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An Election That Doesn’t Matter

My first issue with the AAS: they keep most of their records in invisible ink.

My first issue with the AAS: they keep most of their records in invisible ink.

(Ethan Corey)– Confession: I have never voted in an AAS election. And I’m not alone. Our current president won his election with only 447 votes, less than a quarter of the student body. Many like to attribute this supposed dereliction of democratic duty to ‘Amherst Apathy,’ a supposed plague of privileged ennui and navel-gazing afflicting Amherst students with the overwhelming desire not to care about anything.

But I think that’s too simple of a dismissal. Some students might not care too much about Big Problems like climate change or world poverty (which, while regrettable, is a separate issue), but if you’ve ever seen the comments section on AC Voice or The Student or asked someone what they thought about Val, Add/Drop or the grade their professor gave them on that Art History paper, then you’ll know that Amherst students care a lot—perhaps even too much—about the issues that affect them.

No, Amherst students don’t care about AAS elections because they have no strong reason to care. The truth is, the AAS makes very few of the most important decisions impacting student life, and students often have few criteria to distinguish between candidates except for their own subjective judgments of each candidate’s personality and competence.

Student apathy towards the AAS is not a recent trend. The only candidate for the AAS Executive Board to receive support from more than 25 percent of the student body since 2005 was Tania Dias, when she ran unopposed in the aftermath of the infamous 2012 election scandal. While these numbers are lowered by the fact that only three-quarters of the student population is eligible to vote in presidential elections, it nevertheless remains the case that AAS presidents do not govern with anything approaching majority support. In many years, candidates have run unopposed or faced only nominal opposition, suggesting that students are as loathe to run in elections as they are to vote in them.

A big reason for this is that the AAS doesn’t really do much. Yes, they manage an approximately $1 million budget—a whopping .5 percent of the College’s total annual budget—but most of this money is already pre-allocated in the Master General Fund and Club Budgets*; only about $150,000 remains for discretionary funding, the money used to fund concerts, lectures or other activities planned by student organizations. And while student organizations rely on the Senate for this funding, it is unclear that the Senate’s role in the process actually helps students get the funding they need. In most cases, it seems more like a bureaucratic hoop to jump through than a way to empower students with a degree of financial independence from the College.

Senators themselves don’t seem too thrilled with this role. Reading through the minutes of Senate meetings, one quickly gets the impression that petty debates about funding take up most of the three hour meetings that our student leaders are expected to sit through each Monday night. During the March 10 meeting, discussion on funding actually had to be suspending when so many senators left in the middle that the session lost quorum (the number of senators present fell to less than two-thirds of total membership):

Siraj Sindhu requested two honorariums of $2500 for Speedy Ortiz and $2500 for World’s Fair. This event will be cosponsored with WAMH and the Campus Activities

At this point, the Senate lost quorum. Noah Gordon suggested that they move on to committee reports until they were able to get Senate members to return to finish the meeting.

The meeting was eventually adjourned during a debate over funding for club soccer, because senators weren’t sure whether or not Title IX required them to give equal funding to the men’s and women’s teams:

Roll call vote to fund the original amounts for men’s and women’s jerseys.

Result: Fails.

RJ [Kermes] requested a straw poll to determined [sic] if there is support for equalizing the amounts.

Chris Friend moved to approve the minutes and adjourn the meeting because he did not feel that the Senate was being productive anymore.

[…]

RJ stressed that it is not fair to prevent the students from playing because the Senate can’t figure out funding.

Tierney [Werner] was concerned that a club would not be able to function for their primary purpose because the Senate can’t do their job.

[President] George [Tepe] argued that they could adjourn and then hold an emergency vote to fund the jerseys after he sends a strongly worded email to [Title IX Coordinator] Laurie Frankl.

Vote to prematurely adjourn the Senate meeting.

Result: Passed.

Long story short, because the administration was unclear to the AAS about its legal obligations under Title IX, they were unable to do the primary job for which they were elected. Instead, our illustrious president (whom, to be clear, I do not blame for this situation at all) was reduced to sending a “strongly worded email” asking the administration to do its job.

