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On DSG and laptops

Last week, the Duke Student Government (DSG) Senate voted to ban laptop use during their weekly Wednesday night sessions. The new policy, unsurprisingly, was met with mixed responses, notably from Senators Jimmy Xiao and Kyle Melatti, who cited accessibility issues, in speaking out against the ban. Meanwhile, President Kristina Smith, and President pro-tempore Avery Boltwood spoke in favor of the new policy, claiming that it would improve engagement during long, multi-hour DSG sessions. Although not as “scandalous” in comparison to some past DSG controversies, this new policy provides an opportune time to reflect upon our student government’s many shortcomings (and positives). 

In 2017, the Chronicle reported on a history of chronic tardiness and absenteeism among senators in DSG, a situation that has noticeably improved in recent years. This followed another report in the same year examining the lack of socioeconomic diversity within the organization. These facts, along with persistent concerns over representation and efficiency, generally led to a reorganization of the Senate’s structure. And yet, it seems that some of the tropes of DSG as ineffective and woefully disorganized have persisted, at least in this latest meeting. Notably, after passing the amendment banning laptop use, Gerald Harris, the organization’s advisor and director of student involvement, chastised the body for its lack of professionalism and attention to the business at hand, claiming that “Y’all gotta pay more attention in Senate, period.” 

In many ways, critiques of DSG have become tiring, begging the question of whether or not we need to take their proceedings, and therefore shortcomings, too seriously here at Duke. Rarely are we in class without a laptop out and even rarer still is a laptop open without at least two tabs unrelated to the business at hand; so much so that many professors have adopted no-laptop policies to improve in-class engagement. Given the implementation of an official, enforceable laptop ban during DSG sessions, one can only wonder the extent to which many DSG senators have become distracted by the sweet digital relief provided by Facebook, ESPN, and Forever21, hidden behind their furtive MacBook screens. Surely, as elected officials chosen to represent the student body, their attention can better be placed on more pressing matters we have entrusted them with, such as SOFC funding or solving the rampant sexual assault problem on campus. 

Once and a while it is helpful to look outside ourselves and consider DSG’s potential rather than its existence. There are numerous other examples of student governments, many of which have also struggled with similar questions of respectability. In examining how other schools’ student governments responded to such problems, we may find models for ways that DSG might live up to the expectations of truly being the representative student body for Duke’s 6,500-odd undergraduates. 

Each administration at Davidson College, for example, publishes a strategic plan to ensure that there is a clear, transparent vision for the year beyond vague, overly ambitious campaign platforms. Even small gestures of professionalism can make all the difference. The executive branch of UNC’s Undergraduate Student Government regularly updates their website with information on all ongoing work (not just projects) to keep obvious and accessible records in service of the student body. 

This is not to say that DSG, especially within the Senate, has not made commendable progress in the past few years. Beginning with the restructuring mentioned earlier, more and more attention has been paid to organizational, institutional reforms. The introduction of a caucus system last year as a way of encouraging senators to break out of the rigid committee-project structure was one such reform—although the full impact is yet unclear. DSGHub, also introduced last year, provides a more transparent way for members of the public (or intrepid reporters) to access Senate agendas and recent legislation. Similarly, projects like the $5 Daily Devil Deals or the recent change to the first-year meal plan that directly affect students’ well-being and are serious and commendable uses of DSG’s organizational authority. 

DSG does not have to do anything, nor does it have to be taken seriously by us. But it is endowed with a significant degree of institutional legitimacy that few of us could achieve on our own as individual students. And, it is certainly unfortunate that this weight along with the work of those within DSG pushing our campus in a better direction is yet again overshadowed by a petty and resolvable controversy. Yet, with this new laptop ban in place, DSG as an institutional body (hopefully) can concentrate more on pressing issues at hand instead of scrolling through the memes page in the middle of SOFC budgeting. 

This was written by The Chronicle’s Editorial Board, which is made up of student members from across the University and is independent of the editorial staff. 

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