Four Student Government Reforms That Might Actually Do Something
I’ve been a Grade Rep for three years. Here’s how Student Government can build legitimacy.
January 15, 2021
As a longtime low-ranking Student Government representative, I’m well acquainted with the pejoratives constantly thrown its way: “just a party-planning committee,” “the administration’s puppet rulers,” “college application filler,” and “totally symbolic” are all common student body refrains. These criticisms hurt, in large part, because they lie quite close to the truth. Since 2017, at least, Student Government has been aimless and ineffectual, an institution with the mysterious notoriety of the Honor Council but which holds the same amount of real-world power as Latin’s Model UN. The inefficiency is, primarily, no fault of the well-meaning and driven people who lead Student Government, but its very structure, which often tends toward symbolism and rarely brings about meaningful change.
Last year, efforts were indeed made to streamline the Student Government structure. Then-seniors Joe Kennedy and Maya Passman worked with the body’s advisor, Dean of Community Learning Suzanne Callis, on a series of reforms that included adding a position—Co-Curricular Prefect—and downsizing the total number of Grade Reps from 16 to 12. These steps, rooted in the same concerns as those with which I write this article (and legitimate disgust at the body’s male-dominated and primarily white student makeup) were promising and worthwhile, but far too narrow—Kennedy and Passman tacked amendments onto a broken constitution without mending its underlying issues.
The issues in question: a veiled democratic process, an operational procedure centered around its leaders (and not the student body), and constraints on its power so suffocating that any glint of potential impact is immediately squashed.
The Student Government structure needs a total overhaul. Here’s where reforms can start:
Unrestricted access to all voting results.
As it currently stands, voting for all Student Government candidates—from Senior Prefect to Freshman Grade Rep—takes place on private Google Forms. Ms. Callis sends the forms to the community, the community allocates votes, and, the next day, winners are announced. Those who led failed campaigns are told “better luck next time” and are expected to retreat into the faceless masses. The candidate who missed the cutoff by two votes is viewed identically to the candidate who ran for no reason other than to crack jokes in their speech (and ultimately won the votes of just a few enamored rebels).
A shrouded democracy deserves no place in a school that publicly aims to “cultivate … leadership and moral courage,” especially at a moment in which our nation’s democratic institutions face unjustified attacks. Not only do private voting results eliminate the opportunity for candidates to reflect on their standing, but they create unnecessary room for speculation. Moreover, if a student has the emotional wherewithal to run for office, they shouldn’t be shielded from potentially disheartening results—after all, elected student leaders theoretically face challenges far more intense than the results of an election for which they volunteered.
“Election results should be public information,” said senior Henry Coleman, who led unsuccessful campaigns for Senior Prefect and Grade Rep this year. “It would have been really helpful to know just how competitive I was with the other candidates, and I really don’t think there’s any downside to publicizing the results.”
Senior Antonio Santana, who also ran for Senior Grade Rep without success, agreed. “I think it would be beneficial if the exact voting breakdown was publicized, at very least for the people who ran. It could definitely help if they are planning on running again in the future.”
Ms. Callis shared that the obscurement of voting results has long been Latin’s practice, and thus she “kept with tradition.” She also pointed out that because many candidates run for Grade Rep after failed bids for the Executive Board, the publication of voting results might present an additional factor in their subsequent campaigns.
According to Ms. Callis, voter turnout at Latin typically falls at around 50%, with just 257 votes cast in last year’s Executive Board election and 76-80 cast in each of last year’s Grade Rep elections. Not only would open voting results inform candidates, but they would encourage turnout among students, making public the impact of each individual vote on the election at large.
A procedure that prioritizes the issues that Latin students face—not a forum for trivial events and discussion.
The Zoom (or cafeteria, in better days) meeting room quiets; a grid of red “mute” icons hush the eager Grade Reps, still mid-coffee and groggy from a night of too little sleep. There’s a brief moment in which we feel part of something. Important, even. Perhaps today is the day that Student Government leaves its mark on the student body experience; perhaps today we silence the detractors. And then: “So, guys, what should we make the theme for Winter Carnival? Tropical Tuesday or Wild West Wednesday?”
Though it varies from time to time, Student Government meetings follow a three-part sequence: a pending event or issue is put forward, members discuss and brainstorm, and then the meeting slowly comes to a close. That is, the meetings give student leaders’ imaginations the spotlight (what amazing new event theme can Student Government dream up this time?) instead of centering on the needs of the student body.
Consider the student government at Francis W. Parker School. Though the school has faced criticism for student newspaper censorship, its student government outperforms that of Latin in nearly every regard. Parker Student Government (SG) consists of more than a dozen streamlined committees, with foci ranging from educational curriculum to the environment, and publishes a weekly report on their concerns and accomplishments.
The most impressive facet of Parker SG—and that which I most passionately argue should find a place at Latin—is their proposal system, which guarantees that the group focuses primarily on issues of real importance to the student body.
“Any student can submit a proposal on an issue they care about,” said Parker senior Alex Schapiro, who served last year as Senate Head and is currently Treasurer. “Once finalized, the whole Cabinet begins review, during which there is a questions period for the author, a comments period where members give their thoughts, and an amendment period where anyone on SG can suggest a change.”
