Communication, Cohesion and Committee Reform

What began as a standard Monday night in the AAS Senate led to an offended senator feeling the need to storm out of the Red Room, slamming the door behind him. Before the incident, senators gave announcements, proposals and committee reports, and Budgetary Committee Recs were approved. Vice President Geoff Ainsle ’12 gave the senators a Spring Break challenge to think of more ways to directly impact the student body and stray away from the last few meetings’ procedural focus; this could be anything from funding a punching bag in the gym to something as small as a visible Val-china crate in Frost. Money was allocated for more late-night dining options with Val dining either in Val or Schwemm’s, Alex Stein ’13 proposed a new pilot program mixing TYPO and Mix-It-Up and Brendan Burke’13, on behalf of the Arts Committee, will bring framed student art work to Schwemm’s in the very near future. These all represent worthwhile and direct student-serving initiatives that reflect our student government at its best.
Despite this progress, an incident occurred Monday night that caused some distress throughout the Senate. In the opinion of this new senator, a lack of effective communication, conflict mediation procedures and issues of parliamentary procedure form the base Monday’s unfortunate proceedings.

It was proposed that an ad hoc (“special purpose”) committee formed out of a senate project two years ago be dissolved on the basis that one committee member in particular was considered “domineering” and hard to work with, in the opinion of the other senators on the committee. There was also talk of dishonest action by the noted senator in their most recent project, yet no hard evidence of its occurrence was presented. The resolution of the particular issue that brought the committee to its breaking point had been attempted by democratic vote, but the committee members could not unanimously decide upon this democratic voting-mechanism as a sufficient decision-making procedure (there is no current bylaw language that requires ad hoc committees to use democratic procedure to make decisions). Since no unanimous consent could be reached about the issue, the remaining tension between the members and sense of a lack of ability to communicate in the future led some members to promote the committee’s dissolution. This dissolution would allow the Senate to reform the committee by voting for new members, with these considerations in mind.

After much debate, senators voted to dissolve the committee and the AAS senator in question became very angry and left the Red Room in a volatile manner. The committee’s duties were made into a temporary senate project, before the committee be re-instated at a later date. Interested senators are seeking to formulate Constitutional and bylaw amendments on committees at large, especially the specifics of ad hoc committees (currently without much Constitutional control) over the course of Spring Break.
Despite uneasy feelings in the air upon the senator’s departure, the Senate continued going about its business until senator Tania de Sousa Dias ’13 brought up her discontent with the Senate’s seemingly unfazed attitude to the emotional event that had just occurred (to which she received many snaps: the Senate’s way of showing approval).

From here, it was decided that an apology letter be drafted and sent to the offended senator. The letter was later discussed and amended in an email chain that evening.

Monday’s incident demonstrates not only procedural flaws of how to handle decision-making in ad hoc committees, but also the need to address the larger issue of division within the Senate. In an email in which I asked the noted senator to clarify the reasons behind his anger (and to ask if he would like to remain anonymous in this article, as well as if I should avoid specific committee details that would link it back to him), he said he felt he was “disrespected and not allowed to speak as a senator due to supposed procedural limits in [his] defense.” He felt the proposal to dissolve the committee as a personal attack: “The proposal was presented in a way that [was] directly against me even though I didn’t do anything wrong.”

While each side of the dispute has its arguments, what I most want to focus on is the fact that the Senate has a deeply offended senator who communicated that he felt he was not being heard and became emotionally compromised to the point that he had to leave because of this. This should be avoided at all costs. While I am certain that no one in senate ever has the deliberate intent to hurt another, if strong sentiments of disrespect occur, there needs to be action on both sides of the disagreement to repair the damage. The apology letter represents an adequate solution to this specific incident symptomatic of Senate division and dispute, but does not solve the deeper problem. This incident demonstrates a need for better communication and conflict mediation within the Senate body that I hope can be resolved through efforts in more social connection.

As a second semester senior, I have a significant number of friends who have been in Senate at one point or another, but left out of frustration that their ideas were not equally considered and that they were, similarly, not being “heard” (I’ve heard this especially from First Year and Sophomore senators/ex-senators). On Monday, a senator of the Class of 2014 resigned (elections to fill the spot will be held after Spring Break). While I cannot report that the reasons behind this resignation, I feel there should be more investigation into the transparency of resignations to see how we can better improve the Senate. Much of this resignation may be a feeling of not being heard, feeling like a senator’s time is not being spent effectively or feeling frustration with social division within the Senate. There seems to be an amazing turn-over in senators and more retention could be facilitated by better Senate procedures to facilitate a more cohesive identity.

My own experience in the Senate thus far reflects the lack of priority of seeking a cohesive student government body. I was elected into Senate just this semester and still have a hard time picking up on names or knowing people. There was little to no facilitation to have me meet others outside those I already knew in my graduating class, excluding my own efforts. As one who has been leading large and small groups in my work in my Community Engagement Leader position with the CCE for years, I know first-hand how an unrelenting priority to encourage open communication among a team and reward this communication’s occurrence lead to better results. Anyone who has played on a sports team can additionally talk to the extreme importance of group moral and identity to team performance. While interventions like Senate parties have occurred (though, we have yet to have one this semester), this is not everyone’s scene. I propose smaller group team-building events be organized and perhaps a social committee created to facilitate a more united Senate identity.

The AAS is supposed represent the student body and if we allow a senator feel deeply disrespected, no matter the intent or their past reputation, I fear this attitude can be translated the students he/she, too, represents. If we cannot fix our own divisions within the Senate, what hope do we have to fix those of the larger Amherst community? My words mean not to defend any dishonestly which may have occurred within the dissolved committee, but to encourage more communication, respect and humility from my fellow senators so that incidents like this may be avoided.

Successful teamwork comes from everyone’s deliberate choice to get along with one another despite differences and disagreements. Even though Senate can be argued to be a campus hot-bed for disagreements, from which creative solutions and positive change are meant to emerge, I have faith we can reconcile our differences more effectively. This is Amherst. It’s a small school and we cannot run from anything we say or do. If I’ve learned anything from my almost four years here it’s that you learn to get along to get along. Most of the time, you can learn something valuable about yourself and others from this practice. Let’s let this getting along turn into letting go of past grievances, let’s respect each other and ourselves enough to do so, and admit that we have full agency over how truly productive and receptive a serving body we as Senate wish to be.