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UA at a Crossroads

Guest Column
Christopher D. Smith

To Jaime Devereaux, Speaker of the UA Council:

The sun is dawning on a new academic term, and with it, the 32nd Undergraduate Association Council begins its fall session. The UA, like the very Institute itself, is at a turning point in its history. Recent successes have clashed starkly with new reminders of past flaws. You could prove to be the hinge upon which the broad door of opportunity swings wide to a bright future for the UA -- or instead flies shut, ensuring that the next several years will be ones of continued irrelevancy.

You are familiar with the mixed state of MIT student government. The Bad is unequivocal. Last spring saw the walls of UA credibility crumble beneath the stress of the second presidential election controversy in three years. June’s commencement proceedings expunged a vanguard of student leaders and activists, including key UA people like the indomitable Chris Rezek, Matt McGann, Lex Nemzer, Liana Lareau, and old sage John Hollywood.

The Good is similarly prominent. The student activist brain trust left the UA in its best institutional health since the 1980s. They brought refreshing order to the UA’s formerly ad-hoc operations. Beyond the UA’s mere administrative operations, the most outstanding achievement was its leadership in uniting the disparate student governance institutions, synthesizing goals and methods.

Despite last year’s reforms, the UA Council is still the most unfulfilled of the UA’s branches. Former Council Speaker Andrew Montgomery brought discipline and order to UA Council, transforming meetings from somewhat meandering portraits of administrivia to impressive forums of tight and relevant debate. However, much remains to be done. A casual look at the UA Constitution instructs that Council was intended to be the great nexus of the UA, binding executive vision and force to vigilant democratic deliberation and always acting with righteous authority. It cannot be said that today’s Council is that great nexus. The following are a few suggestions on what you must make happen to ensure that Council, and thus all student government, progresses to that ideal.

First, light a fire beneath UA Councilors. Montgomery and Vice-Chair Jen Berk necessarily spent an inordinate amount of time reworking the content and format of UA Council meetings so that Councilors would be encouraged to become more engaged. Though the reforms were quite effective in spurring Council attendance, they did nothing to penetrate the pronounced lack of courage and creativity most Councilors demonstrate with regard to initiating legislative action. Many members of UA Council have never drafted a piece of legislation; worse yet, many wouldn’t have a clue how to do so if they so desired.

What must be earnestly impressed upon Councilors is that they are not merely representatives but also integral parts of the governing apparatus. It is the speaker’s duty to connect with each dorm or FSILG delegation and to help them translate their observations of the needs and views of their constituencies into policy proposals. Opening Council’s eyes to their legislative responsibilities will prove to be your most pressing duty.

Second, assert UA Council’s independence. Recent history shows there has been a tendency for the UA Council to rubber-stamp executive initiatives. True, several major pieces of legislation proposed by President Matt McGann last spring stalled as they tried to make their way through the Council, but most observers would agree that that was the result of the inability of many Councilors to understand the issues being debated rather than their rejection of the legislation.

Don’t be afraid to make Council’s voice heard. Encourage councilors to submit “Sense of the Council” resolutions to express the views of the Council on major issues affecting the student body. Make it clear that they need not be limited to events happening at MIT. As the Gulf War began, UA Council made clear its disagreement with the move toward hostilities. In the late eighties, Council routinely spoke out against South Africa’s apartheid government and MIT’s affiliation with it.

Further, don’t wait for the President before you start interacting with officials in the Administration. As duly elected representatives, Councilors have a right to meet with people in the Administration; you should take the lead in setting up meetings between groups of Councilors and administrators so that they can interact directly. Also, take advantage of Council’s ability to set UA Committee agendas, by making sure that the issues and concerns of Councilors are being investigated by UA Committees.

Third, don’t be afraid to delegate. Your job is probably the toughest in the entire UA because you have responsibility for directly managing and organizing 21 other people. If you attempt to do everything by yourself, you will burn out and likely fail. Fortunately, you have lots of potential help at hand. Your Vice-Chairwoman, Zhe Scott, is a tremendous resource. She’s a strong, knowledgeable leader, and she will allow you to gain some distance from much Speaker-related administrivia. Also, talented councilors like the IFC’s Warren Ruder, Senior House’s Grace Kessenich, and Next House’s Victoria Anderson should be given opportunities to excel by leading some Council reform efforts.

Next, expand Council’s audience -- literally. During Spring elections, as candidates solicit votes, the question they encounter more than “What’s your platform?” is “What does the UA do?” More than a surprising inquiry, it is a uniquely profound statement that belies the poor job the legislative and executive branches of the UA have done in informing the student body about their own student government. Making UA Council meetings more accessible can go a long way toward banishing this question from the lips of students. One essential reform is to negotiate a contract with MIT Student Cable Television to broadcast all UA Council meetings live. In addition to all the inherent titillating features of live television, putting Council meetings on MIT cable could quite easily double or (with advertising) triple the number of folks who have more than a vague sense that a student government exists somewhere between Wadsworth and Vassar Streets. A second is to periodically change the venue where Council meetings are held. By bringing Council meetings to the areas where students actually live, the general student public gains greater exposure to UA Council and its activities. Nor would it hurt to have the UA Public Relations Committee to put up a few posters along the Infinite and across the Charles telling people when Council meetings being held.

Finally, get critical election reforms passed ASAP. The final Council meeting of the Spring saw Council elect to sit on its hands rather than decide on critical UA Elections related reform.

It is widely acknowledged that something must be done about the Election Code and its accompanying Procedures. For many, elections are a measure of the basic competency of government, and the fact that elections have been re-run in two of the past three years leaves them uninspired. In many places, the Election Code is obsolete and reflects a preoccupation with restraining ambitious candidates rather than producing lively, beneficial elections. You must do whatever it takes to pass fundamental election reform, taking a very personal role in arbitrating any obstacles that impede passage.

The importance of this year cannot be understated. Despite election difficulties, the 1999-2000 session was a banner year for the Undergraduate Association. Clearly, the UA executive branch experienced a potent rebirth, as did the Council under Speaker Montgomery. Much of this, however, can be attributed to an infusion of new energy spurred by recent alcohol and housing crises. Powerful questions hang in the air: can MIT student government function in the absence of crisis? Indeed, can it cast away from a lowly past, and sail defiantly for its own Columbia? Madame Speaker, your leadership will go a long way toward answering this question.