Besides long-winded debates over whether or not the Amherst Christian Fellowship’s request for funding for its spring break service trip falls under budgetary precedent, the rest of senators’ responsibilities involves attending various committees, in which they have varying degrees of power and importance. Unfortunately, their work on these committees is rarely communicated to the rest of the student body, and senators often only have a minority voice in committees, hampering their ability to represent the conflicting and diverse interests of the student body.

Take this exchange from the March 3 Senate minutes for example:

KC Fussell asked what changes the [orientation] committee hopes to make regarding the athletic practices during orientation.

Liya [Rechtman] stated that their plan is to ban all practices during orientation.

KC was very concerned about this measure and asked if there are any athletes on the committee.

Liya stated that there are not any athletes currently serving on the committee because it is impossible to represent all student groups in the small number of students on the committee.

The Orientation Committee makes crucial decisions in organizing and planning all Orientation activities and creating Orientation rules, such as last year’s infamous “Dry Orientation” alcohol ban or this year’s plan to cancel all athletic practices during Orientation. Yet, despite its importance, only three students serve on the Orientation Committee, and they aren’t even directly elected by the student body.

Returning to the current election, I want to focus on the position of AAS President, which appears to be the most hotly contested this year. The President, putatively the most important student representative on campus, has the following duties under the AAS Constitution:

The President of the AAS shall:

1. Serve as the official representative and spokesperson of the AAS and the Student Body.
2. Chair, and be a voting member of, the Executive Branch.
3. Set the agenda for all Executive Branch meetings.
4. Serve ex-officio on the College Council, the Trustee Advisory Committee on Student Life, and the Budgetary Committee.
5. Have veto power over any action of the Senate, which may be overturned by a two-thirds (2/3) vote of the Senate. Presidential veto power may only be used within one week (1) after the action of the Senate.
6. Call an all-campus meeting sponsored by the President of the College and the AAS at least once a year, assisted by the other members of the Executive Branch.
7. Present a speech at the first Senate meeting of each semester.

Based on this description, it doesn’t even really seem like it matters who fills this role, so long as they meet a basic level of competence. The first role is largely titular; a student receiving support from less than a quarter of the student body can hardly claim to be its official representative and spokesperson, especially since the student body disagrees on just about every issue. The second and third roles are rendered more or less meaningless by the fact that the “Executive Branch” as a whole doesn’t have any specific powers granted to it by the AAS Constitution. The ex-officio positions only seem important until you consider that the president is only one of five student members of the College Council and one of ten on the Budgetary Committee. Having veto power is kind of sexy, I guess, but in practice it is only as important as the resolutions available to veto; unless the president has some kind of vendetta against the “Purple Pride” cheer-leading group’s attempts to fund an introductory meeting, this power isn’t worth all that much. The sixth power is intriguing, but I don’t know if it’s ever been used or how effective it would be if it were used—it’s not like the Day of Dialogue did much good. Finally, unless the president has the ability to bore people to death with overly long speeches, the seventh power seems just about worthless as well.

Both of the remaining candidates, Peter Crane and Amani Ahmed, would likely do a decent job fulfilling these duties. But what distinguishes them from each other? Why should students vote for one over the other? They both have statements in their platforms about sexual respect; they both have statements about improving diversity and community; they both have statements about academic support and advising. While their specific ideas may differ on some details, at no point do the ideas they propose contradict each other or lead anyone to believe that they disagree with any of the ideas other candidates listed.

This means that for the purpose of distinguishing between candidates, their platforms are virtually worthless. Instead, voters are expected to make subjective judgments about which candidate has the right persona to get the job done. Voting becomes a measure of how much students like the candidates, rather than a clash of ideas. Since I like both of the candidates well enough—and I have respected friends endorsing both of them—I have nothing to go on to help me make any sort of decision.

I raised all of these concerns with a friend who is campaigning for one of the candidates. He asked me what would make his candidate stand out, and I told him that they would have to pick a side. Taking the “moderate position” and trying to please everyone in a divided campus is merely a commitment to inaction. Claiming to support sexual respect while refusing to condemn institutions and structures that perpetuate sexism helps no one. Advocating for diversity while ignoring racism is like inviting vegetarians to a bull roast. Trying to defend student rights while refusing to antagonize the administration is just playing politics. He of course said that this was impossible, since doing so would lose his candidate crucial votes. But if taking a stand isn’t possible, then what’s the point of student government?

