Verbum Ultimum: Assembling, Better

Student Assembly must be a better advocate for Dartmouth students.

by THE DARTMOUTH EDITORIAL BOARD | 4/14/17 12:45am

Student Assembly elections are next week, and social media is buzzing with candidates’ promotional photos and posts. With the election comes the age old question: what exactly does Student Assembly do? What should it do? For an organization meant to be the voice of Dartmouth’s student body to the administration, Student Assembly has potential that is currently untapped and under-supported.

Last fall, Student Assembly used a large chunk of its budget to get students free online access to The New York Times. The cost came to over $12,000, but bringing high-quality journalism and access to reliable information to the entire campus is worth the price. This initiative is a valuable example of Student Assembly’s potential to provide us with something the College could, or would, not. Dartmouth does not have a direct online subscription to the Times, and the library’s FAQ suggests that students interested in accessing articles go through roundabout and often difficult-to-access online catalogues or databases.

This past year’s Student Assembly had less than $25,000 to spend on initiatives, which is a meager sum to support the entire student body for a year, especially considering the Undergraduate Finance Committee’s $1 million budget. Next year’s Student Assembly has roughly $44,000. Nonetheless, it cannot rely on its budget to make an impact for the student body. Instead, it should use its voice and bargaining power to enact change.

Student Assembly is one of Dartmouth’s only student organizations with a formalized, direct connection to the administration — as its Constitution states, one of its president’s duties is to “meet with representatives of the Dartmouth College President’s Office, Provost’s Office, Dean’s Office and the [Student Assembly] administrative advisor on a regular basis.” As a direct means of communication between the studentry and the administration, it can use this pipeline to voice concerns for the entire student body and help organizations and individuals gain administrative support they may not otherwise get.

One specific way to do this is to use referenda and polling to help campus groups gauge support for their own initiatives and to bring those that have enough backing to the administration. Many students care about initiatives but may not have the time to dedicate themselves actively to them. Divest Dartmouth is an example. Though the club itself is small and may not seem heavily supported at first glance, its rally this past spring was the most co-sponsored event in Dartmouth’s history and gained support from a wide range of student and community organizations. Though subtler methods such as unofficial referenda, electronic signatures and Change.org petitions may not have as much clout as large rallies, Student Assembly can use its publicity and direct connection to the administration to provide a platform for these smaller groups.

Those doubtful of the power of referenda and polling may point to Improve Dartmouth’s inadequacy — its recent ideas have few votes, and the club itself has little campus exposure. Yet there are some key differences. Improve Dartmouth’s members are chosen by application, not popular election, so it has less social and political clout within Dartmouth’s student body. With less of the visibility that comes with such clout, ideas on Improve Dartmouth are generally unable to gain enough student support to present to administration. Possibly most important, suggestions on Improve Dartmouth represent individual, not organizational, interest.

Student Assembly can leverage its position to advocate passionately for student rights. Although the proposed student Bill of Rights put forward by the administration of Frank Cunningham ’16 was ultimately never enacted, it represents exactly the sort of thinking the Assembly should be doing. Advocating for the students to the administration is the most essential function our student government can fulfill. As one of the few organizations truly student-run and student-selected through relatively transparent measures, the incoming Assembly has a responsibility to use its visibility, legitimacy and campus connections to provide a voice that other groups cannot.

The recently released platforms put forward by current candidates for president and vice president — Aaron Cheese ’18 and Austin Heye ’18, Garrison Roe ’18 and Sydney Walter ’18 and Ian Sullivan ’18 and Matthew Ferguson ’18 — show that some are aware of this potential. Sullivan and Ferguson focus on convincing the administration to advance the ideas of good character, communication and community and Cheese and Heye’s 87-word “statements of concern” touches on some policy concerns. Roe and Walter include a section on “[making] Student Assembly a Stronger Advocate of Student Voices.” All three tickets hope to provide students, especially those who are generally overlooked, with a stronger voice in important issues such as sexual assault and diversity. Though the platforms vary in depth and thoughtfulness, we hope that the eventual victors will take advantage of their access to the administration to create meaningful change.

The easiest way to help traditionally unheard students is to provide them a bigger platform on which to voice their concerns. Electronic forms may be one way to start. Allowing the entire campus to choose the initiatives to support through referenda is the next step. Actually bringing them to the administration is the final, and most important, part of the Assembly’s job.

But the election is the easy part — actually governing and remembering to continue to act as a voice for the students throughout the entire academic year, is more difficult. This past Student Assembly started off strong, with a website overhaul announcing clear goals and a commitment to accountability, yet its online presence has fallen off since last spring. Regardless of who wins the election, we hope that they will continue to serve as a voice for the Dartmouth community long after the ballots have been cast and the votes tallied.