By Erica Quinones
The Student Government Association is a constant presence on campus from the first few weeks of freshman year. Whether a first-year asks you to sign a petition for senatorship in Clifton M. Miller Library, a table of volunteers encourages you to vote in Hodson Hall Commons, or you play table tennis beneath the large “SGA” letters in the Goosenest, their existence and integration into daily student life is made clear.
However, with the loss of the on-campus space, SGA is finding new ways to be a part of the student experience.
SGA’s responsibilities cover two distinct areas, according to senior and President of the SGA Elizabeth Lilly: SGA staff and clubs.
Staff includes the actions of the Executive Board, secretaries, senators, and other internal members as they work with figures across campus to form and pass legislation.
This responsibility is primarily carried out in the Senate.
On campus, the Senate meets in lecture halls such as Goldstein 100 and the Norman James Theatre, allowing for the full body to gather, question senior staff, complete committee work, and carry out the legislative process.
With the loss of their on-campus space, SGA searched for a remote platform that could accommodate their structure, settling on Zoom.
Digital Senate will follow the same order as in-person meetings with the opening of the Senate, followed by administrative remarks, committee meetings, committee reports, and finally new and old business, according to Lilly.
While it follows a familiar structure, there are some changes in operations.
To avoid having “two-hour Zoom meetings,” as Lilly said, they are introducing time limits to administrative remarks and committees.
Junior and Speaker of the Senate Josh Gastineau said that administrative remarks will be limited to 15 minutes. If senators still have questions for the guest speaker after that 15-minute period, they can opt to stay in the waiting room with Gastineau and the guest during committee time.
Committee time is also affected by the constraints. They too are given a time limit for their committee meetings, during which they will be split into their respective “break-out rooms.” When committee time ends, they will come back to the larger meeting.
Lilly said that committee members will be asked to schedule time outside of the Senate to complete unfinished business, a practice that is also common on campus.
Beyond a tighter timeline, Senate operations are also affected by Zoom’s features.
Some aspects of the Senate, such as following Robert’s Rules of Order or voting on legislation, are largely unaffected or streamlined by the Zoom platform.
Robert’s Rules of Order, a common set of rules that guide parliamentary procedures, are easily followed, because although it takes a second to unmute one’s microphone, another senator can easily second motions. Likewise, general motions that require a majority “Aye” vote to pass, such as opening or closing the meeting, are easily counted through the reaction features on Zoom, according to Gastineau.
Voting on new legislation is also made easier through Zoom’s polling feature because it instantly tallies the vote anonymously, according to Lilly and Gastineau.
The one area that is modified more significantly is the questioning process. Because they cannot permit every senator to speak at will, they are required to write “Question” in the chat before being called upon to speak. The process is first-comment, first-speak, but otherwise follows the same rules as in-person Senate with senators speaking until they either exhaust or yield their time.
The new remote setting not only affects when one may speak but also who can speak in the Senate.
One of many student concerns voiced last semester was that few administrators spoke at Senate meetings.
Lilly said that it is easier to host different senior staff members online because it removes the physical barrier of asking them to return to campus late at night.
There is also the issue of involving the student body in SGA’s remote operations.
In person, new senators go through a petition process in which they garner 15 student signatures in order to qualify for Senate approval.
However, that process is difficult remotely. While a potential senator could garner electronic signatures, freshmen face the new barrier of approaching fellow first-years online.
SGA decided to wave the petition requirement. Instead, potential senators were asked to fill out a form stating their interest in the position, which was found in an Aug. 31 email.
This method of recruitment has been successful thus far. The form closed on Sept. 7, but as of Sept. 3, SGA’s goal of 50 new senators was surpassed with 61 new senators filling out the form, according to Gastineau.
Another aspect of getting freshmen involved in SGA is the fall freshman class officer election.
Similar to the senators, perspective class officers will have a difficult time connecting with first-years due to the digital boundary. However, SGA has planned for a remote campaign season.
When students declare their candidacy, they will submit a video of themselves expressing their interest in the respective officer position. These videos will be uploaded to YouTube and placed into a Class of 2024 playlist.
To keep the campaign trail fair, anything promoted by individual SGA Executive Board members or the SGA itself will focus on promoting voting, according to Lilly.
Voting normally takes place online, and that will remain the same.
The other side of student inclusion is making the Senate accessible for students who are not senators.
On campus, this was relatively easy. As long as the campus knew where and when the Senate was meeting, any student could walk in and watch the proceedings. However, that is more difficult online.
While they have not talked in depth about non-senator inclusion yet, some ideas were shared.
One initiative Gastineau hopes to develop is a calendar of speakers. This calendar would allow students to see who is speaking on what night and join the calls they find relevant.
Gastineau also suggested using Slack to involve the student body. Slack, a group chat app that uses servers which are then broken into different channels by topic, would allow students to easily find committee channels and check their activity. The app also allows for messages to be pinned, so SGA could pin the recurring Zoom link for any student to find.
Lilly discussed using multiple communications methods to keep the student body updated. These included Senate minutes, monthly newsletters, regular social media posts, emails, Zoom office hours, and possibly utilizing the SGA website.
The other side of SGA operations is supporting, funding, and approving clubs.
One notable change to club operations was seen on Aug. 25 with the first digital club fair. Clubs were asked earlier in the summer to submit short videos explaining the club’s role and how to become involved. These clips were then integrated into one video and shared on YouTube.
Another major change came to club funding when an Aug. 14 email from SGA announced that they would function entirely off of reserve funds. This meant the previous club budget plan was no longer being implemented, and SGA instead adopted a rolling budget process that capped club budgets at $300. Discretionary funds are still available.
While clubs are operating with fewer funds than usual, SGA is also waiving its typical attendance and event policy for clubs.
To be a viable club, a group must have 10 active members and an interest meeting. Those requirements are waived for the fall semester, according to junior and Vice President of SGA Emilee Daniel. Rather, they are encouraging clubs to hold online events, but recognize it is not feasible for all groups and that their attendance may suffer.
However, part of addressing the challenges of remote club communities is the new club platform, CampusGroups.
CampusGroups functions like a social media platform for clubs where they can create pages, post events, send newsletters, and utilize other features such as designing and assigning badges to club members.
While the platform makes it easy to track both officers and membership, it has a steep learning curve, according to Daniel.
However, she is working on a training video that will be sent to club presidents soon.
Each section of SGA brings its own unique challenges, heightened by the remote setting. However, a general sentiment is that if students have ideas, suggestions, or problems, they should reach out to the SGA, especially with the opening of their office hours.
“Do not lose faith in the school. I know we have had a lot of negative things go on, but our student body is strong, and I think Senate is one of those great outlets for change,” Gastineau said.
Featured Photo caption: The Student Government Association office in Hodson Hall Commons is normally a space in which students can approach and mingle with their SGA representatives. However, with the loss of on-campus functionality, the SGA is finding new ways to interact with their constituents and promote student participation. Elm File Photo.