Students don’t ignore the AAS because they don’t care. They ignore the AAS because it is a failed institution. It lacks the power and organization to effectively represent student voices, but more importantly it lacks a unified student body that it could ever possibly claim to represent. So long as we have a divided student body, we can never have a united student government. But this doesn’t have to condemn us to inaction and apathy; we can have student empowerment and democracy without having to rely on an outdated and disempowered model of representative government. This election day I will not be voting for any of the candidates; in fact, I won’t be voting at all. Not because I don’t care, but because I do.

*Correction: Initially read: “pre-allocated to various clubs in the Master General Fund.” Changed to acknowledge the distinction between Club Budgets and the Master General Fund.

About Ethan Corey

Ethan Corey is a junior at Amherst College. Find him on Twitter at @ethanscorey or share your thoughts in the comments.

33 comments on “An Election That Doesn’t Matter

  1. Chris Friend
    April 7, 2014

    Actual # of voters first round: 831 and second round: 797
    Potential voters: 463 (2016) 461 (2015) 490 (2014) (give or take)
    Total: 1414

    Actual turnout rates: 59% first round, 56% second round

    Basically, your stat is just silly, especially since seniors can’t vote in a presidential election…

    • Ethan Corey
      April 7, 2014

      I addressed that point in the article. The fact that seniors can’t vote doesn’t change the fact that most presidents are elected by less than a quarter of the students they claim to represent.

      • Anonymous
        April 7, 2014

        Yeah, who could ever claim a democratic mandate for a leader elected with the votes of less than a quarter of the people that she claims to represent?

        2012 US Population: approximately 314,000,000
        2012 US Presidential Elections: Barack Obama: 65,915,796 votes received

        20.1% of the population

  2. Chris Friend
    April 7, 2014

    You also have a very basic misunderstanding of funding…especially w/r/t a conflation of Master General funding (for things like Program Board and Social Council) with Club Funding (which does fund concerts and speakers for many clubs, as well as club sports). Master General only counts for ~400k, while Club Funding and Discretionary is ~600k

    • Ethan Corey
      April 7, 2014

      Doesn’t really change my substantive point, but I’ll run a correction, thanks.

  3. Liya Rechtman
    April 7, 2014

    Three fact-based problems with this article:

    Is that election statistic from the run-off or from the initial election? The amount of people who voted for the winner is not the same as the amount of people who voted total. Further, only 75% of the student body can vote because seniors don’t vote. 447 is not one quarter of the student body given that constraint, it’s one third. You say this later on in your article but you put this at the top to shock readers. That’s quite frankly just irresponsible journalism.

    Here are a couple of the “important decisions” that the AAS has weighed in on in the past few weeks that have impacted student life: 1) green games environmental initiative was run by Noah Lerner and several first year senators as the Environmental Reform Officer for the President’s Cabinet 2) George Tepe, the student body president, me (a senator) and James Hildebrand the Sexual Respect Officer on the President’s Cabinet have been working since September on making sure that student voices are structurally always a part of the changing policy and implementation decisions around Title IX 3) Ellie Anderson has been running the activities for Pub Night all year and making sure that Schwemms had a liquor license to serve alcohol 4) Fought against dry orientation on the orientation committee 5) appointed at-large members from the student body for every single faculty and administrative committee students sit on. There are, of course, many more “important decisions that affect student life” which the senate makes, those are just the things I personally have been involved in. Multiply that by roughly 32 senators plus six executive board members and I am sure you will find something you cared about that senate helps you with. You know that you could have spoken to me or any other senator and we would have rattled off our activities to you. The issue here isn’t with what senate does, it’s a transparency problem – which is a real issue, but isn’t the point you bring up.

    I am also on the orientation committee. The role of students on this committee and the avenue of their appointment is in the faculty handbook, it has very little to do with the AAS. Siraj Sindhu and I petitioned the committee, who in turn are currently in the process of petitioning the committee of six to add another at-large seat to the orientation committee.

