CAMPUS CENTER BASEMENT, room 163, March 10. The Wednesday night meeting of the Student Senate, the legislative body of the Student Government Association, is slated for seven o'clock, but at 7:15 there is still much milling about. By most accounts, SGA meetings have been sleepy affairs for the past several years. Spectators are advised to come girded with strong coffee and an appreciation of protocol for protocol's sake. The evening's agenda notes that this is the 1,133rd regular meeting of the SGA but who's counting?
Tonight, however, there's a palpable buzz in the air as senators and spectators gather. Little groups of three and four cluster together discussing last week's meeting and subsequent events. The administration's announcement in late February that it would reduce the consideration of race in admissions had roused the SGA like a fire alarm, and last week's discussion of where the senate should stand on the matter had quickly turned ugly, personal, and loud. Now some of the fifty or so senators are rehashing the highlights as they settle into their seats. "I just can't believe the Collegian printed the actual word `motherf____r,'" says a cheerfully shocked senator from Orchard Hill, Asif Sayani `01, unpacking the chicken fajita wrap and the giant vat of cola he's brought with him from the Bluewall. To accommodate the larger-than-usual crowd expected this evening for with students marching through Whitmore and blockading entrances, this issue is far from resolved the meeting has been moved from the usual small room across the hall to this larger one.
Yet somehow this week's meeting never reaches the anticipated crescendo. For one thing, it's election time. In the next couple of weeks, students who trouble themselves to vote a number that rarely exceeds eight or ten percent of the student body, and at times hasn't reached the five percent required to legitimize the results will cast their ballots for the offices of SGA president and student trustee, who serve their one-year offices from spring to spring. (The senators serve from fall to fall.) As the meeting gets underway, candidates rise and recite the reasons they deserve support. In general, they are a colorful and loquacious bunch, these candidates, boundless in their indignation at the ways in which students are being wronged: high tuition, unjust treatment by campus police, and of course, changes in admissions procedures on which they were not consulted. (The SGA eventually called for a moratorium and a campus-wide debate on the changes. The administration responded that admissions standards and practices were its responsibility, and that the changes could not be delayed.)
Some of the candidates have come dressed for the occasion. Presidential hopeful Jim Eltringham `01 is suited up in a crisp three-piece pinstripe á la corridors-of-power. Some candidates read prepared speeches, others extemporize. In a popular gambit that may be crystallizing into tradition, some complete their appeals by showering the assembly with candy.
If big ideas for radical change are what you're looking for, Campus Center 163 on March 10 is not the place to find them. The candidates trot out campaign promises that, modified slightly for political race and place, could be used by any office-seekers anywhere. They vow to deliver an "SGA that's there for the student," a "more user-friendly UMass," a "careful examination" of alcohol and parking policies. Except for one black woman and one Asian man, the candidates are all white and all male considerably less diverse than the group before them. Despite a lot of passion and a certain amount of flash, you can see why SGA has a reputation for creating a great deal of sound and fury signifying well, if not nothing, then nothing the average student knows or cares much about.
ACCORDING TO SOME of its defenders, SGA's woes can besummed up in one thought: youth wants to share the reins of power, and age loosens its grip only with reluctance. "There's always been a great deal of contention about the student role," says Manuel Ricardo "Rick" Townes `74, who as assistant vice chancellor for student affairs is one of the SGA's main links with the administration.
Student government has existed for decades, of course, but it wasn't until 1994 that powers were formally delegated to it by the UMass Board of Trustees. Trustee ratification of the SGA constitution seemed to give students the equivalent of a megaphone with which to reach adult ears or a crowbar with which to exert real leverage. The document that Townes believes empowers students to shape policy gives the SGA responsibility for "services and activities which are designed primarily to serve students or those which are financed primarily by students." The SGA is charged with overseeing the non-academic affairs of UMass's 18,000 undergrads: as one student put it, "everything that takes place outside the classroom." Its jurisdiction ranges from housing to parking, health services to dining commons fare. In Townes's view, it also includes advising the administration on such things as admissions. It is this document, in any case, that student leaders invoke when they feel they're being blown off in matters that concern them.
Like other governments, SGA has executive, legislative, and judicial branches, and a passel of committees and subcommittees. The senate, as noted, is the legislative branch, and its approximately eighty members represent an average of 250 students each. The executive branch, headed in 1998-99 by President Salwa Shamapande '00, includes a cabinet containing the titles Secretary of Administrative Affairs, Secretary of Finance, Secretary of Registry, Secretary of Public Policy and Relation, Secretary of University Policy, and Attorney General.
