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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The perils and opportunity of representing student opinion

<st week’s column we spoke about the possibilities of student self government. Although we believe that students should be more self governing, we recognize that myriad decisions must be made with the larger Carleton community. Currently, those students representing and lobbying on behalf of students are clearly not representative of the Carleton community as a whole. If there was a clear public opinion for these representatives to consider we believe this would not be a particular problem. Since this is not the case, however, we believe that students-at-large have an important role to play in effectively representing students in college governance.

Student government started with the idea that uniting a larger group of students around specific goals would make them more effective in lobbying the administration. To lobby effectively students don’t need to claim to represent all students; simply a large group is sufficient to get the attention of administrators. All this changed, however, with the introduction of the college committee system in 1970. Now CSA was charged by the Board of Trustees with representing student opinion formally in the government structure. No longer is it enough for CSA to lobby on behalf of a group of students, now it must represent all students.

How well is CSA living up to this charge? The Senate certainly influences college policy. Senate appoints students to serve on college committees and officers and senators regularly meet with a variety of administrators to discuss student concerns. CSA has been an effective lobbying force. It is less effective, however, in a representative role. The highest turnout CSA elections have had in the last three years were 38% in 2006, 51% in 2007 and 2008. Not only is turnout low, the Senate is demographically quite different than the student body. Forty percent of the Senate is majoring in political science or IR, only one senator is a science major, 39% do not live in the dorms, a quarter are, or used to be, RAs.

Some might suggest that just like non-voters in national politics, the students not turning out have surrendered their rights to have their voices heard. Unlike national politics, however, Carleton is a community, not a state. Sovereignty is the goal of a state, but Carleton’s goal is to provide a liberal education. Carleton’s very mission demands that it consider all students. CSA Senate acts as a lobbying body ostensibly representing the interests of all students. However, when a student representative sits at College Council with representatives of the other major facets of the Carleton community – faculty, staff, and administration – can he really claim some sort of authoritative access to “student opinion”?

Public opinion can only exist where there is public discussion and deliberation. If the CSA Senate were a more representative body, the necessary discourse could occur there. Since it is not, we need a different, more inclusive, means for community-wide discussion. Next week’s column will focus on public discourse in the Carleton student community. Suffice it to say for now that developing a more effective dialogue will take a long time. Without an effective public discourse the Senate and its members represent a lobbying force to the college administration.

There are, however, two types of students serving on College committees -Senate liaisons and students-at-large. With the exception of the students-at-large on the College Council, students-at-large are appointed by the Senate for as long as they are at Carleton. Students-at-large, therefore, are in the unique position of holding permanent appointments and not interacting formally with other students in a governing role. In other words, they are not senators, are not bound by Senate’s opinions and mores, and have the ability to represent a wider section of the student body. How can the student-at-large be the most effective?

First, the students-at-large could try to think in terms of what is best for the community broadly and express those opinions. Presumably being students would provide them a different lens with which to see issues confronting the college. So although not directly representing student opinion, they are acting as students by bringing the students perspective to the committee. If the group of students is diverse enough they would likely capture a wide swath of the opinions of current students.

Second, the students-at-large could attempt to provide a counter to the CSA Senate liaisons. When students-at-large feel that Senate liaisons are pushing an agenda that was opposed by a large portion of the student body they should make their voices heard. This does have the disadvantage of splitting the student votes on committees and generally decreasing the power of students in the governance of the College.

Ultimately, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a representative body that is not perfectly demographically proportional to the group it is trying to represent. CSA Senate has accomplished tremendous things on the behalf of students in the past and will continue to do so. However, the lack of broader student involvement and, more importantly, the lack of a clear public opinion surrounding Carleton’s important issues handicaps Senate’s ability to adequately represent student in college governance. Students-at-large must carefully continue to complement the Senate liaisons in fully expressing student opinion.

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