According to their website, “Student Government Association (SGA) is the organization that acts as the voice of the student body to faculty, staff, and administrators at Gannon University.” (Gannon University) Sadly, this mission is often not met effectively. This proposal will articulate an alternative plan for the structure and function of the organization. This paper will demonstrate the virtue and efficiency of the proposed new organizational plan by weighing it against the criteria set by two prestigious political scientists/philosophers: John Rawls and Robert Dahl.
As John Rawls states, “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected if it untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust” (3). In this way, the restructuring of Gannon’s Student Government Association will be done in a manner upholding justice, defined by John Rawls, as well as the five criteria for a democracy, defined by Robert Dahl.
John Rawls is considered one of the greatest political philosophers of the 20th Century, if not the greatest. He was both a political and ethical philosopher, and taught at Princeton, Cornell, MIT and Harvard (Duignan). Robert A. Dahl was a Sterling Professor of Political Science, Emeritus at Yale University. His study of politics in relation to organizations, as well as democracies – led him to great acclaim in the early 1990’s, when he won the Woodrow Wilson Foundation Book Award (Munro).
In this proposal, the definition of the problem of SGA will be examined, as well as a through explanation of why the proposed solution solves many of the aforementioned problems. Finally, potential objections to the proposal will be refuted. This proposal is specific to Gannon University’s Student Government Association, though it has potential to be applied on a larger or smaller scale at other colleges or universities.
Definition of Problem
In his book “Democracy and Its Critics”, Robert Dahl posits five criteria for a true democracy. This are defined as such:
Effective participation – “Citizens must have adequate and equal opportunities to form their preference and place questions on the public agenda and express reasons for one outcome over the other.”
Voting equality at the decisive stage – “Each citizen must be assured his or her judgments will be counted as equal in weights to the judgments of others.”
Enlightened understanding – “Citizens must enjoy ample and equal opportunities for discovering and affirming what choice would best serve their interests.”
Control of the agenda – “Demos or people must have the opportunity to decide what political matters actually are and what should be brought up for deliberation.”
Inclusiveness – “Equality must extend to all citizens within the state. Everyone has legitimate stake within the political process.” (109-113)
Dahl goes on to explain that no contemporary state or nation adequately fulfills every one of these criteria, and thus each state should be referred to as a “polyarchy” – not a true democracy. Dahl views democracy as an idealistic system, one that is not yet fully achieved, but can be approached (118).
For students at Gannon University, the “voice of the students” is sadly silent. Few, if any, of the five criteria outlined by Dahl are covered in their system. Further, SGA in its current manifestation represents a guardianship more than a true democracy, or even a polyarchy, due to its closed-off nature and failure to provide even the most basic information to the students.
The only real chance that students have to participate in Gannon University’s Student Government is during the elections at the end of the semester – and even then, this is limited to students who have heard about the elections, decided they want to run for office, meet the criteria for office as defined by the SGA constitution and gather enough votes to win a campaign. This failure of SGA to address Dahl’s criteria of “Effective Participation” is a testament to the problem that is inherent in the organization. Students are granted the right to the “student voice” section of SGA General Assembly meetings, but they cannot vote, nor can they initiate a vote on an important topic. This lack of “Control of the Agenda” further amplifies the point that SGA is not a true democracy.
This theme of exclusivity extends beyond the General Assembly meetings and into the culture of the organization. A plurality of students involved in SGA are members of Greek Life, as these students have a ready-made group of students to vote for them in the event of an election. Further still, the SGA office has a lock on the door – literally keeping lay students out. The “voice of the students” is internally, rather than externally, focused. Again, the failure of SGA to address Dahl’s criteria of “Inclusivity” does not bode well for a well-functioning organizational body.
Another issue with SGA’s current organization is the offices that are up for election each cycle for the executive board. Currently, every position except for VP of Technology and the Chief of Staff are elected, rather than appointed, positions. This leads to increased voting, not because of an increase in interest, but because more names appear on the ballot. If a student wants to vote for only the position of VP of Academic Affairs, they often will vote for most other positions as well – without regard to their effectiveness in office. These cluttered elections often also contain positions that have no opposition – something that no well-functioning democracy should contain. This symptom also points to a failure of SGA to encourage outside members to participate, and is also an example of how SGA fails to uphold Dahl’s criteria of “Enlightened Understanding”.
Finally, SGA has no/limited control over raising or lowering the Student Activity Fee that is used to give the organization a budget. This, along with all other factors, lead to the problem of SGA as a whole: its failure to provide for an inclusive, adaptable and egalitarian governing body is both troubling and unjust.
