The UA Senate was popularly perceived as being inefficient, ineffective, and just not doing all that much. This, in fact, provided much of the impetus behind the restructuring that led to the creation of the UA Council. And this is more than just a feeling; the “exit polls” of graduating seniors indeed indicate that many students are dissatisfied with student government at MIT. This logically leads to the question of what exactly is it that the UA should be doing? For as long as I can remember, the UA has lacked a real vision; sure, they want to improve life for undergraduates and advocate on their behalf, but how? What can the Senate point to that it actually accomplished? The answer to that question is “nothing.” The “doing things” part of the UA has always been the committees. The committees on dining, space planning, events, sustainability, and education, to name just a few, have always been the ones who can point to things that they have actually accomplished and tangibly improved undergraduate life through. And this makes sense; the committees all have clear charters and projects that are led by chairs who have a vision for the committee.
If we wish to make the newly formed UA Council truly successful, we must understand the fundamental reasons behind why the UA Senate was viewed (even by itself) as such a failure. So why didn’t it do anything besides pass trivial, inconsequential legislation and approve budgets and presidential appointees? The reason for this, which some might be uncomfortable to admit, is that the undergraduates at MIT did not want the Senate to do anything. This has been born out in casual conversations with students; the things students know the UA do are done by the committees and students cannot name anything that, right now, they’d like to see the Senate do. The only time this drastically changes is during times of “crisis.” When, for example, the administration attempted to shorten Orientation and when the dining plan was still the hot-button issue, students were up in arms and demanding that their representatives do something. But during “ordinary times,” the undergraduate representatives do not receive any kind of directive from their constituents. Thus, the fact that the Senate, and presumably the Council, will have regular weekly or biweekly meetings and do nothing substantial during any of them will serve to reinforce the perception that the UA’s “legislative” branch (the UA Council is technically not legislative because it forms decisions based on consensus rather than passing legislation) is an inefficient failure. Then, 10 years from now, we’ll have another restructuring that will result in another product that differs only marginally from what we have now.
How, then, can we break the cycle?
My proposal is that the UA Council should not have regular meetings; rather, the Council should meet only when some fraction of its body wants to hold a meeting. This, likely, will be when a “crisis” arises that the government needs to respond to. Then, each of the dorm presidents and IFC, Panhel, LGC, and off-campus Representatives can focus their time and effort on their respective living groups. This will end the repetitive meetings where nothing happens, and individuals meet only out of a felt obligation that they should be doing something. Issues such as the approval of nominations and budgets can be easily dealt with by grouping them together into just a few meetings (as is typically done anyway). There would be no other problems with an undergraduate government that meets only when it feels it is necessary.
If this is the model that we adopt, the problem of “vision” still remains within the UA. The State of the UA address lacked any vision for the future, as has every State of the UA address I’ve seen the last three years I’ve been here. A shift must take place; instead of focusing on everyday needs of students and failing to succeed because students don’t need anything, the UA should shift to a long-term model in addition to advocating for any student needs that do come up. Right now, the UA should undertake an intercommittee initiative to develop its own version of the MIT 2030 plan, one which addresses the needs of students. It should actively seek to support and shape the MITx initiative. This, of course, would also require that the branches of the UA shift their roles. The UA Council should become a consultancy for the executive and for the MIT administration, further reinforcing its nonperiodic meeting structure. The UA President (UAP) should primarily be interested in searching out ways to benefit MIT undergraduates in the long-term in addition to using student input to shape initiatives created by the administration.
And, when appropriate, the UAP should create his own initiatives that would benefit students, leaning strongly on the UA Council for advice. The UAVP role should be more than one of gathering data from the committees and assessing committee chairs’ performances. Instead, the UAVP should be an active head of internal affairs, encouraging intercommittee cooperation on important projects in line with the UA’s long-term vision. The students’ MIT 2030, for example, would be something that the UAVP would work closely on.
Thus, MIT students have an important role in the next UA presidential election. We cannot elect again a president and vice president who do not have a long-term vision for the UA. Just claiming that they will “do things” and listing off the usual laundry list of increasing student engagement, improving student-faculty relations, and a few small initiatives will not cut it. If the UA would like to stop being seen as a failure, it needs to move to a model where the UA Council meets irregularly and serves as a consultancy for the administration and for UA Exec. The UA Exec needs to focus on long-term goals instead of short-term trivialities. Overall, the UA needs to accept that all of students’ needs are being satisfied by the committees; they do not need a government to do anything else for them in the short-term. Rather, they need a government that will have a vision and look out for them and future generations in the long-term.