Tripod Editorial: On the Distribution of Student Power on Campus

Over the course of several months this winter, the Tripod was the first to “test” a new Student Government Association Committee, termed the “Student Organization Oversight Committee” (SOOC). The process, by any measure, revealed a panoply of disturbing possibilities that can arise when a group of students is invested with an ambiguous and uncertain degree of power.

We could lament here the procedural issues and foundational due process issues which accompanied the entire process and the ex-post facto qualities of the SOOC’s bylaws. However, the real gravamen of our concerns lies instead with the existence of this power at all, its distribution, and its fundamental legitimacy. 

The SGA Constitution, ratified by just 23 students (out of the 2,098 eligible voting students at the College) is hardly a document that speaks for the people. It should be noted that SGA is currently composed of 23 students, according to their website. Even if no member of SGA voted to ratify their own Constitution, that means that only 1.09% of students outside SGA felt impelled to voice their support for a constitution that now governs all of us. When the U.S. Constitution was ratified, 2/3 of all states had to assent. When our own constitution was ratified, we accepted less than 2% as persuasive. These comparisons are particularly apt given, as the Tripod has previously reported, that SGA regularly compares in debate their constitutional process to the U.S. Constitution.

The power that the “Student Organization Oversight Committee” has is to evaluate claims and give “recommendations” to student organizations on how to improve these policies, allegedly arising under its authority to “hold organizations accountable to the requirements/expectations set forth by the SGA and the College.”

As we learned in the process, this very clause is fallacious and fundamentally inaccurate. First, SGA has no authority to enforce College policy and, thus, it can certainly not hold student organizations accountable to violations of that sort. Rather, that authority would fall to the Dean of Students Office. Second, where are the “requirements and expectations” for clubs? SAIL has requirements (that a Constitution exist), but SGA requirements are nowhere to be found—at least not somewhere publicly accessible where all students can review and inform themselves of the expectations. If SGA believes in transparency or the democratic process, it should not bring or investigate actions until these policies have been developed with the solicitation of input from members of the public.

We also learned in the course of this process that the SOOC’s recommendations do not effectively have to be followed. Why? Because after pressing SAIL officials on multiple occasions, we learned that the SOOC does not have the authority to freeze funding for student organizations. It seems clear to us, through our conversations, that they believed they did. Even so, the “recommendations” can be appealed to the whole of SGA, who could in theory exercise their power to “derecognize” a campus organization. What would this derecognition even mean in effect? 

Who knows because at the end of the day the arbiter of money decisions and disbursements on this campus plainly rests with the administrators of the College, not the students.

This, however, brings to light a perpetual issue: why should a small group of students—elected with less than 50% participation of the student body according to SAIL election results—even think that they can rule on derecognizing and denying access to the distribution of monies derived from the Student Activities Fee that every student (or parent) pays? If a student organization were “derecognized,” we can think of some questions that parents and probable donors could ask of College administrations. Could we expect that the decision might be reversed? That would seem, by our estimation, a reasonable outcome.

The real issue with this process is that students cannot be the adjudicators of other students’ grievances. We have tried that before at the College with the Medusa which was disbanded long ago as an arcane vestige of a different time and, clearly, a process antithetical to democracy. To permit students to make the decision regarding the governance and operations of other student organizations is an affront to their independence and an insult to the democratic principle of self-governance.

If SGA believes that student organizations cannot hold themselves accountable, then they have made a significant statement about their faith in their fellow students one that, frankly, they are unqualified to make. We each pursue different paths at Trinity and those on SGA are free to pursue their interests and work toward the better representation of student concerns. However, unduly involving themselves in the affairs of other student groups—and using a Constitution passed by 23 students—is hardly emblematic of the democratic spirit.

If “transparency,” “equity,” “democracy,” and “parliamentary procedure” are the words and phrases that SGA wishes to be familiar with, then students should not be the judge of other students. The potential conflicts are too great and the personal gripes and grievances attendant to the undergraduate experience are far too pronounced. The administration, for its part, assumes an unnecessary liability by allowing students to judge other students in this quasi-judicial world.

The real lesson that the Tripod has taken from this process is that we have a long way to go in campus governance before real representation of student concerns has been fully realized. If the measure of governance is the prosecution of a student group under the auspices of constitutional practice, then we have are far indeed from a time when we can call our processes on this campus democratic.

-The Trinity Tripod

bclark

Brendan W. Clark '21 is the current Editor-in-Chief of the Trinity Tripod, Trinity College's student newspaper.

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