The importance of SU listening to its constituents

As we expressed in a recent editorial, we have been concerned that, in placing too much weight on internal procedures, Student Union seems to lose sight of how best to achieve its fundamental purpose—representing Washington University undergraduates.

Our last editorial on the subject was broad and did not provide specific examples. This week, however, SU Senate has acted in ways that highlight its room for growth.

On Nov. 2, Green Action organized a flash mob protest to address attendees of the University’s “America’s Energy Future” conference about its lack of dialogue on renewable energy sources and the University’s use of the marketing term “clean coal.” On Nov. 5, the Senate deliberated a resolution supporting Green Action’s protest. Instead of passing a substantive resolution supporting the goals of Green Action, SU Senate decided to delay debate on such action for another week and instead passed a hollow statement of support for student activism.

The statement of support includes such generic statements as “the Student Union lauds the passion and engagement of these students who have come together and spoken on behalf of the student body” and “the Student Union is excited by the aforementioned student activism and engagement and would hold such action as a good example of what it means to be a responsible member of both our University and international communities.”

We appreciate student activism too, but we expect Student Union to do more than merely applaud other students for their effort. Solely passing a resolution in support of activism is hardly action at all and is a source of frustration among the student body. Furthermore, while SU Senate intends to consider a more substantive resolution next week, we are disappointed that many senators did not fully research the issue before coming to the Senate meeting, despite having already seen the proposed resolution.

Resolutions, while perhaps a useful starting point, are among the most unremarkable of the actions SU has available for employment. Student Union, with a reach by definition far greater than that of Green Action, could use its binding power to actively support and even initiate active efforts to unite the student body for issues that they agree are important. For example, SU can facilitate communication between related student activist groups. It can also use its influence and public relations capabilities to encourage attendance at activist events and to make relevant information about the topic readily available to the entire student body by way of e-mails, flyering campaigns, online videos and the SU blog.

We believe that the members of Student Union have made an admirable start—their Web site features pictures of the flash mob protest on its home page, and executives have expressed their enthusiasm for taking a more activist stance on issues that matter to students.

But the passion demonstrated by the student body on this issue calls for more action, and we are particularly troubled by two strains of argument put forth during SU Senate’s discussion of the issue. First, we noted a reluctance among senators to directly confront the University administration. While we understand that can be an intimidating task and certainly one that should be approached respectfully, we expect SU to fulfill its role as an advocate for student concerns by challenging University decisions when necessary.

Second, there was some poorly articulated discussion about senators’ responsibility to their office versus their responsibility to their constituents. While we appreciate the importance of taking their roles seriously and acting in accordance with their own informed consciences, we caution senators against citing the formal description of their office as reason for not fully supporting a large, student-based movement.

Ultimately, the student body will judge SU by its results and not by the content of its resolutions. Senate will vote tonight on another resolution, and we urge SU to remember that its formal procedures and internal concerns should not stand in the way of its support for broad-based student activism. Moreover, we encourage students to come to the Senate meeting at 9 p.m. Wednesday in Simon 113 and ensure that the senators hear their passion.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mamathachalla Mamatha Challa

    I wanted to stop back and apologize for the tone I took in my first response, earlier this morning. In retrospective, it was unnecessarily harsh- I do believe I’m a bit crankier just after waking up. :\

    That being said, I still stand by my points and to the fact that I found this editorial to be very disappointing. However, instead of just whining about it on a comment, I really do want to extend an invitation to anyone interested in tonight’s resolution, as well as the authors of this article, to attend the Senate meeting tonight. It’s really going to be a great discussion, and I’m incredibly excited for it.

    Additionally, if the Editorial Board/anyone would like to discuss any problems or complaints further, in truly constructive manner, I (as well as many other SU members who are far more important than me, haha) would love to sit down and actually talk to you about them. Just let anyone of us know, alright?

    My email address is [email protected], in case you can’t contact me via Facebook.

    Thanks!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1205940016 Amy Heard

    As an SU Senator, I think that the relationship between StudLife and Student Union is something that is important both for criticism and collaboration. When StudLife has editorials that point out the weak points of Student Union and lists things that we can do better, I think it is necessary for us to listen to those criticisms and try to improve the way that we serve the student body.

    In the past few weeks, StudLife has printed some fair criticisms of SU. It is true that like any other organization, there are things that Student Union should work on, and there are areas that we are earnestly trying to improve. Yet this editorial does not strike me as a fair criticism. While I applaud the staff for attempting to give concrete examples, some of the overarching assumptions that this editorial makes are not only misguided, but also false.

    There were many reasons that Senate did not pass the resolution last week, one being that we did not feel as though we had enough information in order to make an informed decision. Your editorial stated that we should have done our research before coming to the meeting, but considering that both students and senators brought up many topics of concern during the meeting, it would have been impossible for us not only to predict what the conversation would be, but also to research all of those elements before hand. The way that Senate works is that we deliberate resolutions–this means that we make changes, ask questions, and try to form what we think is the best way to state the point that we want to come across. If we do not feel like, at the end of the night, we are able to do that, the resolution does not get passed. Taking the time to make sure that our resolutions are succinct and actually address the given problems is a sign of responsibility, not of negligence as your article implies.

    We wanted to make sure that the final resolution both supported Green Action, addressed the “Clean Coal” issue, and set forth positive steps for moving forward. After much deliberation, we are presenting a resolution tonight that we think does just that. But you know what? If it does not, we will rewrite it again. We will keep working on it, keep talking to students, and keep talking to Green Action until our statement reflects both scientific facts and the opinion of the student body. The reason that we passed what you called “a hollow statement” in support of Green Action is that we did not feel like we had the ideal resolution last week, but we did listen to our constituents when they said that some statement from SU needed to come out in order to keep up momentum for the flash mob protest. Our “generic statements of support” illustrate the fact that we are committed to this issue and want to present it in its best form. There is nothing generic about wanting to be precise and diligent.

