Reforms and reframes in the Student Union

April 20, 2018

I wrote a piece earlier this academic year talking about what I called the “elite” of Brandeis, the exclusive group, made up mostly of Student Union members, that runs all campus activities and makes up the majority of the contact that the students have with the administration. The Senate is a dedicated, innovative group, but there are many things we in the Senate and the broader Student Union can do to make things proceed more smoothly and serve more effectively.

One thing we do not do well is promote understanding of the Student Union and its function. There is a big crowd for our largest event, the Midnight Buffet, our Turkey Shuttles are always booked and the elections for the Student Union President always have turnout near 900-1000 votes. This past election saw over 800 votes for the candidate for president, which is a little less than a fourth of the undergraduate population. The turnouts for these elections and events aren’t bad. What we do not do well, despite the fantastic efforts of those who are designated to promote such events within the Union, is communicate what is going on beyond these activities. We have had events both semesters with the goal of letting students meet the members of the Union. Both could have been better attended. This could be the fault of the members of the Union itself not being convincing enough to persuade friends to attend, as well as an unwillingness to share event postings on Facebook. But we do send emails that reach the whole community, which have often proven ineffective.

For example, the midterm and fall elections saw votes in the low hundreds. This is a chronic problem I have spoken about in previous opinion articles, and we have added more information about the candidates to the ballot email to encourage fewer people to vote “Abstain.” While running poll promotion tables for the past elections, however, most students do not even open their inboxes to check. Our polling tables have helped garner more votes somewhere in the tens, but this is a policy as well as community issue.

My remedy would be adding a Committee for Promotion, a body focused purely on promoting the events of the Union, which would work with the Communications Director from the Executive Board as well as members of the Senate. The Services and Outreach Committee of the Senate already fills the role of planning and coordinating events, but clearly more time and coordination needs to be paid specifically to promoting events. Dedicating Union members to that task would be useful. They could use graphic design skills to make logos for events or administer Facebook events. The committee could also branch out into taking pictures and making promotional ads on Facebook.

Another issue, as has been noted on the Senate both in jest from the Justice and by students who are present for Senate meetings, is a lack of knowledge of both the rules of order and the Senate’s own bylaws. This has allowed discussion to proceed far longer than needed and beyond the realm of reason, as well as allowing votes and discussion to become hostile and accusatory. Strictly adhering to the rules of order would cut discussions short and keep us within sensible limits. It is not common practice that all Senate members read the bylaws nor the Robert’s Rules of Order which are written into the bylaws as code of conduct. There is a valiant effort by Senate leadership to keep things short as they work within their knowledge responsibly, but the rest of the members go mostly uninformed. More strictly adhering to rules of order, as well as enhancing the role of the members of the Bylaws Committee as watchdogs of the rules, might contain the attitudes we are seeing boil up most weeks.

Finally, what could also be done is a clearly stated recognition of the potential for good and the duty of service to the rest of the community. I have been criticized in the past for not recognizing the Union as merely students practicing government, and I acknowledge that academics should come first and that none of our bylaws nor the Constitution are legally binding. If the bylaws were, we would all be legally bound to run websites for every committee, subject to ambiguity caused by untamed spelling errors and more easily impeached if we do not show up to events (maybe this should be more strict, but then again, who would we find to replace those impeached?).

However, the money that the Senate is allocated goes unspent, initiatives that could prove beneficial remain only in words and our procedures of discussion and debate are often ineffective. On the Union, every member has a unique position to make the experience better for students by virtue of their place as a Union member. If we communicated well and better recognized our potential conflicts and problems, we could work better as a Union. Even if it is just a club, the Student Union has a duty to the students, which should be taken with both adherence to the rules and dedication to innovation and effectiveness. We should not just show up to meetings (something we also need to work on), but wear our Student Union pins with pride as we carry out our daily lives on campus. We need to let students know that we are here to help. There is a lot that can be done, and all it takes is fulfilling our job descriptions and following the rules we set out for ourselves.

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