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.
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.
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.