We Get the ASPC Senate We Deserve

ASPC elections were this week. The Pomona Student Union, in what has become an annual ritual, held a debate Monday night to generate some discussion about the candidates’ policy views and visions for their presidency. The dedicated souls that made the trek through the brutal Southern California weather to Rose Hills Monday night to watch the ASPC Presidential Debate in the hope of receiving information or inspiration from the aspiring candidates were not disappointed. The candidates heatedly agreed over what they described as one of the most pressing issues on campus: the new bike policy!

Yes, both candidates for ASPC President concurred that campus bike policy was one of the most pressing issues confronting the future Senate. Fortunately for the student body, the two candidates actually agreed on this most crucial of issues, preventing us from having to make a choice about which candidate’s bike policy we supported. I would have liked to hear one of the candidates spell out a bold plan for the biking future—All bikes will be confiscated no matter where they are locked! All bikes must be painted pink! Tricycles for everyone!—but the bi-candidate consensus on the desirability of not actually saying anything remotely interesting or controversial held.

Cynical types will laugh dismissively at the perceived impotence of ASPC and remark on the feebleness of student government on campus. They will mention the limited interest in Senate meetings (with no student attendance and repeated truants in the ranks of the Senators themselves), the powerlessness of the Senate in the face of the Board’s unilateral decisions last semester and the limited scope of the Senate’s authority, and eventually conclude that the Senate’s purpose is to throw parties and provide disgruntled students with a meaningless outlet for activist daydreams.

Not being a cynic, I disagree with the essence of the position that I have just outlined, but I can see how one might draw that conclusion, especially after enduring the most recent lifeless campaign season. The deluge of Facebook invites and [STUDENT_INFORMATION] e-mails should not delude anyone into thinking that these campaigns were not zombie affairs. 

Can anyone tell me what the candidates who won stand for, or what they stand against? Do the president and vice presidents have any sort of electoral mandate to act on anything aside from the bike policy? Do any of the top candidates have a vision for empowering students within their own school?

Again, the cynics will chuckle politely—how can we expect ASPC candidates to have any of these things? It’s a powerless institution adrift in a benign bureaucracy, and there is little reason to expect more from it.

I refuse to concede the legitimacy of that point of view. Dedicated and visionary individuals can reshape institutions, especially on the small scale of Pomona College. Surrendering so easily to complacency here does not bode well for our ability to change the real world. If we can’t reshape Pomona in our image—if we can’t even imagine ourselves doing it—we can’t begin to hope to have an influence on the real world. If we can’t dream of doing that, then why are we here?

I contend instead that our student government is limited only by our lack of vision—and here I’m not blaming only the candidates for office, I’m blaming the entire student body. Our conviction that the ASPC is a powerless institution is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our failure to ask for more from our elected officials is what limits us—not the institutional capacity of the ASPC. The Senate’s powers can be expanded, abridged or amended, either through changing the Constitution or through using the means provided in the Constitution in new and original ways. Even if the Senate is more limited in its capacity to change things than I understand, the Senators have the ability—the duty!—to speak for students on matters of import, and those who underestimate the power of the bully pulpit do so at their own risk. Even beyond the formal power of the Senate (or the lack thereof), Senators develop relationships with the people who actually do make decisions about campus life, and access to these people matters. By working and speaking with campus decision makers, Senators can impact policy decisions. If students were willing to run bold campaigns on some actual controversies of the day—ASPC’s budget reserves, the Senate’s response to the worker firings, tuition increases, sustainability and administrative transparency, to name a few—I have little doubt that the result would be a student body more engaged with campus politics. Perhaps then students could make informed decisions instead of lazily relying on nascent, sketchily defined political parties and Facebook endorsements by their friends that cheapen the election into a popularity contest.

Although it’s too late for anyone to run an extensively issues-based campaign this year, indulge me for a moment as I cobble together a (short) hypothetical platform.

Budget Reserves: If elected, I would move ahead with the renovation of the Coop Store, as well as reexamine the possibility of opening a coffeehouse in Walker. I would also attempt to change the constitutional limit on the amount of the budget reserves that can be spent in a single year in order to permit larger projects.

Worker Firings: I would respect the anonymity of the whistleblower, as the whistleblower policy provides important safeguards for the college community. I would, however, demand that the board release its full investigation of the documentation to the community, and push for formal votes of no confidence by the ASPC Senate until they do so. Finally, I would create concrete proposals to reorganize the board to limit the influence of the Chairperson and the Executive Board of Trustees.

Tuition: It seems as though tuition increases of several thousand dollars are part of the college’s annual routine. But what triggers these increases? How can we be expected to make informed decisions about the management of the college without knowing the numbers? I would request an annual breakdown of tuition expenses, as well as an explanation of the $79,000 figure that the college cites as the true cost of educating us. Send us a bill that explains what we are paying for—an expanding administration, employee health benefits, new dorms, organic food, faculty salaries?

Alcohol: I believe that the current system of RA enforcement of substance policies degrades Pomona’s social culture and puts students at risk unnecessarily by encouraging unhealthy drinking habits, especially on South Campus. I would lobby to shift the priorities of RAs from enforcement of alcohol rules to a focus on community building and safety. I will also push for the college to acquire its own liquor license in order to sell beer at college events, and to encourage education on the relationship between alcohol and sexual assault on campus.

Upon election, the new senators would find themselves faced with the daunting task of learning the ropes while trying to enact meaningful policy changes. They would face serious difficulties, and it is unlikely that any Senate could hope to fulfill their platform in its entirety. Those unfortunate facts do not mean that trying is not worthwhile. Even in failure, the Senate can have a major impact by making these issues a part of the campus dialogue. With that in mind, I urge this year’s newly elected Senators to dream big—you can do more than you think. I hope that candidates next year will consider how they can improve and shape the school they attend, and run campaigns accordingly. Even more importantly, I hope that students will demand more from their future candidates. As the old adage goes, you get the government you deserve. We have only ourselves to blame if the Senate is irrelevant.

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