- Madison Lazenby
Student Assembly’s Growing Pains
Updated: Oct 20, 2020
Eric Stenzel '23, Managing Editor
Saphire Ruiz '22, Contributing Editor
The authors were heavily involved in this spring’s Student Assembly elections, with Eric running for Class of 2023 president before being disqualified by the Vice President of the Assembly and Saphire acting as an organizer for the campaign and representative of the Black and Latinx Student Union and Feminists of Color Collective.
In the midst of unprecedented changes to the ways the College functions, this spring’s Student Assembly elections were the most tumultuous and hard fought in years- but not for nothing. New and incumbent candidates across all years ran campaigns which prioritized structural changes that would provide all students a stronger voice in our campus policies and culture. Through their campaigns, they fought for an independent Assembly whose priorities aligned solely with the urgent needs of students. The work done by dozens of students has built the foundation for making our campus a better place to live and learn; we just need to complete the project. Students’ voices rang loudly on April 30th when they replaced multiple incumbents with new members. Of the fourteen candidates across all class years the two of us publicly endorsed, ten won. In the Class of ‘23 in particular, turnout increased significantly and every candidate we endorsed won by a margin ranging from 86 to 107 votes. For the president’s race, Eric’s decision to suspend his rogue write-in campaign and endorse Cole no doubt played a role in the landslide victory. Progressive, policy-oriented new and returning members alike won their races. Representative Emily Fienco ‘23, a vocal advocate for the needs of marginalized students on issues like C/NC and hate incidents, returned with a commanding 211 votes. Students elected Johanna Bowen ‘21 as a new member running on a platform of disability access on campus and holding the administration accountable on the climate crisis. Across the board, candidates who ran campaigns on changing the Assembly and advocating for students won decisively.
The impact is twofold. With the large number of candidates who ran on promises they need to keep, advocacy will have to occur. More importantly, all members have felt the will of the electorate because of this multiyear movement. The change we have sought out is not unique. Our peer institutions like Middlebury, Colgate, Harvard, Pitzer, Clark, and many more all have more robust student governments which engage in prominent advocacy roles and have differing levels of autonomous control over campus policies and programs, meaning students have more of a say in how their campus operates. We wanted the same thing: a powerful voice for the student body. We also wanted to ensure that the policies of the Assembly reflected the needs of marginalized students. Thus, we set out to create the Apple Tree Ticket and a platform reflective of the needs of all constituencies at Hamilton. Eleven organizations and over fifty students were involved in some form of discussion, writing, planning, or other associated activities. The platform we produced reflects a vision of what we want from the Assembly and how to empower it to deliver.
On Sunday, April 19th, the Vice President of SA announced election rules, including a new one: candidates were not allowed “to solicit or send out all-campus emails regarding campaigns.” Given the ticket’s original plans to collect public endorsements from clubs and organizations and send all-campus emails, Eric met with the Constitutional Committee and challenged the constitutionality of the rule. The Committee voted in favor of the rule change. Furthermore, the Vice President brought new concerns about whether meeting with organizations and creating the platform could be considered campaigning before the allowed start date, and therefore a violation of campaign rules. On April 21st, the Apple Tree Ticket voted to disband; it was clear that the ticket would most likely be required to disband, and although we wholly disagreed with the decision, we determined that it would be best to disband on our own terms in an effort to begin immediately allowing candidates to plan for next steps for their now independent campaigns. Later that same day, the Vice President officially disqualified Eric without any hearing, and required that all other candidates involved with the ticket would have to run as individuals and could not take credit for any work they put into the platform if they wanted to continue running.
Following the disbanding of the ticket and Eric’s disqualification, the remaining candidates followed the requirements laid out before them and campaigned as individuals, with the support of their friends, and with platforms that highlighted many of the concerns they had that convinced them to run in the first place: reforms to sexual assault policies, climate justice, improved anti-bias training, and more.