    I’m disappointed, Ethan, you can do better than this.

    • Ethan Corey
      April 7, 2014

      Liya, I addressed the 447 statistic already in my reply to Chris. It is accurate and illustrates a crucial point–that the AAS President is never actually elected by a majority of the student body.

      All the initiatives you mention sound great. I have no desire to disparage the hard work that AAS senators and E-board members actually do; my point is that the AAS is not a good institution for accomplishing these goals. Most of the things you mention are the initiatives of individual members, so those don’t really count as “decisions” per se; they are important projects that student leaders took part in, but to position them as achievements of the AAS as an institution seems specious to me. The appointments issue is separate, but that’s something that I raised as a problem: why are students appointed to committees by the AAS? Why aren’t they elected directly?

      I think it’s great that you and Siraj are trying to add another at-large seat to the orientation committee, and I’m not blaming the AAS for the fact that students’ role on the committee is limited. That has nothing to do with my point that students’ voices aren’t adequately represented on the committee.

      I think student leaders play a hugely important role in fighting for students’ interests, and I don’t want to diminish that. But I also think that the AAS overstates its own importance when it claims to be the “collective voice” of the student body, when that just isn’t the case.

      • Siraj Sindhu
        April 7, 2014

        1) I mean, you realize that “the AAS President is never actually elected by a majority of the student body” because students (like you) don’t vote, right?

        2) In response to your second paragraph–the AAS as an institution is made up of individual members. Everything the AAS does is actually done by a few individuals. Do you have any idea how hard it is to get 37 people together to do something at the same time and place at Amherst College? I’ll tell you: it’s impossible.

        I’m also not sure what you envision when you say “achievements of the AAS as an institution”. It seems that you mean “achievements that the entire AAS works on,” but anything of that sort is practically impossible because of individual time commitments and interests.

        3) To answer your question, “why are students appointed to committees by the AAS? Why aren’t they elected directly?” Several reasons, but I can think of one: because people (like you) don’t vote.

        4) The AAS has members of cultural affinity groups. It has athletes and non-athletes. It has international and domestic students. It has students who are on financial aid and students who aren’t. It has students with a variety of sexual orientations. It has students with a variety of majors and academic interests. The AAS can claim to be a “collective voice” because it is. The AAS, in fact, has a better claim to the label of “collective voice” than does AC Voice, the staff of which is not nearly as large or diverse.

        5) If you’re gonna complain, do something about it. Make this school better. Maria Darrow started a great, recurring House of Poems event. Noah Lerner started the Green Games. Mercedes MacAlpine founded Purple Pride, a new spirit program. RJ Kermes worked to re-start ski trips so that students who might never have skied before can enjoy our beautiful Massachusetts winterscape. Ethan Corey… wrote an inflammatory piece of yellow journalism that began with a very misleading statistic, and couldn’t be bothered to be fully honest until the fourth paragraph. Do something positive, Ethan.

      • Ethan Corey
        April 7, 2014

        1) Well yes, that’s why I wrote an article trying to figure out why students (like me) don’t vote. This sanctimonious attitude towards low voter turnout is exactly what I was trying to address.

        2) That sort of suggests a design flaw in the AAS Constitution, no? If everything the AAS does is done by a few individuals, then why have the AAS in the first place? How does the AAS allow those individuals to accomplish things they would not have otherwise?

        3) That’s taking a consequence of the AAS Constitution and positing as an explanation.

        4) The AAS is also overwhelmingly male (although that has been slowly changing, fortunately). The fact that the AAS has diversity doesn’t make it representative. Or collective. And yeah, AC Voice isn’t the collective voice of the student body either, so what? Trying to be the collective voice of anyone is always going to lead to trouble; it’s going to lead to people being left out.

        5) All of those things sound great, and will spread a lot more joy than this article, certainly. I’m not sure why that’s an argument against any of the concerns I raise. I take some exception to your accusation that I have contributed nothing towards the improvement of this college, but even if it were true, that doesn’t make any of what I said false.