Radiating out from the various branches are committees that deal with internal affairs (e.g. Rules and Ethics), and ones that focus on decisions made in the Whitmore Administration Building (e.g. University Policy). Residential area governments and off-campus or "commuter" students also fall under its aegis. So does the student trustee, elected by undergraduates as their representative at meetings of the university's board. Unless you got an A in civics, it's a lot to wrap your mind around: SGA newcomers are issued a byzantine flow chart representing the structure of power campus-wide, from the chancellor's office to the lowliest snack bar.
The SGA has been active in recent years in internal issues such as voter registration and demanding ATMs in Southwest; student leaders are also generally to be found, as Shamapande was in this spring's demonstrations against changes in the admissions process, at the forefront of issues that trigger wider student activism. Student leaders want to be seen as a force for change, a champion of interests they consider to be in constant jeopardy. In the minds of many rank-and-file students, though, they are mostly a source of money. The senate allocates a budget of $1.4 million among some 250 registered student organizations, or RSOs. Senators say their constituents rarely know how they voted on eradicating Saturday exams, but make a beeline in their direction when their projects need cash. Asif Sayani, who sits on the Ways and Means Committee, says he's constantly being buttonholed by peers saying, "How can my group get more funding?"
While the SGA chafes under the image of glorified piggybank, its members often feel frustrated in trying to pursue wider issues. While they say that some administrators and trustees are receptive and accessible, from others they get the message that decision-making is for grown-ups. Townes clearly shares students' belief that they're often brushed aside. "There isn't any other trustee policy that would be ignored like the SGA constitution," he said this spring. In Townes's opinion, this is classic generation gap: "Some people are threatened by the idea that students should and could have a say in policy making."
Despite the Us vs. Them attitude, SGA is set up to work closely with the administration. Motions passed by the senate are brought by the speaker to Javier Cevallos, the interim vice chancellor for student affairs, who forwards them on to colleagues who ponder whether they can be supported by the upper echelons. The administration has twenty days to respond yea or nay to student motions. The answer was "nay" to SGA's motion for a moratorium on admissions changes. (Faculty members in Afro-American studies and social justice education also called for a moratorium.) But the "nay," notes Cevallos, was accompanied by a request for student participation in a task force on minority recruitment and retention.
Even if the perception is otherwise, and even if SGA is sometimes belittled by its own constituents, student government is taken seriously by the administration, says Cevallos: "If we didn't take them seriously, we wouldn't allow them to manage millions of dollars."
A CONVERSATION WITH outgoing student trustee Ellie Court `99 contains echoes of both Cevallos's and Townes's views. For instance, Court says students have long wanted a say in setting budget priorities, and that Chancellor Scott "opened a huge door" last year by allowing SGA to review the campus budget. When asked what student recommendations had resulted in changes, though, Court says student involvement has so far been mostly "an informational step and getting background on how the budget is made." Court, who has spent much time in boardrooms in the last two years in her roles as student trustee and liaison to the Board of Higher Education, says she understands both official reluctance and students' frustration. "There's a place for input, but eventually the decisions are made at the upper levels of the university."
Court was able to use her access to those upper levels to defuse, at least to a limited extent, the furor over the administration's decisions on admissions. Feeling that "communication breakdown" was imminent, she phoned chairman Robert Karam to urge trustees to include students in talks. Karam subsequently came to campus twice from Boston, meeting first with about fifty SGA members and others, later with a smaller group. Court, a biology major who departs UMass for medical school in May, said Karam's receptiveness to students was out of the norm, and gave students hope that they will be truly valued as members of the admissions task force. (New SGA president Jeffrey Howe `00, elected in a 13 percent turnout of the student electorate in March, says that he and others have since met with the chancellor, and confirms that things are feeling more inclusive.)
However modest the student electoral turnouts, Court does not believe that UMass undergraduates are either apathetic or indifferent to politics. Plenty of young people passing in and out of the Student Union last month paused to talk with the stoop-shouldered student distributing the latest Socialist Worker; it was the hustle of student campaign workers that brought a round of the gubernatorial campaign debates to UMass last fall. But students do feel powerless, says Court, and they are often impatient with the pace of change.
For example, says Court, students have been demanding for two decades that teaching evaluations be published. This, they feel, would be a democratic way to find out who gives good lecture. Faculty, concerned with privacy and the pressure to be crowd-pleasers, have been cool to the idea. Yet during the last round of collective bargaining a year and a half ago, students got part of what they wanted: approval of a pilot web site for posting evaluations. Court says her goal is to make the issue a priority in future bargaining.