On April 26th, the Black and Latinx Student Union publicly endorsed the Platform for Student Voices with ⅔ of their membership voting and 94% voter support. As one of the organizations that originally took part in the creation of the platform, BLSU hoped to bring awareness to the necessity of addressing the concerns brought up in the platform and asserted its expectations of SA as a body that advocates for students and upholds and practices equity and justice.
Throughout the election, one thing became especially clear: there is a widely held belief among the student body that SA needs changes. The election brought some immediate changes, one of which being the addition of responsibilities to the Cultural Affairs Committee (CAC), which met with student organizations on May 1st to discuss some of SA’s new plans as it begins addressing many of the concerns brought up throughout the election. The CAC meeting left a general sentiment of hope and optimism for the future of CAC and by extension SA. Furthermore, this summer SA will be making constitutional changes, including a restructuring of funding codes and adjustments to foster increased student involvement. It updated its website, where students will be able to see updates to anticipated changes to the Constitution and other SA matters. SA also released a Statement Condemning Virtual Racist Incidents, following a racist Tik Tok posted by someone who was suspected to be an incoming Hamilton student, something the College had refused to do. SA has taken seriously many of the concerns brought up throughout this election, and has put concrete plans in place to begin addressing these concerns and make the necessary and requested changes. We just need to follow through.
Students’ expectations for SA goes beyond funding organizations or acting as a point of contact between students and the administration; SA should be a body that acts as an advocate and champion for Hamilton students, especially marginalized students. In other words, it should be more akin to elected union representation than a neutral arbitrator. It should be a body that prioritizes equity and justice and is unafraid to take strong stances that protect its students, even if it means challenging the administration.
But in this shift, we cannot expect SA to operate the same way it always has. There is a tradition of referring to SA and its actions as if it is a unified body: “SA did X.” The body is a representative one, meaning it should not be neutral or impartial; like every representative body, there is going to be disagreement and debate, because the student body is not a monolithic population wherein every class year or subgroup completely agrees on everything. Disagreement and debate are not inherently negative things—they are crucial aspects of a healthy and active representative body.
No longer should a statement like the one advocating for optional C/NC pass with almost no dissent; that vote clearly did not accurately represent student desires, as representatives from seven impacted organizations felt the need to send their own letter in favor of universal C/NC to faculty, partially in response to SA’s inadequate proposal. A legislative body must have disagreement that means something. Votes should fail every once in a while. As happened with the C/NC statement, “consensus” decision making means poor representation. It means harm to marginalized students. If SA hopes to act as actual advocates and champions for its students, it needs to improve its student outreach, take part in more serious and genuine debate around student issues, and practice the independence and influence it has the potential for.
As SA becomes a forum for campus issues and controversy, transparency will become even more important. Students should not be limited to combing through a ten page meeting notes document or hours long video to learn what is happening. Despite the most contentious and controversial events and election in years for SA, this article is the first non-satirical piece to be published specifically about SA in campus media since February.
This is reflective of how the student body does not feel compelled to pay attention to what is happening in SA. Our campus political culture does not believe that SA is relevant to the average student. To shift this, we need to create campus cultural and structural norms whereby SA, campus media, and activists engage in independent efforts to disseminate information about what happens in SA. At a bare minimum, SA should release summaries like it did earlier this semester, class presidents should email their class with periodic updates, campus media should cover SA much more, and activists should hold members of SA accountable.
We deserve an Assembly that supports and protects the student body, but we have to put the work in for that Assembly. The actions of the past two months have already created a massive change in the way the student body and members of the Assembly view the role of our student government. But change takes time and dedication. We, as students, have an obligation to continue holding our elected representatives accountable and fostering a campus political culture that centers the role of student governance in advocating for the needs of the student body. This is a collaborative and communal project: we cannot hope to revolutionize the Assembly without all hands on deck. Everyone has a part to play, and everyone must fulfill their role as an active participant in our community.