Let's Rethink COSO

by Dave Gacioch | 5/20/98 5:00am

A few weeks ago, The Dartmouth reported that the Council on Student Organizations -- which many of us know simply as "COSO" -- was considering new standards for student publications, including a ban on anonymously printed submissions and warnings about article content. Over the past few terms, we've all heard about COSO meeting to consider allegedly racist pieces in the Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern humor magazine and denying funding to Uncommon Threads for failing to submit its request on time.

COSO makes decisions that can have powerful impacts on the lives of Dartmouth students. The Council decides which student organizations and publications it will fund and how much money it will give them. It even reserves unto itself the power to decide which organizations are officially "College-recognized" ones, which in turn determines which organizations can have access to such perks as the ability to reserve College space and the ability to have organizational BlitzMail accounts. The Council possesses and allocates a budget of close to $75,000 each year, which comes from the student activities fee which we each pay. So, a group with the power to censor publications (through not providing them funding) and the power to recognize and not recognize organizations as it sees fit must be carrying out those duties on behalf of the student body, right? It must be charged with the preservation of the student body's intellectual well-being by some sort of democratic process, wouldn't you say? I mean, after all, they are our representatives, and they are spending our money...

Surprise, surprise, none of these are true. COSO members are not only not elected democratically, but they are not even required to obtain any sort of approval from the student body as a whole or the Student Assembly which represents it. COSO is composed of 16 student members and chaired by the Associate Director of Student Activities, Linda Kennedy. The students on COSO serve lifetime terms, so they bear no accountability to the student body through processes of reelection or re-nomination. To become a member of COSO, one has to simply wait until a seat becomes vacant. Usually, this happens at the end of each school year, as COSO members graduate, and new students are needed to fill their spots. When a seat does open up, one had better hurry if one wants to be a member, because all prospective new members need to submit applications for membership. Do you know who decides which individuals become members? You probably guessed it already: COSO itself. Imagine the United States House of Representatives conferring lifetime terms on its members. Now imagine that when one of those members dies or leaves office, the House takes applications from around the country and decides whom it wants to fill the vacant seat. Voila -- you have COSO.

Want to hear more? Now imagine that that same House meets behind closed doors -- all the time. That's right, no C-SPAN cameras to record the speeches made and votes cast; no Congressional record or gallery full of reporters to tell the citizenry about who is voting which way and what's being discussed. COSO does make public its final decisions, but debate is kept confidential. Ask a COSO member, and he or she may well tell you that this system works wonderfully. Sure it does, if you happen to be the one doling out the thousands of activities fee dollars while remaining protected from any accountability to those on whose behalf you are acting.

Many worry that a directly-elected COSO would be a white, male, heterosexual wash. They point to the recent Committee on Standards election in which the campus elected six white males to fill six open spots. They argue that such a COSO would not be sufficiently dedicated to the airing of multiple viewpoints or the sharing of diverse experiences. I readily join them in each of those concerns, but I don't think that they outweigh the necessity of democratizing COSO.

How are we, the students of a liberal arts college among the finest educational institutions in a nation conceived in democracy and self-governance, to support an institution which effectively tells us that it knows better than we do how to justly and correctly spend our money -- an institution which tells us that it knows better than we do what we should read in our campus publications? Creative minds can develop solutions which accomplish both the goals of accountability to the student body and defense of a wide breadth of viewpoints. No such solutions will be considered, however, unless we the students tell our representatives on the Assembly and those who oversee COSO that we shall not abide the current system.

Think about how you would feel if COSO decided tomorrow that it would not continue to provide funding to your organization or publication because it did not agree with the viewpoint that group expressed. Think about what redress you would have. As it stands, the answer to that question is "none."

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