April 28, 2016

GUEST ROOM | Shared Governance, Misrepresented: Why the Student Assembly Is Failing Cornell

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On April 7, members of Student Assembly, Cornell University’s undergraduate representative body, held a “Discussion on Restructuring.” The meeting followed the creation of a “First Generation” S.A. seat, and was a response to concerns that minority students lack representation. Minority students, though, aren’t the only students neglected by the S.A.

The Cornell Student Assembly is in dire need of reform. Members consistently disregard the obligations of their offices. In its elections, internal procedures and in the conduct of its members, the Student Assembly is failing to meet the standard set by The Board of Trustees when it established the current system of shared governance in 1981.

S.A. elections are frequently uncompetitive and, recently, have become largely symbolic. In the spring of 2015, only one of the three students running for two College of Agriculture & Life Science seats attended the election debate. The other two candidates were elected. In the Spring 2016 elections, 11 of 22 voting seats (50 percent) were uncontested. One of these uncontested elections was for an executive-board seat. Turnout in that election was 29.3 percent.

Many S.A. members fail to meet the basic requirements of their positions. Since January of this year, eight S.A. members have resigned or been removed from office for failing to discharge their duties, or because of the assembly’s attendance policy. One result is that CALS students, who compose 24 percent of all undergraduates, currently lack a voting representative. This academic year was also the first time that a consistent voting record has been kept. While weekly S.A. meetings are open to the public, few if any students attend, and meetings are not video recorded.

S.A. members are required to sit on committees, which, according to the Assembly’s Standing Rules, are “essential to the functioning of the shared governance system.” Although the administration is creating a housing master plan for the next decade, the Residential Life Committee has not yet met in 2016. Student Assembly members are required to organize and attend two “outreach” events specific to their respective communities every two weeks. The Vice President of Internal Operations, not the Vice President of Outreach, is charged with approving and keeping track of these events. One recent approved “outreach” event, a Purim party at a local bar, was determined by members to count towards this requirement. Some policies need to be reconsidered too. For example, one elected Student Assembly member simultaneously holds an elected seat on the University Assembly this semester. This is not against either Assembly’s rules.

None of this would matter if the Student Assembly were just another line on a Cornellian’s resume. However, the S.A. impacts every student on campus. Every two years, it dishes out over $6.7 million dollars collected from the undergraduate student activity fee. S.A. members are the only students that Cornell administrators regularly interact with. S.A. members are also among the only students to work with the Faculty Senate, which oversees University-wide academic policies. S.A. members are the face Cornell at Ivy League and even international conferences.

Given the recent controversies on campus — the Gannett health center fee, divestment from the fossil fuel industry, worker exploitation on the Weill Cornell Medical campus in Qatar, changes in financial aid policy, the College of Business — real student representation on campus has never been more important. If the Student Assembly needs change, as it seemed to say in its “Discussion on Restructuring,” and if SA member rhetoric about the importance of “shared governance” is not hot air, then we cannot settle for one additional seat. Too many seats have already ended up empty. What we need is a new system of student government.

Nathan Weierich is a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences. Comments may be sent to associate-editor@cornellsun.com. Guest Room appears alternate Fridays this semester.

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