What SA Can Do For You

by Nathan Bruschi | 4/11/08 3:11am

Services or activism? Which of these things would you like to get out of your student government? In his most recent column ("Relegitimizing Student Assembly," Apr. 7), Evan Meyerson '08 argued for the latter, stating, "The [SA] president must take positions on every important issue currently affecting Dartmouth students, understand the multifaceted social and political climate a student leader must navigate and become the ultimate student advocate." This answer is indeed a popular one on campus. When asked during the last Elections Planning and Advisory Committee debate, a majority of the candidates agreed with it. Even a cursory look at SA's structure and history, however, would reveal that of the few things the Assembly does well, student services -- not activism -- is paramount.

Chief among the fallacies surrounding an advocacy-based vision for SA's future is the idea that it is a representative body. While school-wide and class-wide elections clearly give Student Assembly and its two lovely new leaders legitimacy, the organization's bylaws grant voting membership to anybody who happens to wander into three consecutive meetings of the General Assembly. While I am not trying to question SA's ability to act in the interests of the student body, the reality suggests that the opinions felt among those filling the seats do not necessarily correspond to their peers who they nominally represent.

The Assembly is often only able to advocate for one position at the expense of another. The students who are dissatisfied with the positions taken by the GA through its legislative statements will increasingly see it as unrepresentative or irrelevant, and the number of them will certainly increase as GA is forced to comment on every single campus issue. In addition to being thoughtful, likeable people, Molly and Nafeesa were elected because voters trust in their judgment and agree with the nuances of their platform. But forcing them to adopt roles as chief advocates bent on strict campus representation ignores their mandates and the point of having elections for the position.

Once SA does take a position there is the issue of follow-through. Say that SA passes a statement advocating a certain view or asking that the administration take a particular action and nothing happens. SA would then be seen as ineffectual. Most things that SA would be asking for, just because it has to ask for them rather than act independently, are things that are hard to accomplish and thus would likely achieve this result. Statements demanding something from the administration, while giving 'advocates' in the Assembly greater credibility in asking for change, also breeds an us-versus-them mentality that administrators resent. Far more can be achieved through personal diplomacy that is unfelt in the General Assembly and unseen in The Dartmouth.

Many other organizations are much better situated to deal with issues of advocacy for their niches. Cultural and religious groups are better able to feel issues affecting their specific memberships than SA, which might be isolated from the problem and slower to take action. Only in cases where individual groups are unable to effect change on their own -- like the swim team trying to appeal the College's decision to dissolve it a few years ago -- or where campus opinion is in universal agreement would SA be the most effective option.

Lastly, Dartmouth students are smart and freethinking and don't need or want to be preached to by their student government. Unlike The Dartmouth Editorial Board, columnists or this particular writer, the SA is not tasked with opining for the masses. If there is ever a truly pressing matter, SA can always work to make campus more informed and let students draw the conclusions.

Ask anybody what SA does and you'll probably get the course guide, readership program, Blitz terminals (until recently), buses over break periods, take-your-professor-to-lunch and maybe course book lists and syllabi: all student services. In fact it seems like everything that helps SA boost its reputation on campus is a service. If SA and its new leaders wish to help relegitimize it, the Assembly should go back to basics and do what it does best.

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