Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Issue of the day: Student Senate Caucus, efficacy of.

I admit that I cannot comment on the senate proceedings this past year, as I am now living on another continent. However, if history is an indicator of the present and future, I will allow myself to write a short excerpt on student senator’s and their caucus’ effectiveness.

The Continuity Harp

The majority of the Senate’s members are faculty members and deans, so by virtue of tenure they can be elected to three year terms successively with no limit (life permitting). This contrasts with student senators rather starkly, whose university career often gallantly flickers away after four or five years, and for this reason serve a term which lasts only one year. By no means is it shocking to see a faculty member serve the senate for over a decade, whereas the rare student will stick around for three terms (three years).

Continuity in the student caucus of senate is painful at best, due to the sheer nature of the electoral process: you get elected onto the senate based on experience of university/academic matters (in theory at least), which by definition requires you to have completed a minimum of one year of university, often more.

It has been the case that most student senators happen to be senior students, graduating the next year to go on to other things in other places. Since the Senate meets once a month at best, and its committees meet anywhere between twice a month to not at all, often the most focussed, well prepared items brought forth by student senators require more than one year’s worth of effort. Even with the least amount of cynicism do I dare say that in order to achieve any change, one needs to sit on the senate for more than one term. Often, this does not happen.
We have been lucky in the past to have incredibly thorough senators, who have created, revised, and passed down a monstrous volume of a senate transition package (now probably exceeding 70 pages). The upside of it is that each student senator for the past four years has left their advice and insight. The downside of it is that the incoming senators have to read it, and very few of them actually do for whatever reason.

Quite often, the same cycle is repeated: the first few meetings, no matter how integral the timing of them, receive very little student-driven items on their agenda.

Internal Dynamics

The efficacy of a caucus is determined by the leadership and drive of the group itself. There may be concrete goals a caucus wishes to achieve, and there may be key developments in which students need to take a solid stance. In both cases it is up to the individual senators, under the guidance of the chair, to put in many hours to be well prepared by digging up institutional memory and history to present a clear argument effectively and eloquently.

There are thousands of students in some faculties, and only one designated representative to the senate. Not all senators are elected based on key platform points which they want to see through. Some senators are simply elected on a promise to show up to every meeting and contribute to discussion as well as they can. If this senator happens to find a birthday party more appealing than a senate meeting, she or he may have failed to present a valuable, unique perspective (and vote) on behalf of these students. It is a pet peeve of mine to see some student senators lose interest in a seemingly tame agenda, and subsequently fail to attend a valuable discussion where their presence could have turned the outcome of the vote.

Coherence with the AMS

The relationship with the AMS is murky at best. Why two senators have voting power at AMS council is mysterious to me, their presence at council less so. According to the AMS, it is recommended that their VP External attend the student senate caucus meetings. However, it would make more sense if the (already overworked) VP Academic and University Affairs took on this role. Unfortunately, AMS Council meeting and caucus meeting often overlap, and Senate meetings are scheduled seven years in advance.

There is room for greater coherence between the student council and the senators. Oftentimes it simply requires greater communication, as tiny nuances from one body is lost in a quick report to the other, and vice versa. I see this issue to be prescribed for those rare senators and councillors who go above and beyond their duties, but it can be done over a beer or three.

Overall, I believe a caucus is effective if each member wants to be there, instead of feeling they are obliged to be there. Being a student senator can be intimidating, boring, thankless (no we do not get paid), stressful and exhilarating. If any of those emotions have not been felt, then chances are the individual elected ran for the title and fancy-looking business cards.