The Demise of a True Believer

by Nathan Bruschi | 8/19/08 3:01am

I was one of those "true believer" freshmen: excited, idealistic and eager as ever to do whatever work was thrown at me. I didn't just drink the Kool-Aid, I guzzled it. I got involved through the "freshmen cohort" during the Andreadis impeachment affair and in its aftermath wound up the Assembly's secretary. It was an exciting, if time-consuming, job: lots of gossip and exclusive meetings. It was like Gawker for Dartmouth administrative politics. At my term's end, I thought I'd give it another go-round and was elected treasurer, the Assembly CFO and second in line to the presidency. This past spring I was reelected, but quietly resigned instead. Let me explain why.

Bashing Student Assembly has long been popular among student commentators; as a former insider to the organization, I can confirm that those criticisms are well grounded. In fact, many of their examples are merely symptoms of a larger system failure.

First, Student Assembly has a crisis of mission. There were once were two competing factions: one that wanted to focus on advocacy and the other on services. Because people who like advocating for things and going to community dinners have more friends, they were elected to the top positions, thus displacing their opponents and setting the agenda.

In addition to the many arguments why student government based on advocacy would be ideologically undesirable ("What SA Can Do For You," April 11), it will inevitably fail for practical purposes. SA can pass all the statements its wants, but all it will get is lip service to the administration. If Parkhurst can say that change is on the way in order to placate students (when in reality it's not), they will. For example, many point to the College's decision to offer need-blind admissions for international students as a victory for student advocacy because it came after SA legislation asking for it.

As a leader in that cause, I can tell you that such is not the case. In reality, the College is very realistic in its policies and only went need-blind to stay competitive after Harvard and other colleges unveiled similar plans. Because students are only here for four years, administrators can afford to wait things out -- once the activists graduate, the problem for them goes away.

Student government based on advocacy is low-stakes poker: so boring and trivial that no one bothers to watch. This is a major problem, as SA does most of its recruitment by attracting freshmen to their meetings and giving them responsibilities. Potential SA participants realize that this process renders SA irrelevant and not worth their time. There is little satisfaction in being a bullhorn for whichever faction happens to hold you.

Second, the internal structure of Student Assembly suffers from rampant authoritarianism. Starting with the Travis Green administration, open discussions of ideas were systematically stifled in the name of "efficiency." Whenever a contentious issue came up, Green would ask people to Blitz in their misgivings for him to review personally and without the benefit of public forum. Even though many people would write in to explain the specific reasons why the plan would be disastrous, every time, low and behold, Green would report that everyone supported his position and the motion would be passed by acclimation.

If anything, Green's presidency proved what a remarkable leader Tim Andreadis was (I never thought I'd write that). He not only appointed committee chairs with whom he disagreed, but also recused himself during debates in which he had a personal stake. People flocked to Assembly meetings by the hundreds (I counted) because they felt like a part of the process, they knew their voices would be heard and their votes counted. Instead Green and subsequent leaders became the "one-man show/god" that the leadership poster in the SA office warns against. Almost flaunting the authoritarianism of his administration, Green personally appointed every member of every college committee instead of using the Membership and Internal Affairs Committee as the constitution demands. I know this because last year the MIAC didn't exist.

The leadership has grown to see Assembly procedure and its constitution as an inconvenience to be usurped whenever possible; because SA has been captured by a select group of bureaucrats that occupy the same positions year after year, this ideology persists. As Assembly leaders usurped the power of the General Assembly, the membership responded and all but a few freshmen left.

I realize that my candor here may jeopardize any future participation I may have with the Assembly. While such an outcome is unfortunate, it is acceptable if students can recognize why the system is broken and endeavor to fix it.

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