Brendan Clark ’21
Our Student Government Association—a body that exists to represent the voices of we, the students—has recently undertaken a revision of their constitution. In the spirit of democratism, so they assert, the SGA aims to separate their constitution from their bylaws. Henceforth, bylaws will govern their meetings while the constitution, under the proposed system, will remain inviolable except by referendum of the student body.
In principle, this seems a relatively innocuous change. I think such a change may in fact be in the best interest of our student government and am in favor of the division. Still, in these discussions, several proposals came to my attention that are deeply troubling: the potential elimination of Robert’s Rules of Order as the governing text of meetings and the elimination of the role of parliamentarian. Why, you might ask, is this a matter of concern? How do the elements of an agenda impact me as a student? How does my day change dependent on the method of voting? How does a parliamentarian actually factor into the preservation of my rights? At its heart, the minutiae of rules and order ensure that your elected representatives act fairly, preserving the rights of majority and minority alike.
Parliamentary rules prevent a government from abusing its powers, intentionally or unintentionally. The students have a right to know what their elected government is debating and should have the ability to speak on matters during appropriately designated periods of “public comment.” This is the cornerstone of any democratic process and must be preserved if our student government will continue to represent our voice and the public good. Our SGA constitution affirms its obligation to the students, as it exists to “officially represent the voice and concerns of the Student Body.” If these concerns are to be represented, the student government should not have an affirmative right to discard with rules and procedure when it suits them. This is the very reason texts such as Robert’s exist in the first place.
I valued the opportunity to give public testimony on this matter before the SGA Sunday evening. Regretfully, some of the concerns I raised seem to have gone unheeded. At the start of the meeting, the SGA President indicated that a new matter would be introduced onto the agenda concerning the Student Organization Oversight Committee (SOOC), which—as I understand it—acts to correct the “two-step process” that was the lynchpin of disputes in the spring surrounding recognition of the Churchill Club. Clearly, this matter is of concern to a substantial majority of the student body. However, because of this addition to the agenda without distribution to the student body, those interested in making remarks simply did not know that the matter was being addressed. It does not matter if one person or ten are interested, all opinions matter and should have the opportunity to be heard. Sudden changes to the agenda impede opinions and inhibit engagement with the entire student body.
How could this have been avoided? Despite the fact that I expressed my concern to the entirety of SGA, a parliamentarian (or the members of a “committee on rules”) would have been equally prepared to intervene and inform the chair of this violation. This distribution of power ensures that even the chair must play within the restrictions of impartial rules. It prevents any one official from gaining too much power and instituting tyranny. It is, at its heart, an important role that preserves the democratic process and the fairness that must exist in debate and discourse.
Moreover, the bylaws of most municipal governments prohibit additions to the agenda twenty-four hours prior to the meeting, for the very purpose I note above. Our faculty on this campus, our state legislatures, and our congress all have parliamentarians, who are educated in and can act swiftly when questions of rules arise. Who are we, as students, to reject a practice well-known throughout our nation’s democratic institutions? Why should we not, instead, take this opportunity to embrace rules and the objectivity they introduce into our debate. If the SGA wishes to make its actions more democratic by dividing the bylaws and the constitution, we should be encouraging adherence to the rules, not discarding them.
Unfortunately, Sunday night, the student body lost an opportunity to voice their concern for or support of an important element of governance—the approval of clubs—and that is a loss that cannot be recouped. Further, SGA is still governed by Robert’s, as they have not yet instituted constitutional revisions, and so they have in fact violated their rules as they stand under our SGA constitution. As Montesquieu so aptly asserts, “to become truly great, one has to stand with people, not above them.” Our SGA is not above the rules. It is an entity above no student on this campus, nor any organization. For this student government to reach its objectives, it must adhere to the rules, the same rules that the governments of our cities, states, and towns observe. For here, had the rules been maintained and had their watchdog—the parliamentarian—been in office, this diatribe may never have been necessary.
Consider also the case of voting: Robert’s Rules assures that the citizenry has a right to hear the positions of its elected representatives. Our SGA has allowed for public votes in the past and it is my hope that the practice is maintained as revisions go forth. Robert’s, however, protects the voting interest. Any member of the elected body has the right under parliamentary procedure to request “a division of the assembly by having the affirmative rise and then the negative, so that all may see how members vote.”
Similarly, certain motions may require the need of a roll call to hear how each member votes. These mechanisms ensure that the student body knows what their representatives believe and what they are fighting for.
As elected officials who represent the interests of all students, there is rarely a reason why votes should be conducted in secret. If you have an opinion, stand by it. You were elected for your voice and it is on your votes that you will be adjudged in the next election. In my case, as an editor and writer for the Tripod, we put our names on every article we write. SGA members—even when things become contentious—must continue to be held to that same standard. And in those very rare instances where a member is concerned to vote publicly, Robert’s affords answers: limited ballot voting is allowed in certain circumstances or the body could vote to go into executive session to deliberate on the issue further.
I believe our SGA seeks to do good things and wishes to fairly represent our interests. But those good things must be accomplished in time, with deference to rules that ensure our practices are fair. I would urge our SGA to preserve the rules—and the position of parliamentarian or an equivalent committee—in recognition of the imperative role they play in protecting our democratic process.