Editor’s Note: The UA passed a restructuring bill last night, after the deadline for this column.
Near the end of last semester, the UA decided to look at restructuring the undergraduate student government at MIT. I wrote last year about the process that followed, which was plagued by underhanded tactics and dirty politics by those in charge. The committee reviewing the proposal was not allowed to do its job, and the UA leadership, which regularly demanded huge amounts of time from the administration to review policies, decided to try to restructure the entire government in a matter of weeks. Needless to say, the process was deeply flawed, and many stakeholders had reservations about the result. Luckily, the proposal was defeated, and it was decided that a new committee would be formed to look at restructuring and develop a new proposal, which the Senate would vote on in the fall.
Why restructure the government at all? There are two reasons: efficiency and centralization of student government.
The UA is notoriously inefficient, which is reflected in the awful year-to-year retention rate, the enormous midyear attrition rate, and the dissatisfaction with student government expressed in the “exit survey” that graduating seniors take. Having served as a senator during my freshman year, I witnessed firsthand the Senate’s propensity to spend hours on inane topics, constantly repeating points that had already been brought up, with the pinnacle of its productivity being the naming of the overhead projector “Gwen Stefani.” Having to sit through excruciatingly long meetings and accomplishing virtually nothing all year dissuaded me, and many others, from running again during my sophomore year.
The second motivation behind restructuring is the lack of cohesiveness present in the current undergraduate government. We have the UA, Dormitory Council (DormCon), the Interfraternity Council (IFC), Panhellenic Association (Panhel), and the Living Group Council (LGC). The UA is supposed to be the central government representing all students, but it is no secret that the administration will often approach other governments regarding policies that directly affect those governments’ constituencies. This is because, to use DormCon as an example, the dorm presidents are often more informed about the goings-on in their living groups than the Senators of those living groups. This makes sense, since they are charged with running (to some extent) the dorm on a daily basis. Further, dorm presidents are almost always elected by a greater percentage of their constituency than are the Senators of that constituency.
One question that came up during the process is whether an entire overhaul of the government is necessary — could the problems presented here be solved by smaller constitutional amendments or changes in the way the Senate is run? To the first problem, inefficiency, an overhaul is most definitely not necessary. This year, not a single Senate meeting has surpassed an hour and a half due to the effective leadership of the Speaker. And this has been done despite Senate meeting only every other week, which means that overall, the amount of time that Senate has spent in session is about one fourth of what it was in previous years.
Yet nothing has gone “undone” that Senate has needed to do. Rather than a complete restructuring, a simple amendment to the bylaws mandating that no Senate meeting last longer than one hour and 30 minutes would be sufficient to solve the problem. If Senate ever did need to go longer, such as during the lengthy nominations meeting, then the bylaws, and therefore the time limit, can be suspended by a 2/3 majority.
But the second problem is more difficult to solve without a change to the structure of the government. The current proposal would create a UA Council, which has proportional representation from DormCon, the IFC, Panhel, and LGC, with each group deciding how to select its representatives. This addresses the concerns expressed to the previous proposal, which required that dorm presidents serve on the Council. Many were afraid that doing so would overburden the presidents and that they would not have enough time to spend on both the UA Council and the traditional duties associated with their dorm. With each government responsible for selecting its own representation, it becomes possible to, for example, allow the living group presidents to appoint a vice president or other qualified individual to serve on the UA Council in their place.
Is the current proposal perfect? Of course not. Some individuals still have concerns, such as whether the UA President should be mandated to chair Council meetings. But overall, the proposed government is an improvement over the current system. It addresses the two major concerns that students have expressed about their government, and the flaws are minor enough to be dealt with in the future as necessary.
Ryan Normandin is a Senator from MacGregor House.