Student Government Executive Committee: CMU’s Student Government needs reform

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Every Spring, elections for the Student Government are completed with the hope that the elected officials will represent the will of the students, and that they will have the power to be a force for positive change at CMU. This is only nominally true.

Student government at CMU consists of two legislative bodies and one executive branch. The Undergraduate Student Senate and Graduate Student Assembly (GSA) are the two legislative branches representing undergraduate and graduate students respectively. The elected members of the executive branch — which consists of the Student Body President (SBP) and Vice President (SBVP), Vice President for Organizations and Vice President for Finance — are intended to represent both populations. Within the executive branch exists the Student Government Executive Committee, which serves as the head of student government and consists of the Student Body President & Vice President and the heads of legislative branches, the GSA President & Student Senate Chair.

The idea of a jointly representative SBP and SBVP may be perhaps too idealistic and, in reality, fails to live up to its promise of accurate representation and strong advocacy of student issues. Therefore, the time has come to reassess this flawed structure of our student government. This has been a topic of debate for more than a decade, and over the last four years a working group composed of members from the Undergraduate Senate and GSA’s respective executive committees has been investigating this issue further.

Several of the recommendations made by iterations of this working group have been enacted over the last few years, and one recommendation remains: removing the positions of SBP and SBVP and instead elevating Senate Chair and GSA President as co-heads of student government.

We, the current Student Body President, Student Body Vice President, Undergraduate Student Senate Chair, and Graduate Student Assembly President, have come to the conclusion that this reform is in order and must now be implemented. We have two primary reasons: administrative efficiency and stronger representation.

First, efficiency. The purpose of an executive branch in a national or state government is to execute and enforce the law with different departments headed by different cabinet members, administering programs to that end. However, within student government, initiatives are typically spearheaded and run by Senate, GSA, and their respective committees, leaving little work to be done by an independent executive. There are clear merits to having such initiatives started by the legislative branches — not only does this ensure stability and preservation of efforts from year to year, but it also provides the opportunity to hear opinions from many more students given the direct line of communication between elected representatives in these bodies and their constituents.

Then, the issue of representation. It has become clear over the last several years that it is extremely difficult, or even impossible, for a single person to represent both undergraduate and graduate students. For at least the past decade, the SBP and SBVP have been undergraduate students. For most of these years, these elected students have primarily represented the interests of undergraduates and not those of graduates. This is not a condemnation of the students who have occupied these positions — it is rather a commentary on the structure that is bound to give rise to such an eventuality.

To expect an undergraduate student to accurately represent the views of the graduate student body, or vice versa, is unfair to the students occupying these positions. Undergraduates and graduates are distinct communities with distinct concerns and distinct networks and, as such, need distinct representation. These realities become very apparent during each election season through the candidates’ platforms and throughout their debates. These populations’ experiences are simply too disparate, to the point where even efforts to understand the alternate experience via discourse cannot bridge the gap.

Given this historical lack of graduate representation in the office of the SBP, graduate students have come to view the GSA President as their student government leader. On the other hand, undergraduate students look to the SBP as their primary changemaker and advocate. However, through several student government reforms passed in Senate and GSA over the last four years, the role of the SBP has diminished to the point where it is now largely ceremonial. This results in a mismatch in expectations; the individual whom undergrads view as their advocate does not actually have the capacity to advocate on their behalf.

Meanwhile, in practice, the GSA President serves as an advocate for all graduate students on campus, and the Undergraduate Senate Chair does the same for undergraduate students. Both these roles have more direct impact on issues that affect their constituents (take the hourly minimum wage increase — an initiative started by the Senate — or the recently established minimum stipends and full healthcare coverage for Ph.D. students — an initiative of the GSA). This reform will put on paper what already happens in practice and provide more clear mechanisms for change to students — especially undergrads.

We — the Student Government Executive Committee — are issuing this joint statement, as we believe this reform is much needed in order to better represent ALL Carnegie Mellon students and will allow for better communication and collaboration between different parts of campus. Placing the heads of the Undergraduate Student Senate and the Graduate Student Assembly at the helm of a dual executive will improve efficiency, guarantee equity for undergraduates and graduates, and put our student government in a position where it can be a strong and successful advocate for all students.

The Undergraduate Student Senate will be hosting a town hall during their Dec. 1st General Body Meeting at 5 p.m. in the UC Danforth Conference Room, where we will present our proposed reforms in more detail. The Graduate Student Assembly will do the same during their Dec. 7th General Body Meeting at 5 p.m. in Tepper Simmons A. We hope to see many of you there!

Student Government Executive Committee
Natalie Salazar, Student Body President
Joan Song, Student Body Vice President
Prithu Pareek, Undergraduate Student Senate Chair
Divyansh Kaushik, Graduate Student Assembly President