The fate of a petition to reform the structure of Student Council has become intertwined with various difficulties with the Student Council appointments process, to the frustration of both Council members and student petitioners.
Several weeks ago, people who had applied for this semester’s appointments received an e-mail telling them that no appointments would be made. Appointments chair George Hang ’07 has been working all semester to create an appointments database. This database was first created by former appointments chair Ethan Ucker ’07, but Ucker has since refused to hand over the database he created during his tenure as chair. “Before I assumed the responsibilities of Appointments Chair,” said Hang, “I was already aware of the fact that Ethan did not complete the 2005 Fall Appointments… Ethan did not inform some applicants and chairs of the appointments decisions.”
The results of the 2005 Fall Appointments are inside the missing database, and because “the previous Appointments Chair has yet to release all the results of 2005 Fall Appointments,” said Hang, “the current Appointments Committee cannot retrace the process and results of the 2005 Fall Appointments because of its fragmented process.” While emergency appointments were held for the two committees with the most pressing needs, namely the Large Scale Events Committee and the Student Budget Committee, many other committees have “not been able to perform optimally,” according to Hang.
Without the database, Hang had no way to start the appointments process; at the beginning of the semester, he did not even know which committees needed appointments. “I have been in contact with many chairs and students since, in attempts to create a new database,” said Hang. “However, the process of recreating a database is difficult because many chairs made it known to me that they were upset since they were directed with similar inquiries less than six months ago, and other chairs are actually still ignoring my requests for information.”
Once Hang finishes his work, he promises that the new database “shall be stored and backed up regularly by SCCS such that future Appointments Chairs can obtain such data.” He also wanted the student body to know that “I want to apologize for the inconvenience that this has caused for some applicants, chairs, and concerned members of the community. I do not blame anyone for being upset about this situation, I know as an applicant I would be.” 2006 Spring Appointments are currently in process, and Hang promises that “they will be conducted with fairness and efficiency.”
Ethan Ucker ’07 has his own reasons for not giving the database to Student Council. Ucker ran for re-election as appointments chair after last semester but lost to “None of the Above.” Ucker chose to read this as “a referendum on my performance as appointments chair… my performance as appointments chair was rejected by the student body. Thus, the database I had developed, the manner in which I had led the appointments committee, and all other things connected with my job as appointments chair were rejected. Those things, then, the markers of my unsuccessful performance, should not continue to influence Student Council. And thus I am unwilling to simply hand over what is a failed database.”
Ucker recognizes that the election results are usually determined “not by a candidate’s performance, but rather by a candidate’s personal reputation or popularity,” but he believes that “despite this disconnect between what an election is supposed to mean, and what is actually means in this community, we have to assume that an election is properly serving its role as a referendum on performance.”
By refusing to give the database to Student Council, Ucker claims to be making a larger point about the discrepancy between the role that Council should play and the role that it actually does play. “Instead of scrambling to find short-term solutions to these problems semester after semester, we should look critically at the larger, systematic sources of these problems… I don’t feel bad about holding onto the database until these larger questions about the role of Student Council are answered.”
Ucker feels that he is taking a principled stand, but many members of Student Council feel differently. As Student Groups Advisor Alex Leader-Smith ’06 said, “I feel his actions here only underscore the immaturity, irresponsibility, and arrogance that characterized his term as Appointments Chair. I am insulted by his lack of respect for Student Council, the student body, and the faculty and administration committee chairs, all of whom would benefit were Student Council to possess these records, and many of whom played vital roles in constructing them.”
In a separate issue, former Council members Joella Fink ’07 and Hunter Bandy ’07 presented a petition to reform the structure of Student Council at the March 29th Student Council meeting. With 163 signatures, the petition calls for Student Council to engage students in a discussion about how the structure of Student Council should be changed. At the end of this discussion, Student Council would hold a referendum on the future structure of Student Council. As Fink noted at the meeting, “students could always vote for the status quo, and even that would serve to legitimize the structure of this Council.”
Fink and Bandy had the idea for such a petition independently of Ucker and long before the problems with the appointments process. “Anyone who has ever served on council has believed that it’s not very efficient,” says Fink. “We each have our own ideas about how to make it better, but then we thought, maybe we should be proactive and get students involved in this discussion.”
Swarthmore’s current structure has only been in place since 2001, and Fink said that she could imagine either a smaller council or a larger council being more efficient. She proposed Haverford, where each dorm or group of dorms has its own representative, as an example of a better structure for Council. While the council is consequently “much bigger,” said Fink, “you are also much more likely to know your representative.”
At the March 29th meeting, Student Council voted to table the issue for the time being. Ucker has told Student Council that he will not give them the database until they follow through on the proposal to reform the structure of Council, and many council members felt that it was unfair for Ucker to make reform a condition of getting the database. As co-president Tom Evnen ’06 said, “we’re essentially being held hostage… we can’t do this under duress.”
The petitioners were unhappy with this decision. As Fink said after the meeting, “I don’t think they get petitions very often, so that was a frustrating moment.” Fink and Hunter see the issues of the missing database and of the need to reform Council as separate, but Student Council sees them as intertwined.
Fink describes herself as “really sympathetic” to Hang and the other members of Student Council. “They’ve been talking about the missing database for so long that it’s hard to stop… but if they’re still immobilized by this database, I think I’ve proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that this system is flawed.”
A fireside chat on the role of Student Council called “Help us Help you” was held Monday night after being advertised in an e-mail sent out Monday afternoon; while 2006 Spring Appointments are moving apace due to the work of George Hang, it remains to be seen what will be done about the future structure of Student Council.