Student Assembly leaders seek reform, transparency

by Samantha Stern | 9/9/16 12:39pm

Student Assembly President Nick Harrington ’17 is no newcomer to politics. In addition to serving as the 2015-16 Assembly’s co-Chief of Staff, Harrington — a government major — has interned at both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the New York State’s Comptroller’s Office.

While working on Capitol Hill allowed him to broaden his knowledge of international affairs, Harrington said legislators debate grandiose subjects that do not affect Americans on a day-to-day level. At the Comptroller’s Office, however, Harrington found that small changes, when well-executed, could positively influence the everyday citizen. Harrington intends to bring this lesson to the Assembly.

“I want everything to be done thoroughly and effectively. I’m not just trying to check off a bunch of boxes,” he said.

Harrington sees his student body president role as one of reform. A key part of his campaign ­— and his chief concern and challenge — will be re-structuring the governing body to increase transparency, inclusivity and democratic values, he said.

Harrington and Assembly vice president Sally Portman ’17 plan to execute this vision by holding elections in the fall, concurrent with the elections that housing communities will hold for their own governmental boards. If successful, these elections would give members of each house the opportunity to appoint one sophomore, junior and senior to the Assembly, for a total of eighteen Assembly members.

Ideally, in the future, elections for these posts will be held in the spring alongside the presidential and vice presidential election, allowing Assembly members to spend the summer planning their agenda for the coming year, Harrington added.

Assembly members have traditionally been appointed by the student body president and vice president. Although nominees were required to submit applications, Harrington said that nepotism likely determined the outcomes. A letter on his newly-revamped Student Assembly website reflects Harrington’s disdain for this approach, which he decried as “fundamentally flawed,” “far from democratic,” “outdated” and “corrupt.” Portman said she shared similar frustrations.

Harrington and Portman believe the Assembly’s structure must be reformed before they can meaningfully tackle any undergraduate issues.

“At the end of the day, I want this senate [of elected members] to be the crux of what Student Assembly is. I don’t want it to just be Sally and I dictating what can and can’t be,” Harrington said. “Yes, you have to be leaders, but it’s not like you’re the organization itself. You’re a component of it.”

The Assembly leaders plan to use the polling application Pulse to gather student input on relevant issues. Harrington said the application — developed by Terren Klein ’17, Ben Packer ’17, Robin Jayaswal ’18, Sameer Bansal ’16, Gabe Corso ’17 and Avery Feingold ’17 — will give metrics to support the Assembly’s policy decisions.

“There’s too much word-of-mouth about what is and what isn’t. The administration has asked for data [and] that was the reasoning behind this approach,” he said. Harrington said he is especially interested in using the app to gauge student opinion on the College’s mental health resources.

Harrington plans to propose a number of other initiatives. For example, he would like a committee to examine the percentage for which final exams account for an overall grade across academic departments, and, dependent on findings, potentially propose a “final exam grade cap,” a measure which has been taken by peer institutions, he said.

He and Portman would also like to increase dining flexibility for students living off-campus, convene a Campus Safety Task Force, work to protect the non-recording option and streamline the funding process for undergraduate organizations.

Further, they plan to draw on ideas presented by last year’s other presidential candidates, including a proposal by Shivang Sethi ’17 to expand career services resources beyond finance and consulting.

Despite new ideas and his desire to build upon past initiatives, Harrington will ultimately grant the Assembly full discretion in deciding the most pressing causes of concern, another major change from years past, he said.

Assembly Chief of Staff Noah Manning ’17 believes that this bottom-up structure will grant more students the ability to have their voices heard, endow representatives with greater accountability and ensure that the Assembly’s priorities are aligned with students’ concerns, he said.

Manning lamented that as a member of the Assembly’s executive committee last year, he was one of four students responsible for making decisions on behalf of the entire student body.

“The fact that Frank [2015-16 president], Dari [2015-16 vice president], [Harrington] and I were in a room making decisions together was not fair to the rest of campus,” Manning said.

When asked about the Assembly’s role issuing recommendations apropos to the nationwide hot topics of free speech, safe spaces, trigger warnings and political correctness, Harrington said that though the Assembly will have its ear to the ground, the governing body “does not have anything to gain from talking in grandiose terms about political correctness or safe spaces.”

“My personal ideology is that, at the end of the day, we have an opportunity to learn from very smart professors and from really smart students at this school,” Harrington said. “Students must have a respect for others’ experiences, but at the same time understand that learning is in some way stepping out of your own shoes.”

During his own freshmen orientation, Harrington said he felt unaware, caught up in a whirlwind of activities. Reflecting on his time at Dartmouth three years later, he offered the Class of 2020 a few pieces of advice.

“One: talk to as many older students as you can about everything,” he said. “Two: make sure you can find balance in your college life. You have so much free time and so many options available to you with how you want to spend that time. Don’t get overly attached to any one thing.”

Harrington also recommended that at some point, the ‘20s take a class with government professors Daryl Press and Benjamin Valentino, who he called “fantastic mentors and wicked professors.”

Harrington won 612 of 1,556 cast votes for the five presidential candidates in April 2016, about twice the number of votes of runner-up Aaron Cheese ’18. Portman, who ran alongside Harrington, garnered almost 50 percent of the ballots cast for vice president.