  4. Anonymous
    April 7, 2014

    Students don’t ignore the AAS because they don’t care. They ignore the AAS because it is a failed institution.

    correctomundo

    • Anonymous
      April 7, 2014

      preach.

  5. Siraj Ahmed Sindhu
    April 7, 2014

    1) You’re “trying to figure out why students (like [you]) don’t vote”. The conclusion you come to is that the AAS is a failed institution. This conclusion is predicated on the idea that “it is unclear that the Senate’s role in the [funding] process actually helps students get the funding they need. In most cases, it seems more like a bureaucratic hoop to jump through than a way to empower students with a degree of financial independence from the College.” This, though, is totally false. We have, as Chris pointed out, $600,000 to give to clubs. A body has to exist to distribute those funds fairly and responsibly.

    2) Why get people together ever? So that they can bounce ideas off of each other and get advice and feedback from peers who are interested but might not have the time to get involved. A group of people collaborating does SO much more than a bunch of individuals working alone. You, my friend, are being willfully ignorant to save face.

    3) It’s imperative that we have student voices on committees with faculty and administration. Nobody likes to get incessant all-student emails from the AAS. So, Senators take on the onus of electing student representatives on committees.

    4) If you don’t vote, guess what? Your interests are going to be left out. Senate might not be perfectly representative, but that’s because people don’t vote. The problem is circular. If you just vote, you’ll be represented. Ya dig?

    5) Well, deliberately misleading your readers is, in my view, worse than outright lying, because misleading “facts” are so much more insidious than blatant falsehoods. I take exception to your publishing of yellow journalism on AC Voice, which could be so much better than this.

    • Ethan Corey
      April 7, 2014

      1) I never suggested you don’t have funds to distribute; I questioned whether or not the current system is the best way to “distribute those funds fairly and responsibly.”

      2) That’s an argument for why working collaboratively is good in general, but it makes no case for why the AAS as currently constituted is an effective way of doing so.

      3) Oh, well thanks for that. Senators taking on the “onus” of choosing my representatives for me is soooo democratic.

      4) That’s not how representation works. I could vote for Amani or Peter for AAS president, but my doing so wouldn’t mean that they would actually represent me. While I like both of them personally, neither of them represent me, so why would I vote for either? You’re missing the point of my argument.

      5) I did not deliberately mislead anyone. It is a fact that only 447 students, which is less than a quarter of the total student body, voted for our current president. The fact that only three-quarters of the student body is eligible to vote doesn’t change this.

  6. Sharline Dominguez
    April 7, 2014

    I have never voted in any election either like Ethan, and to be quite frank, I don’t see how doing so will affect any change that I want to see on this campus. I also would not say that I am being pessimistic, for I have come a long way since my freshman year in how I feel represented or comfortable at Amherst. And yes, I am sure that the AAS works very hard to address some of the issues affecting the student body, but I agree with Ethan that as long as we have a divided student body, we can never have a united student government. Simple as that. I have had several conversations with other students about the elections this semester and what I’ve consistently heard them say is that what voting essentially comes down to is supporting someone who is 1) popular/ personable on campus and 2) your friend. To be clear, I am also not undermining the efforts of students who take the initiative to work closely with administration to implement crucial policies, really. But I don’t know what administrators and AAS members talk about in private.

  7. Sharline Dominguez
    April 7, 2014

    and can only hope that what they choose to communicate to us through email is nothing but the honest truth. (don’t know why this last bit was cut off from my comment)

  8. Anon
    April 7, 2014

    Despite those who believe that this is “yellow journalism,” this article perfectly articulated how I feel about the AAS and the reasons why I never vote. Thank you, Ethan.

  9. Anonymous
    April 8, 2014

    agreeing with most points, at times it seems like most AAS candidates and student committee members run simply for the title and not to actually accomplish anything (not to mention those who just like to hear themselves speak *cough*Liya*cough*)

    • Shirui Chen
      April 10, 2014

      People who speak or write on controversial issues are often characterized as simply people who “like to hear their own voice.” In my experience this is usually an unfair characterization, even when it is made of someone with whom I disagree on an issue. It seems to me to be most often used by people simply because they disagree with another person who happens to be very vocal.

