Recently, articles and opinion pieces have raised questions about how decisions and recommendations have been made by Student Government to the college administration, most notably about the proposal for Community Time, which was put forth by Provost Jim Pence.
This event provides a good case study to explain how decisions like this come into being, and how St. Olaf students, primarily through its elected leadership, shape the policies that eventually influence their daily lives.
In an email to the Student Government I explained my position on the Community Time proposal, and I was candid in saying that there are times when we are asked for opinions and times when we ask for permission. The Community Time proposal was one where lots of folks were asked to give input; including faculty and staff involved with music, athletics, food service, and lab and classroom scheduling. None of them had veto power over it, although many could have effectively obstructed it. Amazingly, a loose consensus developed, and people looked for ways to make it work, rather than derail it. In Senate discussions, Provost Pence and I were clear with students that we needed their feedback, but that this would be a decision made in the best interest of the whole community. In the email, I went further to say that I hoped they voted the proposal on its merits, and that I trusted them to give an honest statement of intent.
I was not able to attend the meeting, but the next day I heard about the seemingly contradictory proposals to both support and challenge the Community Time proposal. I was at first puzzled, but when it was explained, it showed more wisdom than a simple up or down vote might have done.
The positive vote showed a willingness to try something new, even though folks were a bit skeptical (an interesting conservative trait I find in our usually adventurous students.) The negative vote was a warning to be sure that the College followed through on the promise of the proposal. The once puzzling SGA vote sent a very clear message to many of us, and it has shaped much of the discussion that has followed in how to use this time.
There are other numerous examples of Student Senate using their influence to shape policies important to students. These include "front burner" issues for the leadership of the College, such as availability of ORC courses; options for students to have academic minors; parking; technology, whether we should have a smoke-free campus and what our budget priorities ought to include. Seemingly most of what I read in the Messenger about Senate is critical, however I have yet to see an article pointing out their leadership on these matters.
Although individually and collectively we have not always agreed, I for one am pleased about the priorities Senate has chosen and acted on in the past 2 years. This includes the successful Sweatshop proposal from last year, their challenge to the expansion of the Psychology major requirements, the current Tree Free debate, and the host of other issues I mentioned earlier. Is it controversial and confrontational? Not usually. In these debates, Senate has been more interested in influencing change than making noise.
Perhaps making noise is sexier for the paper to cover. I can assure you, however, that students are far better off because the SGA has shown itself to be more interested in real progress on real issues.
I'll do my part to get this story out, and I trust others will do their part. My hope is that more students have a chance to see and hear exactly what I am talking about.