how the organization works. Gabi Rubinstein ’20 expressed that what SGO does is unclear.
“I don’t really know how [SGO] works … that might be on me, but I haven’t seen much going on [from SGO],” said Rubinstein.
First years are not the only members of our community who find that they are unsure of what SGO does. Bilige Yang ’19 expressed that SGO’s job on campus was unclear.
“I have no idea what SGO does,” he said.
Junior Daniel Park ’18 has had more interaction with SGO but concluded that the organization carries little power within the college.
“SGO is part of Swarthmore’s, perhaps symbolic, commitment to having student voices heard in the college decisions […] the college does a good job of listening to students overall but when it comes down to it [SGO] is powerless,” he said
The lack of clarity in the constitution about SGO’s authority, to do besides creating its own organizational structure, may contribute to this as well. Adding the speaker of the senate position may solve SGO’s internal issues, but does not immediately make the role or power of SGO more clear.
Student senators expressed that the Speaker of the Senate position would improve SGO. At-Large Senator Lauren Savo ’20 described the function of the Speaker of the Senate and is optimistic about the change.
“My understanding is that it is supposed to give us senators more of a voice in the SGO environment. The Speaker of the Senate’s job is to be the buffer between the executive board and senators … SGO this year is very big on trying to hear the voices of everyone and represent everyone [and] trying to make SGO more of an efficient organization, [the Speaker of the Senate] is a step in that direction,” she said.
Class of 2019 Senator Gilbert Orbea ’19 noted the issues with the current structure. The executive board, the co-presidents, and the student senators were not communicating as effectively as the members of SGO wanted.
“A noted difficulty [was] in the way that the senate, as a group of students who are supposed to collaborate … the three bodies [student Senate, the executive board, and the co-presidents] were interacting in a way that wasn’t as smooth as they could be … [it] felt discombobulated. I have felt this since last year, [that there are] serious issues with retention of senators and a high turnover rate. Meetings lack brevity when they need brevity, and lack depth when they need that,” he said.
However, Orbea is optimistic about the change and listed some of the benefits he expects from the addition of the speaker of the senate position.
“[The change will cause] more efficient meetings, the senate body [will have] a go-to person … [and the speaker of the senate will] leverage power of the senate to balance the co-presidents,” he said.
The class of 2019 senator went on to say that he wants the Speaker of the Senate position to be instituted as soon as possible.
“I hope that we have an emergency election [to elect the speaker of the senate] this semester,” Orbea said.
The speaker of the senate position aims to make SGO more productive, and many are optimistic that it will accomplish this goal. The change adds an additional level of bureaucracy to SGO. The effects of the Speaker of the Senate will be unclear until after the election is held and the position is officially instituted.