If a proposal passes, said Schapiro, the entire student body votes on it. “The administration implements like 90% of our proposals, unless it’s something really outlandish,” he said.
Past proposals have made free tampons available in all female and gender-neutral bathrooms and exempted students from any homework assigned after 5 p.m. Another proposal made it so that Parker students could receive arts credits for out-of-school art projects. In fact, even the Parker equivalent of Project Week—called Cookies, for some reason—was born from a Parker SG proposal.
It’s not hard to see that a legislative proposal system trumps our current ill-organized brainstorming process.
Real power, even if on small-scale projects.
To the credit of Student Government, they (or we) have managed to create some semblance of impact amid difficult circumstances. Most notably, they provided student input to the executive search firm employed to find departed Upper School Head Kirk Greer’s replacement. Not to mention, of course, planning the chronically under-attended Zoom events that feed the “party-planning committee” moniker.
But—especially in the presence of another student government that has far more successfully amplified the concerns of their “constituents”—we must do more. Sure, we can go through the motions of “governing,” but Student Government perpetually faces the impenetrable wall of insufficient funding, administrator apathy, and general discontent from a student body that (justifiably) feels unheard. A radical re-envisioning of Student Government’s efficacy and power is in order.
Imagine a Student Government with a legislative process that could implement policies like those of Parker, a Student Government that could bear actual impact on day-to-day and academic life (perhaps as a counterbalance to the equally symbolic Student Academic Board). Imagine if Student Government were trusted with small but significant portions of school funding to put toward projects that target equity and inclusivity. The Latin Student Investment Fund manages around $50,000 of endowment monies, after all.
If Latin could generate the funds to send 1,520 “Romans Together” t-shirts last spring—which, anecdotally speaking, have not since appeared on many a Latin-student torso—it feels within reach to put Student Government at the financial helm of tangible, student-body-informed change-making. It’s a win-win situation for the administration, too: Students would reap the benefits of Student Government projects while the school could proudly spread romantic images of “Latin student initiative” to prospective families.
Even more crucial than financial means, though, is the administration’s trust. Trust that Student Government members are capable of making important decisions when given the opportunity. As it stands, according to the Role Descriptions document, Student Government’s jurisdiction is solely over the following (edited for brevity):
- Meetings amongst themselves and with the Upper School Director
- School dances and pep rallies
- Winter Carnival
- @latinupperschool Instagram
- Promoting sports and school events; spirit-building
Not only are these points relatively trivial, but they are repetitive and inflexible in nature. Fun events and social media correspondence have often operated independently of the specific needs of the Latin community.
Granted, there’s one bullet point I omitted above: the Senior Prefect is intended to “Take on initiatives regarding larger student concerns and ideas.” But with what means? Based on what student-body requests? The current Student Government charter neither establishes a channel of communication with the student body nor provides powers through which to meet their pleas.
I propose the addition of the following powers, spread among different positions:
- Oversees electronic proposal submission system through which students petition for Student Government-led projects
- Selects proposals to bring to the committee
- Moderates parliamentary debate procedure on proposals
- Passes proposals, with execution costs of up to $xxx (decided by Business Office) per year
- Brings approved proposals to the administration for execution
In other words—that Student Government ditches its performative liaison role and becomes a student-led administrative body that cooperates with the adult officials.
It’s a joke among cynical Grade Reps that the hardest thing about Student Government is winning the election. Candidates develop elaborate campaign messages that they transmit through well-designed posters and grand speeches. Then, those who are elected promptly exhale and sleepwalk through the year’s meetings (assuming they show up at all). There is no incentive to be an effective Grade Rep or Prefect, particularly with seniors, who have no future elections to anticipate.
So let’s introduce some.
If Parker Student Government can write a weekly progress report, it feels reasonable to say that Latin could produce one each quarter. The report would publicize all attendance data, a short summary of individual contributions to group accomplishments, and brief statements on each member written by the advisor. Then, the entire community could take part in an approval-rating survey, with a simple “yes,” “no,” or “neutral” for each candidate. If any one person garners a disapproval rating of greater than 80%, then—if the advisor considers the vote based in reason and not passion—a special election would be held for their position. For context, 80% is a lofty margin; President Nixon’s disapproval rating was a mere 66% three days before his resignation.
Over my last three disillusionment-filled years on Student Government, one source of solace has been occasional conversations with a man whom few students, it seems, have gotten to know: Andrew Morgan of Handcut Foods, the catering company Latin contracts with for the cafeteria. “Hey, let us know if Student Government gets any feedback on the latest food plan,” he sometimes says, in an earnest attempt to enhance Latin’s menu (oh, sandwich bar, you are missed.)
Perhaps Mr. Morgan has such faith in us because Student Government has bothered to meet with the Handcut staff only one time, and thus our crude procedure may have gone unnoticed. Perhaps he sees a trace of potential in what could, someday, be an institution that students respect and appreciate.
In 2016, Forum Editor-in-Chief emeritus Will Slater wrote, “The Honor Council can’t even be called a figurehead, because it has neither real power nor the illusion of power.”
Slater’s piece has stuck in my head since I first read it—immediately, of course, I associated his words with the Honor Council’s executive counterpart. Notably, the Council met a cruel fate, slipping into obsolescence.
Student Government doesn’t have to.