Woodward: The Potential of Deliberation

by Aylin Woodward | 5/18/15 6:38pm

Last week, I had the privilege of attending the annual Hanover Town Hall meeting as part of an experiential learning element for my class, “Democratic Theory” — we spent over three hours listening to debates over tax rates, multi-use bicycle paths and re-zoning initiatives as Hanover constituents engaged in their annual deliberations. Every person had an opportunity to speak, discussion was moderated and the sense of civic responsibility in the room was almost tangible.

This experience, though seemingly far from engaging, actually got me thinking about the applicability of such a town hall exercise to the Dartmouth community — and how it could yield substantive, collaborative results at a time when the constituencies on this campus could not be more divided. Putting aside the student-administrator schism, Dartmouth has a civic problem — we no longer have the means to bridge the ever-widening gaps between existing student niches. What if we were to lay a foundation for new bridges and construct mechanisms to re-forge the broken bonds amongst ourselves? I assert that effective student governance — incorporating maximum engagement and community deliberation via a town hall method — is the means to do so.

As the residential cluster system — one of the biggest changes from the “Moving Dartmouth Forward” policy initiative — slowly gains momentum, we can see the obvious potential for civic growth on campus. Future vice provost of student affairs Inge-Lise Ameer stated that house communities would have, in addition to a faculty presence, student governance. Therein lies the path to renewing campus political consciousness. We should disband Student Assembly — a defunct black box of an organization marred by dropping candidate numbers and voter turnout rates. It should be replaced by an “Intercluster Council” of representatives. Trade a president and vice president, with their Patagonia scandals and social justice dramas, for a group of students who represent a broader geographic and demographic slice of campus.

We should select five students — one from each class, plus one extra — from each of the six clusters to form a council of 30 representatives. Those representatives, who will rotate on a termly basis to prevent not only D-Plan difficulties but also the emergence of political hierarchies, should be chosen in a two-round process — first by lottery, then by voting on candidates within that randomly selected pool. Such a selection process would promote more egalitarian student participation in governance while mitigating the self-selection of candidates.

What should this Intercluster Council do? In order to engineer an effective student governance system across clusters, we should seek to create a body that emulates, but does not compete with, the Greek system. The representatives of each house should meet weekly on Sunday evenings, as well as host open meetings for their respective clusters Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. to encourage participation and discussion on cluster matters week-to-week in a transparent way.

But the most important duty of these representative boards should be to organize — if I can borrow from renowned political scholar Benjamin Barber — “Deliberation Day.” This would be a day with no classes, when every cluster would host a town hall meeting in which students could decide on representatives for the next term and discern which community issues deserve the most attention. Such meetings would maximize inclusivity and tap into the educative potential of political discussion. If students were allowed to make decisions on substantive matters like a mental health initiative, Student Event Management Procedures, sexual assault adjudication — things beyond intramurals or concerts — I suspect we would see an incredibly high turnout at the meetings as well as the growth of this school’s latent political culture, which is begging to be nurtured.

This termly Deliberation Day would be the arena for grassroots social change at Dartmouth, where all students could bring their voice to bear on the issues that matter most to them. The development of an active political culture in the vein of town hall meetings would contribute greatly to College President Phil Hanlon’s experiential learning initiatives, while also spreading information and creating civic solidarity on a campus that sorely needs it.