Incremental progress toward long-term goals is not very satisfying to the short-sighted or the hasty. And that, offered Court, may explain why many young people, at a stage in life when instant gratification matters most, get discouraged at the spectacle of their own elected officials, apparently pointlessly mired in the minutia of governance.
THE VERY LANGUAGE of governance drones. Roll call. Quorum. Motion. Majority. Minutes. Report. Point of parliamentary inquiry. "Whereas," "be it enacted," "be it further enacted." This is the language of peers in powdered wigs or of besuited representatives in our state and national legislatures.
But it is also the language spoken in the basement of the Campus Center every Wednesday night, and in countless meetings held all over campus the rest of the week, throughout the academic year. Democratic governance is nothing if not a formal process, a ritual choreographed to keep human discourse moving forward without devolving into hand-to-hand combat in the aisles.
Thus, the door of the meeting room becomes a kind of archway into a whole new level of relationship. Students whose names are Amy, Brandon, and Matt out in the hallway cross the threshold and become the senators Pelligrino, Beane, and Dailey. "The floor is given to Senator So-and-So," says Lisa Cook `99, a bright and perky economics major who becomes "Madame Speaker" when she presides at the podium. She is still perky, but her face takes on a sterner mien when she pounds her gavel.
Overall, SGA meetings feel like gatherings of sharp, sincere young people with a genuine respect for process. Some of them sailed into UMass student government from similar pursuits in high school. Others report that the SGA was the first peer group in which they really felt at home. One, newly-elected student trustee Seth Avakian `99, came to the university with only an academic interest in politics; as a freshman he lived on the John Adams "PoliSci floor." But when Avakian learned that R.A.s were doing room sweeps during fire drills officially to make sure all residents were out of the building, but also to check for missing lounge furniture, one R.A. told him he became indignant and brought the matter to the SGA. After he became a senator, he watched his motion to ban room sweeps pass into policy. "After that I was hooked," says Avakian.
Asif Sayani, the senator from Orchard Hill, says that inexpert English kept him from being anything like popular in high school. His family had moved from Pakistan to Texas, and his naturally garrulous personality suffered in the transition. At UMass he quickly found his niche as a house councilor; his peers in Grayson sought him out to gripe about food in the DC, lack of paper towels in the bathrooms, and the channel selection on campus cable. It was a kind of human connection Sayani liked. Friendly and talkative, playful to the point of being frequently shushed in meetings by "Madame Speaker," he seems genuinely concerned with helping. He sits on two SGA committees as well as the Library Research Council, where his pet project is extended hours during exam weeks.
In the face of extremely tight operating budgets at the library, a meeker person might decide that an item with a $7,000 pricetag had no chance. Not Sayani. He has sought funding high and low, appearing before the Faculty Senate and writing ardent letters to state legislators Stan Rosenberg and Ellen Story to explain how extended hours would help students. And of course he's appealed to his fellow senators.
To the average student tossing a frisbee by the Campus Pond on the first warm days of spring, Sayani's efforts are invisible and perhaps quixotic. But he says such students don't understand how much power they really have if they're earnest, thorough, and relentless. "I don't have a cent yet," Sayani said sunnily in April. "But I still have a couple of weeks to do it."
IF HIGH SCHOOL GOVERNMEN tends to draw the popular kids, college student government seems to produce an amalgam of the beautiful and the nerdy. As in any public forum, there are also the glib and the long-winded; there are rivalries, power plays, verbal feints and parries, philosophical divides. SGA veterans say that under the ceremonial surface petty feuds simmer, and erupt during times of stress such as this spring's admissions crisis.
Some blame these unattractive aspects of student government on a uniquely contemporary partisan zealotry, but maybe it's just human nature. Watching student senators rise to challenge their peers on the legitimacy of a vote or to bicker over a line item, the spectator does have a sense that some of these people might benefit from lightening up a little. Yet on the whole the student leaders seem a likeable bunch and a trustworthy one; and it is good to know there are young people taking their jobs as guardians of the student purse-strings and the student interest this seriously. The mind reels at the thought of the time they devote to it: the most heavily involved describe SGA as a full-time job minus an income. "The joke is, if you're in student government, you don't graduate in four years," says outgoing speaker Cook (who herself did just that, however).
This particular brand of campus citizenship is not for everyone. In fact, to judge from the numbers involved compared to the numbers who take part in demonstrations, or in less centralized activities, or in unorganized pursuits it's for hardly anyone. But the sincerity of the student leaders is manifest, their devotion is admirable, and you are glad they are here. You find yourself making mental notes of names, wondering if you'll see them on campaign signs around the commonwealth ten and twenty years down the road.