  10. Anonymous
    April 8, 2014

    Speaking as a person who does not generally vote in school elections and having discussed the issue with numerous friends and acquaintances, it really does seem to me that Amherst students do not vote because we are apathetic and too self-involved to care about something that does not directly affect us. Most Amherst students seem much more interested in engaging in vapid gossip and complaining than actually doing something meaningful. It really does seem to be that the problem is not AAS but rather people like me (and you) who choose not to be involved in AAS. I think most of the Amherst student body, as much as it pains me to say this, just is not all that interested in issues beyond selfish parochial concerns. (I include myself here.)

  11. Anonymous
    April 8, 2014

    Even if you don’t value the AAS, you certainly do value student life on campus (as evident by the rather vocal articles on ACVoice). Most of the student run activities on campus are funded by the AAS, which is independent of the school (so your stat about the AAS’s budget being 0.5% of the school’s total annual budget is irrelevant). Even if you dislike the institution itself, you’d be foolish to dismiss them as useless because that “measly” $1 million dollars ensures an active student life on campus.

    Also maybe if you tried reforming the system by being an active participant and actually attending meetings and events (and not use meeting minutes as your basis, which is rather shallow because their primary purpose is to maintain some sort of institutional memory) instead of complaining about it, then some progress will occur. Just like how your radical and complaining articles on ACVoice are important to you (newsflash: most of the school discounts this website as comic rubbish anyway), acknowledge that the AAS is important to at least 32 students in this school. At least they’re making an effort to fix this school’s problems instead of just complaining about it.

  12. Anonymous
    April 8, 2014

    I am a pretty avid reader of ACVoice and I particularly like reading your articles, Ethan, but this is not one of your best to say the least. It seems to me that you are trying to justify your and other students’ apathy toward AAS by blaming AAS for your lack of involvement. Too easy don’t you think? I’ve got to agree with Siraj and Liya; this does seem like yellow (or at the very least, sloppy) journalism to me.

  13. Anon
    April 8, 2014

    Excellent.

  14. George Tepe '14
    April 8, 2014

    Ethan, I don’t use the fact that I somehow represent the entire student body to push initiatives at the school. I use my overall good looks and sense of gravitas to blindly blast through any well thought out resistance. I learned from the best. #TonyMarx

    No, but seriously, you are right Ethan there is absolutely no way that a single person could possibly represent the entire student body because, as you pointed out, we often disagree about most things. Honestly, most of my input to the administration takes the form of, “Well a lot of students think this, and many other students think that, and a small number think this other thing” and then trying to figure out how to best navigate these different views on campus. My rule of thumb is to tell everyone everything all the time so that I don’t accidentally make the mistake of thinking that I inherently have the ability to singlehanded get the pulse of the entire campus. You can ask senators, AAS E-Board members and my cabinet (none of whom are senators, except Liya) how open I am about things that I am working on. I would much rather have a senator tell me in a meeting that I am being an idiot about some issue on campus than have the entire student body tell me I am an idiot once the administration implemented some awful policy with my backing. I think that a student body president can be effective by presenting the many different views on campus to the administration in a concise way and having the ability to figure out how to move forward from there.

    To your broader points about the AAS, I think you make some good points indirectly. First, I think your article (and the picture you use) shows that the AAS has done a bad job saying what it has done this year. I created the “What does the AAS do?” tab two years ago and singlehandedly kept it up to date when I was the JC Chair and VP. I tried to create an AAS communications officer as part of my cabinet earlier in the year so someone would be in charge of organizing outreach and telling students what we were working on, but the senate did not like that idea for a variety of reason. Unfortunately, the senate never came up with an alternative plan to keep our social media and AAS page up-to-date.

    We have done a bad job of saying what we have done this year, but it is not fair to say that the AAS is a failed institution because of that. It is true that like every constituency on campus (students, trustees, faculty, staff) we depend on the administration to actually execute policy at Amherst. That does not mean therefore that the AAS and its members cannot be credited with any changes at Amherst. The AAS as an organization does deserve credit for changes that have occurred because of its lobbying and because of the actions of its members (myself included). Some examples from this year are:

    1) Successfully lobbying for a new Dean of Students this year
    2) Brand-new party policy
    3) Pub Nights
    4) Green Games
    5) Publishing reported sexual assaults in the Student crime log every month
    6) Created Title IX Review Committee so students could have continued input in/ oversight of Title IX issues
    7) Speak Love campaign
    8) All student meetings and dialogues after Crossett Christmas
    9) Late night Val

    Of course many of these occurred because the administration took action and other groups pressured the administration, but the AAS was integral to all of those projects.

