Competent, Committed and Mildly Charismatic? Become a Senator!
Issue   |   Tue, 04/19/2016 - 23:25

There has been plenty of hand-wringing in the senate about whether the college’s student government, Association of Amherst Students, is a worthwhile institution. There has always been hand-wringing, but lately it is astonishingly pervasive; all anyone affiliated with the student government can talk about is how “dysfunctional” it is. The irony of course is that if senators chose to defer these conversations so they could actually do their jobs, they might not need to have them after all. The problem is a large number of senators this year simply did not understand what the job entailed. The AAS has historically been bad about communicating to the student body about what the institution actually does, but now it is in the more unfortunate situation of having most of its members share that ignorance.

My hope is that this article serves a dual purpose — a job advertisement and an informational piece about how student government works. The main takeaways are these: (a) if you would like to run, do not be demotivated by your lack of experience; simply being willing and able to do the things I describe below makes you more qualified than the average sitting member, and (b) don’t vote for an incumbent without first asking them what they have already done for the student body.

A senator’s job is basically to represent and to act on behalf of students’ interest. This is obviously quite broad — it could be defined as helping student activism, increasing and supporting student services or giving students more of a say. But ultimately, these responsibilities can be boiled down to thinking about the four things senators have access to. A senator’s job is to make the best of each of these things so they can do the most to advance student interest.

Votes

Senators have various opportunities to cast important votes — during meetings and in committees. To be able to vote effectively, one must be well informed. This requires studying the context and institutional history that frame votes. Senators have been here for at most four years while members of faculty, administrators and the questions they consider have been here rather longer; this makes it crucial to do one’s homework. Once this is done, more often than not it is obvious what course of action is in student interest. Senators are from such different parts of campus that when well-informed, their opinions act as a good proxy for students in general.

Administrators and Faculty

Faculty members and administrators make decisions all the time without first soliciting a student vote. Senators can influence these decisions, whether they are made within or outside of committee. A little time spent becoming acquainted with the various administrative structures and hierarchies at play allows one to have a disproportionately large impact. Doing this makes the administration seem less opaque, allowing you, the Amherst student, to understand who is responsible for what, and why things work as they do. Further, once you know who to talk to, the designation of a senator makes it easier to be listened to.

Money

The Senate Fund is a pool of money subject to fewer constraints than regular discretionary funding and allows senators a degree of freedom to carry out projects. Lately, this has been a vastly underused resource, but the fund exists for good reason. In the past, senators have been able to do things ranging from giving out boxes to students for moving, having Bar Night at Keefe, instituting the smoothies station at Val, buying the AAS vans and — in one glorious instance — buying the electric car for ACEMS. However, money is only part of the battle. Although the fund relieves some financial legwork, it still requires a considerable degree of initiative to think of and to execute a project that is both feasible and useful.

Community

Perhaps most importantly, being in the AAS gives one access to the student government community. It is not easy to keep abreast of all the information needed to make good choices as a senator, but there is one great advantage to be had: inherited knowledge. Veteran senators are only too glad to share what they’ve seen and learned. Having been involved in the AAS for so long, they are usually very invested in its continuing success and will go of their way to help when asked. Passing knowledge down is the only way to preserve institutional memory because students are only here for four years. Unfortunately, the body, as it stands today, seems so impervious to advice that the majority of the most experienced senators either resigned (as I did) or stayed silent during meetings. Having been in the senate almost throughout my Amherst career, I can say that this is the worst it has ever been in this regard. There is a reason I am writing this here rather than saying it in the senate — if things are to become better for the student body as a whole, I hope those of you who have read this far will consider running.

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