Verbum Ultimum: Fix Student Assembly

Student Assembly fails to effectively represent students.

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 4/19/19 2:10am

On Monday, Luke Cuomo ’20 narrowly defeated Tim Holman ’20 and Sydney Johnson ’20 to become the next Student Assembly president. In what was one of the closest presidential races in recent years, the candidates proposed and defended their respective platforms at Monday night’s debate moderated by The Dartmouth. The candidates largely proposed similar solutions to long-standing campus issues, including the hiring of more counselors at Dick’s House and the adoption of the new United Sexual Misconduct Policy and Procedures. 

 Central to Monday’s debate was Student Assembly’s institutional agency. While all of the candidates proposed noteworthy goals, SA’s power to attain them is unfounded. Cuomo acknowledged as much in his remarks, saying “Ultimately, we [Student Assembly] do not make the decisions on this campus.” Every candidate conceded that administrative and financial power rests with the College’s Board of Trustees, a governing body in which SA has no representation or voting rights. This presents a clear disconnect between SA’s stated purpose — “to play an active role in shaping College policies and priorities” — and its de facto status as a body lacking administrative authority. 

Some of the power SA does have comes from the money it receives every year. The Undergraduate Finance Committee, which decides how much to fund SA, awarded SA a budget of $45,000 for the 2018-2019 year. SA can then choose how to appropriate these funds, as they did in buying student subscriptions to the New York Times. But that money isn’t always spent wisely. Some may remember when the UFC sanctioned SA in 2014 for spending nearly $2,000 on Patagonia jackets for its members. How that money gets allocated today is not made public on SA’s website. 

SA’s powers are limited, and that’s reflected in low student participation. No candidates, barring write-ins, ran for the open Senate seats in the East Wheelock and Allen Houses. North Park, South and West Houses each only had one candidate registered to run. Even the vice presidency remained unopposed. With over 1,700 people casts votes during this election cycle — meaning a turnout rate of about 40 percent — it’s telling that only a handful of students decided to run themselves. 

The elections process should be changed to allow for more campaign time. The current rules of the Elections Planning and Advisory Committee stipulate that candidates can only start campaigning eight days before the polls open. But eight days is not nearly enough time for each candidate to get his or her message out to the student body effectively, nor is it enough time for students to assess each candidates’ platforms and weigh them against the others. Increasing the campaigning time by even a week would be more fair for both the candidates and the students. Furthermore, the polls should open to students only after the presidential debate has ended. By opening polls while the debate is ongoing, students have little incentive to attend or watch the debate in its entirety — only around 50 students attended this year — thus undermining candidates’ time to engage with the public. 

SA needs to change if it wants to effectively represent the student body. For one, SA must be given representation on the Dartmouth Board of Trustees. Currently, Cornell is the only school in the Ivy League to give students voting power on its Trustees’ Board. This will make the system more democratic, giving students access to the school’s highest policy-making body. In addition, SA executives should be more transparent about their goals and expenditures. The outgoing administration has done a good job with this, creating a comprehensive website that gives progress reports on their long-term goals. This should remain as the standard upon which the incoming president and vice president should build. 

In its current state, Student Assembly has substantial room to improve. That’s not to say that it hasn’t accomplished anything. The outgoing administration has pursued some concrete objectives, including a pilot program offering Dartmouth Coach vouchers to low-income students. But with the right engagement from the College administration and active student participation, SA will finally have the potential to create real change.

The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, the production executive editor and the editor-in-chief.