SGA’s role in campus change is performative

SGA%27s+role+in+campus+change+is+performative

Illustration by Andrea Nebhut

What is the purpose of a student government? Who is it made for? According to our own Student Government Association’s (SGA) constitution, its first purpose is to “[advocate] for the development and advancement of student interests both inside and outside of the University community.” Yet when I think back through my four years at Trinity, I can’t name any lasting administrative change spearheaded by SGA which advanced my interests as a student. Can you?

I say this as someone who was an SGA senator for a year and a half and who didn’t feel like they had accomplished much of anything during their term. After talking to others who had experience working with SGA, I found that I wasn’t alone in these sentiments. In many cases, moving campus-wide changes became an extremely difficult task against the opaque nature of Trinity’s administration.

When I think back through my four years at Trinity, I can’t name any lasting administrative change spearheaded by SGA which advanced my interests as a student. Can you?

“A lot of times student governments are meant to be the mouthpiece of the student body to the administration,” said junior Carson Bolding, former SGA senator. “While technically I’m sure we had access to the administration, the only people I felt like I interacted with were Dean Tuttle and Jamie Thompson. I feel like the [SGA] president had more access and dialogue with administrators, but it didn’t feel very open to the rest of SGA.”

Instead of focusing on articulating student interests, often so much of SGA’s time focuses on funding requests, allocating money from the student activity fee (SAF) to different student organizations for events and activities. This is how things like Chocolate Fest get funded, or Lunar New Year. It is by no means an unimportant task, but it tends to consume the entire agenda of SGA, not leaving any space for student advocacy.

“Given the nature of it, it’s a huge amount of money, so there is a lot of time required for it … I do agree that it takes up the majority of our time, I think because in essence, that’s the majority of what we do,” said Oliver Chapin-Eiserloh, current sophomore SGA senator. “In the [SGA] constitution, it states that ‘SGA reserves the right to make studies, reports and recommendations advocating for students’ rights, needs and interests to the college community, administration, Board of Trustees and the public.’ So we can essentially recommend stuff, but there is not a whole lot of vehicle for us to make a broader change that doesn’t have the support of the administration.”

This is the major problem facing SGA’s structure as an organization. While I do think SGA under-utilizes its ability to recommend changes, this power has little precedent and no strong backing behind it. This is not the fault of any SGA members: The organization is designed in such a way to keep senators’ hands full funding clubs while disincentivizing raising a fuss over any campus issues. The few times that SGA has made resolutions, the results haven’t been inspiring: SGA’s unanimous vote to suggest removing Chick-fil-A from Revolve was rejected entirely, citing stable sales at the restaurant as the reason for keeping it. Regardless of how you feel about the issue, one has to ask: What is the point of a student representative organization when their unanimous suggestions are dismissed without even a further discussion?

“There’s an idea and expectation that [SGA] is a governmental body that has the powers that come with that statement, but in actuality that is not the case,” said Ben Falcon, sophomore and former SGA senator. “I think in many ways SGA’s central problem is the fact that [it] functions as sort of a redundant organization. [SGA] claims to be the voice of the student body and its activism, but in many ways, it’s actually the [registered student organizations] and [university-sponsored organizations] that do a much better job of doing that.” (Falcon is a columnist for the Trinitonian).

In many ways, SGA isn’t built to provide avenues for the advancement of student interests. It pits the student representatives against student organizations during funding requests so that if there are any complaints about funding the fault lies with SGA and not administrators. This is not to say that the administration should control the SAF, but the current system ensures that there is no higher dialogue for conversations beyond SAF funding.

Perhaps some are OK with SGA’s current role. But as it stands, why should any student care about SGA until it plays a more established role in advocating for students? The current structure breeds apathy about the organization, resulting in fewer people running for SGA and a less diverse SGA senate. This can end up hurting students in the end: When our SGA is no longer beholden to student interests, they are more able to make changes that defy the principles of democracy.

Recently, SGA decided that they would make major changes to their constitution, including deleting an entire position and giving seniors another semester of voting power, without a student body vote, because they were mere “cosmetic changes.” This “cosmetic” clause was intended to allow the removal of typos from the constitution, not entire positions. But how many students will actually care about this flagrant misuse of the constitution? Sure, this specific change doesn’t impact students a whole lot in the end, but what’s to stop SGA from using this same process again for other changes? This cycle of apathy to dubious uses of power to more apathy must be broken if the student body ever wants to have a substantial voice on campus.

Perhaps the most disheartening part of that recent decision from SGA is the language with which our elected representatives speak about campus changes. Claire Carlson, president of SGA, was quoted as saying, “This change is going to happen regardless. It’s simply us making a reflection of the constitution that was inherited to us.” My criticism is not towards our representatives themselves, who work extremely hard under the system they were given. But their language exemplifies how SGA sees itself: Rather than playing an active role in decisions, they are carrying out orders from Student Involvement. Unless we change the way in which SGA carries and establishes itself, we’ll be left wondering whether it’s there to represent student interests to administrators or administrative interests to students.