    I also think you indirectly bring up good points about why students don’t view the AAS as an organization that rallies grassroot student activism. By bringing up our budgetary wrangling in senate meetings, I think you get at potentially one of the AAS’s biggest problems: we are too bureaucratic. Rich Keeling, the student life consultant, told the College Council (the faculty committee on student life) that in the early 90′s administrations across the country realized that they could check student’s ability to organize themselves if they gave the student government a lot of money to oversee. This would turn the student government into a bureaucracy. This blew my mind when he said that because I think it is relatively accurate. Students mainly interact with the AAS to get money and the AAS spends a significant amount of time debating budgetary matters. With all the money the AAS has, we should spend a lot of time making sure it is spent well. But being in charge of all of this money shifts the paradigm of the student government because we become much more conservative in our thinking because we worry about risk and budgetary rules. At the same time, we wouldn’t want to give back all this money to the school because then students would have to deal with the bigger bureaucracy of the school to get funding. But I think we need to work to de-bureaucratize senate meetings themselves. I think the budgetary committee should be given more power to decide basic budgetary issues (the senate rarely overturns BC recommendations anyway), with senate oversight. Senate meetings should be a time where the student body and senators feel comfortable organizing student outrage and concerns with our college, not a time to come get money for a speaker and debate budget issues for over an hour. I could write a whole other comment about how we can do that.

    • Ethan Corey
      April 8, 2014

      Thanks for your input. I appreciate the work you have done as president to include student voices in the decision-making processes of the College, and I understand that the students involved with the AAS are all genuinely committed to improving student life at the College.

      I think all of the nine items you listed are good examples of what students can accomplish at the College, but I question how much of that is the result of the AAS as an organization vs. the initiative of the individual students involved. Some of the items on your list (e.g. the Green Games) were as much the product of student organizing outside of the AAS as within, and I think that’s largely the case with student initiatives at the College. The AAS may have a special role sometimes because of its control over the student activities budget, but I just don’t see the AAS as a privileged locus for student activism or empowerment on campus. That’s what I mean when I say the AAS is a failed institution; it is structurally impeded from living up to its own goals.

      As for the points you raise in the last paragraph, I had a good conversation with a senator about that last night. I think that’s a really intriguing insight with a lot of difficult problems to sort out (as you mention). If you or someone else in the AAS wants to (/has the time to) write a guest post about this or do a Q&A with me or another member of the ACV staff, I think it would be really informative and helpful for the student body as a whole.

  15. J. Sidhu '14
    April 8, 2014

    Ethan, you should read this article (up to the “What Needs to Be Done?” section): http://www.forstudentpower.org/blog/2012/11/21/are-student-governments-obsolete

    I think you’ve made a good point about student government. I was a Senator here for two and a half years before I went abroad and then did not run again, and I agree with much (although not all) of what you’ve said. But you should realize that your criticisms do not (contrary to what the tone of your article suggests) apply solely to Amherst College. As you’ll see from the article above, student governments nationwide suffer from the same issues. It has nothing to do with the students in the AAS or those involved in the government themselves; rather, it has everything to do with the institution of student government itself. Student governments inherently can’t function as you’d like them to, because A) you’re here for only four and a half years, no one really is going to give a damn to engage that much in that little time, and B) there is little to no incentive for these schools to give students more power.

    If you read after the “What Needs to Be Done?” section, you’ll see that Glass advocates for a student union that essentially models labor union. He sees that as the only effective solution to the flaws of student government that you’ve identified. But do you really think a student union would be successful? No one here would have any interest in creating one. No one here would engage in one because no one has the time, and no one will give us power. He even hints at eventually getting rid of grades, exams, departments, etc. which is pure BS. I give this example of Glass’ simply to suggest that there really is no way of fixing the problem you’ve identified (which has been identified before, by Glass), and it’s unfair to chastise the people who are involved in AAS simply because they work within an inherently flawed institution (again, that’s not their fault Frankly, they’re putting more of an effort into things than anyone else is.