Explanation of Solution
In crafting an appropriate and just organization, including one that appropriately addresses all five of Dahl’s criteria for an efficient democracy, a consideration must be made to what defines justice. Insofar as how it applies to the further organizational structure that will emerge as a result. As Rawls mentions, unjust organizations – despite efficiencies – must be eradicated.
Rawls will be used as the basis for defining justice in this proposal, as his conception of “justice as fairness” represents a social contract that accounts for all members of society. According to his seminal work, A Theory of Justice, “The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance. This ensures that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles by the outcome of natural chance or the contingency of social circumstances” (11).
This contract-based theory is similar to that of Locke of Rousseau, but takes into consideration the least advantaged members of society. Thus, if the proposal is to adhere to Rawl’s conception of justice as fairness, then any system or institution that is created must follow the two principles of justice that Rawls arrives at:
“First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others.
Second: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage and (b) attached go positions and offices open to all.” (53)
If both principles are met, then the institution and its policies are just – as they have taken into account all members of a given society. For the purposes of this proposal, “all members of society” is to be taken as “all undergraduate students at Gannon University”, as this is the population that deals with the Student Government Association. Naturally, certain concepts within Rawls’ vision for justice must be adjusted – based on the fact that Gannon University, as well as the Student Government Association, are focused on education and the Catholic Mission. It is not the intention of this proposal to dismiss the notion of SGA as an educational opportunity, but merely to give the organization and operation more just and open structure.
Creation of a Bicameral Legislative Body
In order to give all students equal opportunity of participation, as well as foster growth for new leadership, the legislative body of SGA should be split in two: the lower house and the upper house.
The lower house, named the General Assembly, would be comprised of members of the upper house (in order to keep attendance and participation high) as well as any full-time student who wishes to attend the meeting. Any full-time undergraduate student in attendance of a General Assembly meeting would be given full voting rights as well as full speaking rights. This opening up of the legislation would allow for more innovation, and more aggressive student development. Additionally, by opening the floor for all students, participation in SGA is rewarded – rather than relegated to a five minute “student voices” period during the SGA General Assembly meeting, as it is now. The General Assembly would have the most power – given that participation is rewarded directly by a voice.
The upper house, named the Student Senate, would operate similarly to how the General Assembly operates now: representatives would be elected by their designated classes. However, the number of students acting as representatives would be reduced from nine to five. This not only elevates the position of representative, but gives more incentive for people wishing to become involved in SGA to attend General Assembly meetings. Student Senate meetings would be open to the public, and the function of the Senate would be to set the agenda for the General Assembly meeting, as well as act as a check on the General Assembly. Given that anyone in the General Assembly can vote, it would be possible for a ridiculous resolution to pass – having the Student Senate act as a check to the General Assembly’s power would retain the dignity and efficiency of the organization. However, a provision would need to be established so that the General Assembly could vote to override the veto from the Senate or from the Executive Board. This check on the veto would again encourage participation, as students would have to attend multiple meetings in order to elicit significant change quickly. Another aspect of the Student Senate would be electing a Speaker of the Assembly – a student taken from the elected representatives who would run the General Assembly meetings and become the President of SGA should that individual need to resign. This aspect, taken from parliamentary systems, would breed more cooperation between all branches of the Student Government Association.
This creation of a bicameral legislative body satisfies many of Dahl’s five criteria of a successful democracy. Giving all students potential control of the agenda, voting rights and equal opportunity of participation at the decisive state would open up a new era of inclusivity for SGA – one that has not been apparent in this traditionally closed organization. By opening voting rights up to all those who show up at General Assembly meetings, it also satisfies the first principle of justice as defined by Rawls.
The executive board of SGA has a large amount of power, but very little oversight. Far too often, these positions are filled when elections are held with no competition. To combat this, the executive board should function more like a business – letting students apply to the positions. This is already done with both the position of VP of Technology, as well as the Chief of Staff. However, job interviews should be done shortly after the Presidential election with confirmation from the General Assembly. This ensures that all students have the opportunity to excel in an executive board position and reduces incidents of nepotism. It also would make SGA more effective by having students oriented towards their jobs in the positions (i.e. using students from the new School of Communication and the Arts in the position of VP of Public Relations and Marketing).
Further, the positions of VP of Technology as well as the VP of Clubs and Organizations should be combined to form the VP of Student Engagement, with an undersecretary/committee to help them achieve their goals - reducing redundancies and providing a more holistic and inclusive environment for students.
Only the position of President should be elected by the students. While this may seem counter-intuitive to making SGA more democratic – it actually allows students to focus on one election and become more informed on the students running for the most powerful position on campus. By reducing excess noise for other positions, SGA becomes more open and inclusive. Students campaigning for a certain individual may do so in order to curry favor for an appointment to an executive board position, but this appointment must be confirmed by the General Assembly – safeguarding the integrity of the position. Having a focused election period promotes the criteria of “Enlightened Understanding” as posited by Dahl, and opening executive board positions up to applications promotes the first and second principles of Rawls’ conception of justice.
