DSG, you missed the point

Over the past couple weeks, Duke Student Government has been debating reforms to the structure of the Senate in the hope of creating a body that can better represent student interests and be more engaged in the role of being a Senator. As a past member of DSG, I was enthused to finally see discussions that have long been happening behind closed doors among members of the organization finally make it into the public sphere.

Questions about the role of the Senator, how one can adequately represent student interests and the necessity or lack thereof for such a large body of students, which can limit accountability and engagement, were finally being addressed in a public space. Student opinion about DSG has continued to fall since I stepped on this campus, and reforms are a great way to start improving that reality.

But when I read The Chronicle’s coverage of the Senate meeting, I became troubled. The reforms would be discussed further in a DSG Internal Affairs committee meeting after their time on the Senate floor.

While I applaud my peer’s efforts to make DSG a better organization, DSG reform should not and frankly cannot happen among DSG members alone during internal affairs meetings or behind the glass walls of the DSG Office. That’s not creating a more democratic body. And neither is telling students who have opinions to show up to a DSG meeting to present at public forum. That’s just the same old politics that have limited DSG’s effectiveness and popular opinion for many years on this campus.

DSG, you missed the point. If we want to make a better student government, we must go back to square one and actually ask the students DSG is supposed to represent what they think.

I have a lot of love and respect for my peers and friends within DSG. They truly do care about Duke and the well being of the student body, but I’m going to dish out some tough love today. My hope is that these words might inspire the kind of action that can make our student government work for all students for years to come. It does not matter so much what the reforms are—rather, what matters is how we conduct our student government. If we cannot adequately engage students on such issues as reform, how will changing the structure of committees, size of the Senate or electoral process do anything other than place our current dysfunctional system in a new context that remains just as unapproachable, unaccountable and at times elitist?

Having been privy to these kinds of systemic discussions during last year’s 40 Percent Plan era and looking today on DSG from the outside, I can tell you that my understanding of student opinion was so heavily influenced by the cacophony of voices within DSG that I did not have a clear bearing on where most students stood on the issue. All I really knew was how other DSG members thought about the issue. Little did I know that most students felt little to no stake in a fight that felt like the most important thing to ever happen in the history of Duke.

I fear that these reforms fall very much under the same perspective, with students heavily involved in DSG and its workings who have a genuine desire to create better systems only working with people who have the same experiences and perspective. There are brave voices in the Senate who questioned these reforms, but they alone are not enough. Most students know little to nothing about the structure of DSG and how the reforms might improve our situation. Rightfully so, given how little a role DSG seems to play in our collective lives. But the reality is that DSG really does matter, and these discussions happening internally will affect the future of the student experience at Duke. Students regardless of their DSG affiliation have the collective power to influence administrative and DSG decisions, but it requires concerted decisions to facilitate such opportunities.

So today, let me propose a new option for the way we do student government.

If we want to reform DSG, let’s take a page out of grassroots organizing and democratic—with a small d—thinking. Let’s actually engage the student body in a genuine debate of the merits of Senate reform and work collaboratively across organizations and communities to make the best system that we can collectively make. Every student’s voice should be valued and sought out. To borrow the thinking of scholar Jeffrey Stout on the grassroots organizing, we must be committed to creating “effective publics of accountability…at many levels of social complexity” and working within our community to get organized if we are serious about creating more democratic systems.

That means gathering student organizations to voice collective opinions about the student issues to the administration. That looks like student government representatives holding town hall meetings and soliciting the opinion of a variety of organizations and students to inform their decisions. That also means students taking the initiative to inform their representatives of their or their organization’s opinions on important issues. But at the heart of this kind of student politics is a government system that allows for such action.

Residential representation might be a solution, but it does not address the true heart of the matter. If we want to improve DSG, we should get everyone involved in the reform, not just those students in or connected to DSG. It is time we change the way student government works. Reform is a good step, but it is only a surface solution to the issues DSG has continued to face.

Today, I challenge DSG to make reform a topic for campus discourse, to open up discussions to student organizations and residential communities that this decision will effect and to take the time to create a more effective system through a democratic process. It may become messy, but redefining the way we do student government will be integral to its future and the future of the Duke student experience.

Let’s engage each other and create a system that works for all students because it involves all students.

Jay Sullivan is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other semester.


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