    In that sense, rather than criticizing the AAS for something that’s not its fault, what suggestions do you have? How can you make the AAS better? If you’re not going to reach out to the candidates and make these suggestions, or vote, or maybe run to implement the suggestions yourself, then don’t complain. It’s as simple as that.

    • Ethan Corey
      April 8, 2014

      I was actually looking for that article specifically, but I couldn’t find it. Thanks for sharing it. As to your other points, I never intended to suggest that this problem is unique to Amherst College or that any individuals involved in the AAS were to blame, because, as you point out, student governments don’t seem to be particularly powerful or relevant anywhere. I was not chastising the people involved in the AAS or blaming them for its failures either. As for a solution, at the end of this article I linked to an article I wrote last year outlining an alternative vision for student empowerment based on decentralized modes of student participation in governing the College. So instead of a centralized student government that gets tied up arguing over an ultimately insignificant budget (whose constraints are out of its control), students could be empowered through a network of interrelated forms of student governance: e.g. dorm governance (like we already sort of have in theme houses), directly elected membership on important committees, department committees (in which students would have a say in the management of the departments in which they major), as well as a host of less formalized methods of empowerment (the Green Amherst Project is a great example of students working for change in collaboration with other groups, but with their own self-contained agenda). I didn’t include these suggestions in my article because I’ve already made those suggestions elsewhere (and I linked to them in the article); instead, I articulated why the status quo doesn’t work and why students seeking to make change should think outside of established channels like the AAS.

      • J. Sidhu '14
        April 8, 2014

        I guess my point was more that there is no viable alternative solution other than working within the current system to make tangible, daily aspects of student life better. Dorm governance, directly elected membership, membership on department committees (which already happens in some departments and still doesn’t mean anything); none of these things would change the fundamental problem that students have no power and will never have the power that you seek because there is no incentive for the school to give it to us. All “thinking outside established channels” in the ways you’ve suggested does is restructure the same decision making protocols to make them seem more democratic, transparent, and open; but it doesn’t change the fact that the decisions being made are the same, and we will never have the power to make more important decisions. If Glass thought the only solution is a radical labor union style reform, and if we know that will never happen at Amherst (you’re kidding yourself if you think there’s a chance for that), then how can we expect to change anything at all here?

        In the end, students are here to learn and get a degree, not to become professional student activists. The system will never change how you want it to, so if one is really interested in improving student life, it’s better to work within the AAS to improve the small, daily, tangible aspects of student life rather than trying to radically reform student government. Why? Because student government inherently can’t be reformed. Its a flawed institution (because it lacks real power) and it always will be.

      • Ethan Corey
        April 8, 2014

        Sure, the idea of radical change at Amherst is a remote possibility (although not that remote: Amherst in the 60s came pretty close to what Glass is describing), but it doesn’t follow from that that “it’s better to work within the AAS to improve the small, daily, tangible aspects of student life.” Accepting the constraints of the current situation does not necessarily entail working within existing institutions.

  16. Batman
    April 9, 2014

    At the end of the day, the so-called Student Government is nothing more than another line on an overachiever’s resume. Those who run do run for senate do not do so for any notions of public good. Rather, they try to increase their chances of getting accepted to a grad school, get a better job, or any other fantasy of a madman.

    It is insignificant whether they represent the entire student body or not.The AAS cannot implement any substantial changes no matter what they say. In short, the student government is as useless as tits on a bull (although, one can argue that there is an aesthetic value in this picture).

    In the words of great Ludwig von Mises: “The bureaucrat is not free to aim at improvement. He is bound to obey rules and regulations established by a superior body. He has no right to embark upon innovations if his superiors do not approve of them. His duty and his virtue is to be obedient.”

    *this comment has been edited

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  19. X
    May 17, 2014

    No one ever acknowledges senate projects, where all the cool stuff gets done!

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