By Erica Quinones
A proposition to amend how the Student Government Association forms its Executive Board and Review Board was brought to the Senate on Oct. 6.
The petition, which was introduced to the Senate by sophomore and President of the Class of 2023 Jonah Nicholson, cited the preamble of the Washington College SGA Constitution in its proposition, stating that “the [SGA’s] job is to: ‘promote our welfare, represent our opinion, endorse social feeling, protect the best interest of our college, and foster cooperation among ourselves and our community.”
According to the petition, it seeks to change how both Boards are created because “under the current system, the Executive and Review Boards are unable to accurately represent our opinion, due to the structure of said bodies.”
Currently, SGA is split into three bodies: the Senate, the Review Board, and the Executive Board.
The Senate is the primary legislative body of SGA and consists of Senators who gain their position by submitting a petition with 15 signatures. This requirement was waived for Fall 2020, allowing any student who wanted to participate to join the Senate.
The Review Board consists of the president, speaker of the Senate, Honor Board chair, parliamentarian, and financial controller, according to Article IV, Section C of the SGA Constitution; the petition incorrectly states that the vice president serves on the Review Board. The vice president is a member of the Executive Board, but they may contribute to Review Board discussions.
Two of those positions are elected: the president, who is elected every spring semester by the students, and the speaker of the Senate, who is elected by the Senate at their following meeting, according to senior and SGA President Elizabeth Lilly.
The remaining Review Board positions are hired through an application and review process by the newly elected president and speaker of the Senate, as well as the outgoing Honor Board chair, parliamentarian, and financial controller.
The former Review Board, new president, and new speaker of the Senate initiate a hiring process for the new Review Board members by reading through submitted applications, interviewing applicants, and then voting on who to hire. Only four members of the Board vote on an applicant, unless there is a tie, in which case the parliamentarian casts their vote as a tie-breaker.
However, if a former member of the Review Board reapplies for the same position, then they recuse themself from the hiring process, meaning they would not interview applicants for their position nor would they vote on who to hire. They would participate in the hiring processes for the other two positions.
If the previous holder of a Review Board position is graduating or not reapplying for the position, they participate in the hiring process for their previous position, because according to Lilly, “it’s helpful to have them there because they are the ones most familiar with the position and they can identify very specific strengths in applicants.”
The Executive Board is composed of the president; vice president; the secretaries of Academics, the Environment, Service and Community Relations, Student Life, and Diversity and Inclusion; as well as the director of Communication and Office Management.
Besides the president and vice president who are elected by the student body, all of these positions are hired by the new Review Board.
According to the petition, under this structure, the student body “has no say” in the selection of SGA leaders outside of voting for the president and vice president, and indirectly voting for the speaker of the Senate.
According to the petition, this system allows those who “make the decisions on everything now [to] determine who makes the decisions next.”
While the petition does push for reformation of the selection process for Board members, it also explicitly says that those students who signed “do not believe those who are currently in their positions will not fulfill the duties of the position to their fullest extent or fail in any way.”
Rather, it asks how SGA can be “representative of the students and our voices…if the student body gets no say in most of the people who lead our SGA.”
Reforming these processes can be difficult due to other by-laws specific to the creation processes for the Boards.
In Article II, Section G of the SGA Constitution, the Executive Board’s secretaries must be chosen “within one week of returning from spring break.”
Article III, Section C, Article IV, Section D, and Article IV, Section G all state respectively that the Honor Board chair, parliamentarian, and financial controller must be chosen “prior to the new Executive Board assuming office.”
So, to fall in-line with those by-laws without changing them wholly, a single general election cannot occur. Likewise, as Nicholson later mentioned, there would be 11 separate elected positions, which is “way too many positions to be doing at the same time.”
Many of the logistics of electing those positions are to be discussed at the special constitutional review committee meetings — the first of which occurred on Oct, 20, the second on Nov. 2, and the third will occur on Nov. 17. These special meetings are open to the entire student body.
The petition suggests three different options for reforming the Review and Executive Board selection processes.
First is for the secretaries, Honor Board chair, parliamentarian, and financial controller to be elected every year by the Senate.
Second is for those aforementioned positions to be elected by the student body.
The third suggestion is a modified version of the current system, in which applicants for the aforementioned positions are interviewed by the Review Board, “after which [the Review Board] will select their top three [candidates], and the Senate (and/or student body) will vote on the top three [candidates].”
Nicholson noted that these are only suggestions and not the only possibilities for the legislation. As aforementioned, much of the discussion around the amendment will occur in the special constitutional review meetings.
Parliamentarian and junior Kat DeSantis said this semester will focus on those discussions and gauging student support.
At the first special meeting, DeSantis explained the SGA constitutional responsibilities of the Review and Executive Boards then entered a guided discussion with participants.
The discussion included questions on if participants believe students can be educated on the duties of all 12 positions, including speaker of the Senate; if there are “concerns or approvals” about the current process; and if students believe a change in procedure would create more representative Boards.
Within discussion, there were people who believed the current process does and does not need to be amended, so they will continue this discussion until there is a final conclusion.
The second discussion expanded on pros and cons of creating a slate appointment process — in which the Review Board would select their top candidates and allow the Senate to elect members from said slate — educating Senators on the duties of all 12 positions, increasing student engagement if the selection process was given to the entire student body, and discussing an alternative idea of including Senator panelists with the current hiring process.