    There are a host of things that Student Union can improve, and we will continue to read your editorials, trying to pick useful statements from them. Meanwhile, I think that something Student Life can improve is remembering that we are all students trying our best to make our WashU experiences positive while affecting positive change on campus. We are all student leaders and we can do a lot more by working together than by constantly highlighting each other’s faults, and when it is necessary to bring constructive criticism, we should do it in a way that is productive instead of making sweeping conclusions that are not based on legitimate examples.

  • JM

    I am excited to read both this article and Mamatha’s response. What ties the two together is a passionate desire to support the student body when it does call our representation to action. It is wonderful to see pressure from the press, and just as wonderful to see an engaged member of SU’s own student activism. I also encourage any and all students to come out to support our University’s research reputation at the senate meeting (9 pm in Simon 113). Viva la Resolution! But more importantly, long live enthusiastic student collaboration for an important change!

  • http://www.jeromebauer.com Jerome Bauer

    How will the overrepresentation of coal executives on our Board of Trustees affect WashU’s labor policies? This issue was raised early in the semester, but has been largely sidelined. What can we do to rebuild an INDEPENDENT labor advocacy movement? I hope Student Life and Student Union will remember the workers, and the underemployed, and the unemployed, as you draft your resolutions and editorials.

  • Joseph Marcus

    As a Senator representing the College of Arts and Sciences, I would first like to thank Student Life and the Forum section for their interest in Student Union. As representatives of the student body, getting feedback is something we need, as it allows us to better address the needs of the student body.

    With that being said, I am very disappointed with this forum editorial. It seems that this forum submission was written to prove a pre-existing opinion. Speaking as a Senator, I know that I as well as many of my colleagues would appreciate this organization taking the opposite approach when writing an editorial. Specifically, understanding the facts of what is going on and then using those facts to make an informed decision. Furthermore, this submission seems like an attempt to save face from the gross inaccuracies in the 10/28 editorial. An acknowledgment of those errors and an explanation of why it was published without specific examples would be something that would do a better job of fixing the section’s previous mistake. Taking a more radical stance, just magnifies the problem as a whole. Maybe Student Life could benefit from the introspection that has helped Senate what it is today?

    I think it would be best for anyone interested in this topic to look at our minutes of the meeting: http://su.wustl.edu/legislative/senate/minutes (11/4, the resolution discussion starts on the bottom of page 2). The main reason that we did not pass a more substantive resolution last week can be quoted from the minutes “A lot of the reasons for passing this resolution are not in the resolution.” The resolution, written by non-Senators, did not clearly explain the cause and effect relationship they were looking for. So we have spent the past week working with various student groups on improving the resolution to something that could help them as well as be something that we are comfortable passing as a body.

    If anyone has a question about the meeting last week, or what exactly Senate is doing, please don’t hesitate to contact me or your own personal Senator.
    Joseph Marcus
    [email protected]

  • http://www.facebook.com/mamathachalla Mamatha Challa

    Hey,
    So, generally, I approve of a lot of the stuff that StudLife comes out with- you guys are pretty great! But, unfortunately, this article is absolutely absurd.

    This entire piece makes the implicit assumption that SU Senate does not want to make a statement against the University’s use of the word “Clean Coal” as marketing propaganda. Even when you DO bring up that we are actually proposing another resolution tonight, you bring it up as a side comment, as though it’s the aftermath of some decision we’ve already made.

    In case you don’t realize it, tabling an issue or discussion does NOT mean that a decision has been made on the contents of that discussion. In fact, Senate often times tables discussions when we actually are, overall, very interested in the content of whatever we’re discussing, but just need more time to process it.

    The first resolution that was brought up on Wednesday was not tabled because SU was too scared to “listen to its constituents”. It wasn’t passed because we weren’t quite sure if the LANGUAGE of the resolution properly relayed our point. We wanted to have more explicit facts in our final resolution, because we actually wanted to represent our constituents to the best of our ability, to present the Administration and this University with a well-thought out and agreed-upon statement.

    Also, you claim that many Senators didn’t research the topic before coming to the meeting. The issue was not necessarily that we didn’t know anything about Clean Coal- I know I had my laptop out, and the Senators around me were all looking through some of the materials we’d found on it. The issue was that we weren’t all properly informed about the University’s relationship to Clean Coal. We just needed to hear Green Action’s complete argument, which included important anecdotes that demonstrated their point.

    You should really consider researching a bit before you write articles like this, as they’re incredibly insulting, and sadly, many students will read them without questioning them. On Sunday afternoon, many Senate members sat down to discuss tonight’s resolution in depth with members of Green Action, in order to make sure that our resolution properly relays the true facts in this issue.

    Also, I’m a bit confused about you stating that “there was some poorly articulated discussion about senators’ responsibility to their office versus their responsibility to their constituents.” Could you elaborate, perhaps? Additionally, you should consider the fact that “strands of discussion” don’t necessarily represent the majority of opinions on Senate, and judging the entirity of Student Union by them is mildly ridiculous.

    All in all, please, no one really has to tell us about the “importance of SU listening to its constituents.” For most of us, that is already our number 1 priority. Many Senators have worked incredibly hard to write up the resolution that is going to be brought out to the table tonight, and I’d suggest that anyone is who even mildly interested in this topic should come out to Simon 113 tonight. It’s going to be great! :)