OPINION: Pitzer Senate’s “Complete Failure In Leadership” Was Structurally Inevitable

Like most aspects of Pitzer College, governance is best done by the students. Thankfully, we have a concrete institution that allows us to hold up our side of the college’s structure. It has allowed students to come together, debate, and present their ideas to the community as a whole — as it has withstood the elements for decades.

I’m talking, of course, about Pitzer’s Free Wall. I’m not talking, of course, about Pitzer Student Senate.

Don’t get me wrong: The Senate has accomplished respectable and exemplary achievements both during and before the time I’ve attended Pitzer. To name just two, Pitzer has divested from fossil fuels and opened gender-neutral bathrooms across campus.

I acknowledge that students on Senate, especially those on executive board, are overworked and rarely given the credit they are due for their efforts. Still, worse is the way that the structure and goals of Senate, as an institution, have failed the student body, and done nothing to rescue the most vocal but apathetic constituency at the 5Cs from straying ever further from collective, effective governance.

Since leaving Senate after three semesters of service and observing it as a constituent and reporter, I can say that something is profoundly wrong. That something is the core of Senate’s problems, from presidents that spend five times the maximum conference budget to Senate members who can’t head off internal crises the size of a yacht: a legitimately chilling belief that their constituents couldn’t or shouldn’t be aware of the work they are doing.

I do agree with the incoming executive board that the solution starts with transparency. Their plan to use a live spreadsheet for credit card charges is a good one.

However, that should be a first step on a much, much longer path toward an effective and ethical form of Senate: a journey that will be rough, and hopefully end with a more accurate sense of self.
 

Glass walls hurt because you walk into them

The biggest thing Pitzer Senate has done to improve transparency in the four years I’ve been here is to start using microphones during meetings. For that, I applaud them.

You might not expect this, given the promises made by nearly every executive board candidate, not to mention most Senate candidates in general, in the past four elections and beyond.

These promises are nothing new but often go unchecked. If every candidate promised to improve hydration, we’d ask about water fountains. If they promised to shrink Senate, we’d ask for the positions that they would cut. We need to do the same thing for transparency.

Here’s the thing: improving transparency is really, really difficult. Especially if you think it’s easy.

In no particular order, here’s what transparency isn’t: Facebook Live; smiling; using the words “listen,” “engage,” or “voice”; surveys on student-talk; suggestion boxes; using “table” as a verb.

Most importantly, transparency is neither the instance nor the result of a lack of action — despite how it’s framed. Rather, transparency is an active endeavour, and one that hurts.

That’s because, despite what the word suggests, transparency in governance is extremely visible — gratingly and uncomfortably so. To use just a small example, at every meeting of Senate I’ve been to (which is most of them) since microphones became standard policy, a number of things will happen.

Someone will insist they can speak loudly enough without it, only to be shouted down, though occasionally with some disagreement.

A guest (on the rare occasion that anyone besides a Senate member shows up) will begin speaking without a microphone, and it’ll take a minute to get them a microphone, after which they’ll have to waste time and repeat what they already said.

A member of Senate (or two, or three) will sigh, lean back, and think if I’m ever on exec board, I’m going to get rid of these stupid microphones.

But the microphone system makes it possible for more people to hear what is being said, whether guests, a senator at the far end of the room, or someone without the best hearing capability.

If a member of Senate really cared about their meetings moving more quickly, they should read and discuss legislation beforehand so recesses don’t have to be called, or should not try to suspend the constitution — a lengthy voting process — on a regular basis.

 

Transparency takes work

The default state of government is invisible, and correspondingly opaque. Invisibility and opacity get things done faster. Because remaining transparent takes energy, it detracts from what is thought of as “actually governing”: writing legislation, introducing it to the body, and voting it through.

Furthermore, those in power know that political success isn’t always pretty. You have to cut deals and make compromises, else the government itself will be shut down.

It used to be common practice in the United States for senators to deliver one version of a speech on the Senate floor, then write an entirely different one to be published in the newspaper back home. Real work got done, and they didn’t get voted out next election.

Yet, students do show up when they care, and they force Senate to operate in public — when it affects them directly. Identity groups show up en masse, for example, when they need funding or are hoping to secure a space. After TSL broke the story about the Senate’s lackluster accounting, several students showed up to ask questions.

Other than that, not many people show up at all.

At first, this doesn’t seem like a problem: Members of Senate are elected as representatives of students, so it makes sense that they would be there in their stead. However, while the Senate’s mission is to govern — to do the legwork, pull institutional strings, and cash the checks that shared governance writes in our name — the legislature also plays a more symbolic role: representing the student voice.

Sometimes it does. But when it doesn’t, it’s not pretty.

Take the Student Initiative Fund, a $10,000 chunk set aside to fund proposals solicited from the community, like new hammocks or a half-pipe.

When some students asked via the student-talk listserv why the funds couldn’t be used for scholarships instead, or questioned how the available options had been decided on, a senator replied that “Probably communicating your concerns on the last day of the election through student talk isn't the most effective means of making a change,” and added that she was “Looking forward to all of your input and participation next year! :) :) :) :) :)”

There will always be people who wait until the last moment — for example, U.S. Senators. But at the end of the day, a democratic governing body should be doing everything it can to solicit its constituents’ feedback — and should check itself when it fails, not belittle voters.

When it comes down to it, Pitzer has handed Senate the keys to a $270,000 F1 race car, but Senate members aren’t complaining about having to drive it on a closed course. What the student body needs is a bus — a vehicle that’s accessible to more people, makes better use of fuel, and can be driven on actual roads, even if it’s a bit slower.

How do we get there? It’s not enough to buy the bus and brag about unlocking the doors.

Instead, it starts with planning and advertising routes, building clearly marked stops, enforcing ramp accessibility, and not caring whether every seat cover is embossed with a Pitzer tree.

Liam Brooks is a senior at Pitzer College. He served on Pitzer Student Senate as a member of the public art committee and was editor-in-chief of TSL for fall 2017.