Creation of Judicial Branch
Finally, there needs to be a body of students that can objectively deal with issues such as student conduct, potential violations of responsibilities in office while on SGA and academic issues. Other institutions, such as Allegheny College, have student and faculty boards.
“There are two parts to our Student Conduct System, one for matters related to academic integrity and one for non-academic matters. All disciplinary decisions related to the Student Conduct System are based on a review of relevant information and facts. Decisions made by the Student Conduct Officer or designee, the Honor Committee, the Academic Integrity Board, and the Community Standards Board will use the standard of proof that it is more likely than not a violation of Allegheny College policy occurred. This means there is substantial information indicating it is more probable than not that a student violated College policies and therefore sanctions are assigned. The entire student conduct process can be found in the student handbook, The Compass” (Allegheny Student Conduct System).
These boards, which takes place for both academic and non-academic infractions, give students the opportunity to be involved while also protecting students from unfair decisions from the administration.
By creating a judicial branch for SGA, led by a new executive board position, SGA allows itself to remain open and transparent enough for third-party insights and recommendations. The judicial branch would not only act as watchdog, but as mentor – helping SGA achieve its goals with unbiased recommendations. This open government and final check on power with the legislature would incorporate faculty and staff, specifically those already involved with the Faculty Senate.
The judicial branch of SGA would also keep within the mission of Gannon University by respecting the individual rights of students and faculty. By treating students as adults and having disciplinary action disseminated by a jury of their peers and faculty, the community will respond more favorably to changes. The Catholic mission of Gannon University and the requirements of Rawls’ defense of the least-advantaged peoples is upheld in this regard.
Response to Possible Objections
Many may see these proposals and changes to the Student Government Association as radical or unnecessary. In truth, they represent the Student Government that Gannon University deserves and requires. Some may question the use of philosophers such as Rawls or political scientists such as Dahl in crafting a feasible and effective government, but how can such an effective organization be created without the thought and input from reputable sources?
Some still may state that creating two houses in the legislature will be excessive and ineffective, but as Rawls stated, effective organizations must be abolished if they are unjust. It is clear that there are issues with the current General Assembly, and by opening the floor to all students and creating a system of checks and balances within the community, we retain the educational aspect of the organization as a whole. It is better to have a just and open government than one that is effective, yet closed.
Others will argue that making the President of SGA the only position won by popular vote is contrary to the mission of democratic values, but as evidenced through Dahl’s work – a more focused election will give all students, not just those with the privilege of information, an enlightened understanding. Gannon University and SGA cannot force students to participate in governance, but they can open the door and let students truly become part of the process. Applications for executive board positions, once confirmed by the General Assembly, will provide a more focused and effective executive branch of SGA.
Finally, some will argue that giving students the ability to deal with conduct issues will result in a reduction of offenses being taken seriously. Yet, after four years, we send these students out into the world where they will have to be judged by their peers if they disobey the law. Why do we not afford them that courtesy while they are at the University? Others will view the judicial branch as an unnecessary watchdog organization; saying that the role of advisor is already a position that SGA has – but those that say this are merely afraid of excess open governance. Again, it is better to have a slow and just government than a fast and exclusive one. Even advisors should, at times, be held accountable.
Student Governments everywhere set the tone for how students view policy and politics for years to come. If a system at their university is closed and inaccessible, save for the privileged few, then they will see government as that once they graduate. However, if Gannon University capitalizes on its liberal arts foundation and attempts to educate its students and trust them – the entire community will reap the benefits. It may seem petty to focus so much on the structure and function of a student-run organization, but there are real consequences to the actions of those student leaders.
If Gannon University values the student as well as the individual and if SGA truly wants to act as the voice of the students, then the proposed changes are not just a recommendation, but a necessity. The Student Government Association cannot continue to subscribe to the notion of mediocrity, it cannot serve the few who listen while making no effort to reach out to those who don’t know about it and it must make an effort to encourage participation for all students: freshmen, sophomores, juniors, seniors, athletes, commuters, non-traditional students and international students.
Allegheny College. Allegheny Student Conduct System. n.d. 4 January 2015.
Dahl, Robert. Democracy and Its Critics. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989.
Duignan, Brian. John Rawls. 6 August 2014. 6 January 2015.
Gannon University. Student Government Association (SGA). 2014. 28 December 2014. <engageu.gannon.edu>.
Munro, André. Robert Dahl. 1 May 2014. 4 January 2015. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/149747/Robert-A-Dahl.
Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice: Revised Edition. Harvard University Press, 1999.