The discussion ended in a vote to continue the conversation with no conclusion as of yet.
On the point of changing the Executive and Review Board forming processes, Nicholson cited previous SGA bodies he served in during middle and high school as examples. According to Nicholson, in the other SGA bodies he served in, “the entire student body got a say in who was elected.”
“It affected our relationship in a way that allowed us to be more connected,” Nicholson said.
“I just thought that as an [SGA], we’re for students raising student voices, projecting them. I thought that our SGA should be what we are, for the students,” Nichsolson said. “I don’t believe that any of [the current Board members] can’t do their job, I just believe that they reflect a limited students’ view. I think that view should be expanded to the entire student body or at least the Senate.”
Nicholson is not alone in this desire to increase the role of students in the selection of SGA leaders. 48 students signed the petition to reform the selection process.
Likewise, Nicholson said the idea for the petition was sparked partially through conversations with friends and upperclassmen about the SGA and its selection process. The petition itself was a collaborative process of asking for feedback to strengthen the piece, including addressing which students have a say in the selection process — primarily whether it should be the Senate or the entire student body.
This question was a central point of debate while drafting the petition, according to Nicholson. It is also a point of discussion in the current special meetings.
With the current system, the power to select most of the Review and Executive Boards lies with the previous Review Board members and the new president and speaker of the Senate, who are elected directly or indirectly by the students.
However, in a representative democracy, which is a democratic system in which representatives are selected by the populace to make decisions on their behalf, the students are given a voice in the selection of these leaders as they elected the president and speaker of the Senate to make such decisions.
Nicholson said that while the students are electing some people who make those decisions, and “yes, this [power] is coming directly from the students,” the people whom those elected officials hire for Review and Executive Board positions are not visible to the students.
“We don’t get to see these interviews, and there’s no campaigns being run, so we don’t know what platforms they’re running on, what kind of goals they’re running on,” Nicholson said. “While we have faith that the people we elect will make the right decisions for what’s best for the student body, it’s important to understand we don’t get to see who these people are.”
Nicholson also touched on the idea that each position has different demands and different qualities for a good candidate. So, the qualities the student body votes for in a president and vice president is not necessarily the same as the qualities they want for other positions.
However, that point approaches one of DeSantis’s questions during the first special meeting, whether or not students can be educated on the duties of each position.
Nicholson said that students whom he spoke with who are not in SGA wanted to learn more about SGA’s functions, especially because SGA makes decisions that impact the entire student body.
But there are also concerns about giving the power solely to the student body through elections. Because Review and Executive Board positions are paid, there is concern that elections might become a “popularity contest,” according to Nicholson.
“You don’t want to give it to the entire student body and have it become a popularity contest or have it become something in which students would only elect their friends so their friends can get paid. So, what option can we take so students still get a say and remember the importance that these are paid positions and need to be taken seriously,” Nicholson said.
Changing the process from applicants to candidates also changes who might be willing to apply for the positions.
Lilly is not giving her “own thoughts into [the topic].” She added that the decision to amend this process “ultimately rests in the hands of the Senators…If they want to see changes in the Executive Board, we are there to support them.”
While discussing how the process would differ as an election, Lilly, who served as Honor Board chair before becoming SGA president, said “I don’t think I would’ve gotten [the chair position] if I had to campaign for it.”
She was “better equipped” to run for president, but Lilly said she was not well known when she applied for the Honor Board chair as she was only an SGA panelist — not a senator — and she was also only a sophomore at the time.
Lilly said the current process opens opportunities for people who are quieter and more strategic, because they come forward in a more intimate process. It also allows the Review Board to learn the nuances of the applicants, looking not only at accomplishments and ideas, but also communication styles to see how they would work with a group of people.
The other option for confronting the challenge of education would be giving the power of election to the Senate.
However, a similar point as with giving the power to the president or vice president is raised. Senators are representatives of the students, and they make decisions on their behalf. So, if it is decided that the voices of the students are not present enough in the elected executive members, then there is a concern that giving the power to the Senate is no different.
Nicholson’s thoughts are that giving power to the Senate is not enough. While the Senate is representative of the student body and has more knowledge of the processes, he said, “I still see it as if we [the Senate]…are just going through the exact same process [as the current Review Board].”
Lilly also said that the Review and Executive Boards have a history of hiring some students who never served in SGA before. So, giving the power to the Senate may detract from those applicants.
But because of the precedent of electing the speaker of the Senate, “it’s possible that the Senate are the most invested of the student population in student government, so there can be a lot to gain from getting their input.”
For now, these are conversations to continue in the special constitutional review committee meetings. When a final conclusion is decided, the process of drafting legislation and bringing it to the Senate will begin.
DeSantis said they are looking towards the spring semester regarding those processes.
“This is normal for constitutional amendments, because this is our supreme governing document, we don’t like to make these decisions too quickly, without full thought, so we’re giving it ample time,” DeSantis said. “We want to be sure we’re producing the best piece of legislation.”
When the legislation does go to the Senate, it will require a four-fifths vote to pass. If it passes the Senate, the legislation will go to the student body in a referendum during the class officer elections. If it receives a plurality there, the SGA Constitution will be amended to include the decided upon changes.
Featured Photo Caption: The Student Government Association creates its new Review and Executive Boards every spring through an application and hiring process. Some students want these positions to become elected in order to give students more voice in the process. Elm File Photo.