Senate: Integrated, yet Representative and Diverse
Issue   |   Wed, 11/16/2011 - 03:41

The AAS is not popular. Many students think the Senate does nothing at all, has misguided priorities and is full of privileged kids. But none of these perceptions are true.

This is my first term as a senator, and it is also the first time I have had a positive impression of the AAS. When I came to college, I imagined the AAS was just a body of the “popular kids.” In my head I envisioned the AAS, admittedly unfairly, as a largely white, upper-middle class group who governed based on what they wanted. As I joined clubs and began to learn more about the people in Senate however, my impression changed, but not for the better. I and many more shared the perception of the Senate as a group of over-opinionated, brash, ego-driven students who were excessively stingy with allocating money to clubs, and who did little else but argue over minute constitutional details. I knew a couple of senators, and I saw the AAS Listens table at Val every once in a while, but because of popular negative attitude towards the student government, and also because I didn’t see what the AAS was doing for me, I thought it was useless. But after I joined Senate, I realized that this was simply not the case.

I say all this because it is relevant to last night’s Senate meeting. Most of the meeting was taken up by a healthy discussion on diversity and the AAS. A couple of students came in to, first, discuss their view that the Senate has misguided priorities — i.e. focusing on social life as opposed to diversity (evident in the presence of a social life task force, but no committee on diversity) — and, second, to express that a segment of Amherst students do not believe they are represented by the Senate — a group that was in need of support services that a diversity committee and/or task force could provide. In an eloquent explanation, one of the students described the problem as having nominal diversity without engaging that diversity, and without attempting to dissipate the Amherst awkward that we all know and hate. She noted the lack of a “feeling of community” brought up by students she had been talking to, and also brought attention to the fact that intellectual and social life diversity are lacking on campus.

In response, the Senate was incredibly positive. Nearly all Senators thanked them for raising the issue, affirmed their shared sentiment and many actively got involved in order to start a process that would address the stated concerns. We agreed swiftly to form a working group, which 15 senators signed up for, that would then attempt to form a faculty committee on diversity. This was Senate at its best, responding to student needs quickly and supplementing this decision with healthy discussion. The AAS only participates in four faculty committees, so creating one for diversity was a significant and potentially difficult step. Despite this, a vast majority of senators endorsed this goal. Responding to the visiting students’ first concern about social life as a senate priority, many senators, such as Alexander Hurst ‘12, said that a social life task force was created because of an overwhelming student desire for addressing social life issues, and that social life and diversity are not mutually exclusive, but are actually strongly connected.

Unfortunately, as discussion went back and forth, the visiting students continually demonstrated dissatisfaction with the senate because of a range of issues. The buzz-words “privileged, unrepresentative, misguided priorities and unresponsive” with regard to the Senate were used repeatedly. This harsh articulation of an uninformed perception of Senate understandably irked many senators. Even still, discussion remained calm, if not more heightened because of the perceived accusations. I, myself, disagreed wholeheartedly with the students’ characterizations.

The Senate is the most representative body on this campus. Students’ frustrations with it are understandable, but as senator Matt Debutts ’14 remarked, they stem from a problem with democracy in general. Because of the concept of majority rule, not everyone’s opinion will be addressed. But in a non-partisan democratic environment such as the AAS, it’s actually possible for anyone to voice their opinion. Unfortunately, some views don’t reach the Senate because those “minority” (in thought) students don’t always approach the AAS, or they don’t know they can approach the AAS. Part of this is because the AAS was less approachable in the past, another part can attributed to a deficit in transparency, and some blame lies with student apathy.

Regarding the AAS lacking diversity and being unrepresentative of the student body, this only can be said about gender. There are noticeably more males than females in Senate. But as Elections Committee Chair, Noah Gordon ’14, said, fewers females run for Senate. Still, AAS has been proactive about addressing the gender gap. Female senators postered in the freshmen dorms at the beginning of this semester to encourage first-years to run for Senate. Three of the eight freshmen senators are now women and our treasurer is a woman.

When it comes to racial, geographic and socioeconomic diversity, the Senate is most definitely representative of Amherst. We have AAS members whose hometowns range from Albuquerque to Des Moines. We have international students from Ethiopia, Portugal, the United Arab Emirates, India, Singapore and Bangladesh. Many of us are on financial aid. In addition the Senate is socially and intellectually diverse. We have sub-free students and we have those who party five nights a week. We have athletes and non-athletes. We are composed of biology majors, black studies majors and everything in between. We are club presidents, fraternity members and resident counselors.

And even with this diversity, as a group, we are integrated. Though we have different lived experiences, we talk to each other as friends, work on senate projects together and generally come to a consensus on most student life issues through discussion, negotiation and compromise. We are not privileged, socioeconomically or in any other way. As Benyam Ashenafi ’15 said, there is no privilege in spending anywhere from three to 10 unpaid hours a week in senate meetings, committee meetings and talking to students, staff and faculty so that student life at Amherst can be improved.

That being said, we understand frustration with the AAS. We are sure that there are many great student ideas and even more student problems that have never come to any of our attentions. For this reason, we have been and intend on improving transparency and communication. This column is a result of that push, as are the AAS Listens tables in Val, the revamping of the website and the town halls. Still, many students don’t know that our meetings are open to the public or that our are minutes published online. If you’re feeling frustrated with the AAS or student life in general, we would love nothing more than for you to come to a Senate meeting, — 8:30 on Mondays in the Red Room — talk to a senator, or send a suggestion e-mail. In order for us to best represent you, we need to hear your voices.