June 7, 2020

GUEST ROOM | The Student Assembly is Broken, and I Almost Resigned Because of It

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On June 1, I completed my third official term in the Student Assembly. A few weeks ago, I was listening in on a University Assembly meeting where members were discussing potential changes to the Campus Code of Conduct. During that meeting, SA members of the U.A. ganged up on a law student because she argued that the Willard Straight Hall takeover had nothing to do with the resolution in question.  That meeting was a taste of what regularly goes on in the S.A.

The Student Assembly is broken.

Not in need of improvement, not slightly imperfect. Broken.

To be clear, I am extremely grateful for the friends I have made, the connections I developed and the opportunity to develop skills I do not normally use in my engineering courses.

However, for an organization that claims to represent all undergraduates, the S.A. in its current form is failing the majority of the population.

If you go to an S.A. meeting or look into our resolutions, you will notice a high amount of unanimous votes. While most of these are well-deserved, some are not. There is pressure from some members of leadership and those aligned with them to vote on resolutions we may not agree with. I am not alone in saying my vote on some resolutions would have been different if we were in a more democratic environment. I see this first hand when members attack other members for even questioning a resolution they consider beyond reproach. I am not talking about just having a mere disagreement; I’m talking about expressing pure hatred for another because of such a disagreement. It is often those who claim to be “inclusive” who are the largest perpetrators of this. The message from members of leadership in those times is clear: sit down, shut up, vote for whatever we give you and make us look good. If you don’t, good luck receiving that committee chairmanship or executive position you want.

So when you see me not speak at S.A. meetings, it is usually because I would rather not endure the yelling, the hatred, the ad hominem attacks, the questioning of my Blackness and the isolation that comes with having the “wrong” opinion on an issue. For this reason alone, the S.A. has failed in ensuring healthy discourse and fruitful debate, a major tenet of any democratic legislative body. Many ideas for great resolutions that would pass in a less oligarchic environment (proportional representation, allowing electoral coalitions, etc.) never see the light of day because it does not fit the narrative leadership wants to have.

There is a general attitude amongst many members, including some leadership, that students who do not take the most extreme, hardline activist positions on every issue are less than and thus are undeserving or unworthy of fair and equal representation in the S.A. For example, in one meeting, a member questioned why another member decided to run for S.A. after revealing they did not agree with a resolution but was pressured into voting for it anyway by the activists. Such actions increase the perception that the S.A. is only for the hardline activists, which is true in its current form, leading to the disenfranchisement of hundreds if not thousands of undergraduates. Students like me are the exception rather than the rule.

How did we arrive at this point, you may ask?

Students who do not fit the political homogeneity of most S.A. members as described above are discouraged from voting and running in S.A. elections, knowing they will almost never receive a fair shake in a system where the scales are tipped against them from the beginning. This encourages fanatic oligarchs to run and such candidates are almost always elected because of low turnout. Due to the lack of “one person, one vote” in S.A. composition, it’s easy for the oligarchy to constitute a “majority.” In the internal elections after spring break, the oligarchs elect and appoint each other to executive board positions, committee chairmanships and liaison positions (including the U.A.), leaving crumbs for the rest.

Those outside the oligarchy of hardliners — the moderates and reformers — are regulated to the fringes of shared governance, where we struggle to rise above members who act more like tyrants than elected representatives. If you ever wanted an example of the social credit system at Cornell, look no further than the S.A. where you gain points for aligning with oligarchs and lose points for going against them.

This summer, I am stepping back from day-to-day S.A. politics to pursue reform. History tells us that successful reform movements do not come from one individual, but rather from a group of people with shared criticism. So for those who are frustrated with the S.A. and feel powerless to do anything about it, I am creating an S.A. Reform Group to create an S.A. reform plan centered on four major topics: electoral reform, simplifying S.A. composition, balancing power between the executive and representatives and creating a judicial system to review S.A. legislation and adjudicate on disputes between students and the S.A. My end goal is to bring a reform plan directly to you in the form of a referendum. Even if reform is unsuccessful, at least trying is better than witnessing the further democratic backsliding of undergraduate shared governance. Let’s take back control and unleash our potential.

 

Osai Egharevba is a rising senior in the College of Engineering and is currently a member of the Student Assembly as a College of Engineering representative. Comments can be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.