Illustration by Shenuka Corea
After a long and painful decline, it is with great sadness that we must accept that General Assembly is dead. Memories of its vibrant youth, of packed rooms and lively debates, of motions and seconds, of laughter and even tears sustained it in its last few years of deterioration. As those memories become distant, however, we must acknowledge the failings of GA and look to the future.
Our model of Student Government, placing the most power with a body open to all students, is unique among university student governments. It reminds me of the town meetings of New England. If you’ve ever seen Gilmore Girls, you are familiar with town meetings. My hometown in Massachusetts has them too. Like our GA, these town halls present information from elected officials, vote on local issues and discuss common concerns. The whole town comes out for them, making them an effective means to understand the community’s opinions.
That’s the key though. People come. Direct democracies are great, in theory, but they require participation in order to be successful. Our General Assemblies, with 12, 13, 15 or 18 individuals in attendance, all of whom are usually required to be there — Executive Board members, committee chairs, Gazelle reporters, and Student Life assistants paid to manage the A/V — exemplify the shortcomings of a direct democracy.
Anyone can bring 10 friends and completely hijack the process.
I understand that it can be a pain to attend GA. It’s a time commitment, there’s pretentious jargon, it’s all the way in the Student Union. We have tried fixing it over the last four years.
Nothing worked: not changing the time or location, not creating themes or making it more informal. No one comes.
It’s a fundamental breakdown in the system.
I write this as Kelly the student, not Kelly the Student Government President. I was a proponent of GA for a long time. I have attended almost every one since my freshman year and historically staunchly advocated GA’s continuance. Sure, I thought it was problematic that an individual could bring a few friends and vote to mandate Meatless Mondays, but if that individual was invested, then all the more power to them for taking that initiative.
As our student body grows, that argument becomes untenable. Our first GA of the year had over 100 first year students in attendance. Personally, I was ecstatic about the attendance. Over 100 is unheard of. Our attendees were less excited and asked, “How can GA be the representative body of the students when it is 95% first years? How can we make decisions that impact the whole student body when only 8% of the student body is in attendance? How is any of this legitimate?”
I don’t have the answers for that. I no longer believe that GA is legitimate. We need to recognize the changing nature of our university and adapt our Student Government accordingly. We need a new system.
We need a new system to better represent the diverse voices among our student body, not just the 15 or so who attend GA. Restructuring our Student Government from a direct democracy to a representative one does not silence our voices. It does not make the system undemocratic. Rather, it will force our representatives to become more accountable to their constituents, to actively seek feedback and to reach out. It will decrease bureaucracy. It will improve legitimacy. Most importantly, it will allow Student Government to once again do what it is meant to do: advocate for the whole student body.
Kelly Murphy is a contributing writer. Email her at [email protected]