Seeing Double: Stop Pretending AAS Is Democratic

Seeing Double Columnist Thomas Brodey '22 argues that the Association of Amherst Students fails to live up to its democratic image.

Seeing Double: Stop Pretending AAS Is Democratic
The Cole Assembly Room, where the Budgetary Committee meets every week to allocate money requested by various student organizations. Photo Courtesy of Amherst College.

The Association of Amherst Students (AAS) did not have a great fall semester. In December, the AAS Senate voted to spend $3,000 of student tuition money on buying jackets for its members (a decision eventually vetoed by the president). Before that, it appropriated more than $2,000 to the Budgetary Committee, which then used the funds to wine and dine themselves at the swanky Inn on Boltwood. The AAS also got some heat last May for sending out a controversial (although in this author’s opinion, unobjectionable) email on the Israel-Palestine conflict, which led to a hearing last fall at the Judiciary Council.

To justify all these decisions, the AAS always uses the same defense. “[The] AAS is responsive to the people that we represent,” said the mediocre columnist and AAS Senator Cole Graber-Mitchell ’22 at the Judiciary hearing. “That’s why we have elections — we are all elected as members of our student body to represent our peers. That’s also why we have public comment at every meeting and publish our minutes, so we can be held accountable.” In short, the AAS’s accountability to its voters means that it is free to use its own judgment on controversial matters, and let the voters decide on the issue later.

AAS senators used similar reasoning to justify the questionable use of student funds to purchase sweaters for themselves, with one senator saying that the AAS deserved the jackets because they were “serving the entirety of the College and not just their members.”  Another member said it would improve accountability: “If you see someone wearing this sweatshirt, you know that they’re a part of student government and if you have a concern you want to bring up, you can talk to them.”

As we move into yet another AAS election cycle, it would be nice to believe that the AAS is a responsive and representative democracy, but the sad reality is that the AAS’ idealized vision of itself is a fantasy. The AAS is not a healthy or legitimate democracy.

First, let’s consider the elections. The Amherst student body has little real control over who becomes a member of the AAS Senate, because so few people run for election. Last spring, neither the Class of 2023 nor the Class of 2024 had enough candidates in the running, so not only did everyone who ran get elected, but they had to stage an emergency vote the next semester just to get enough warm bodies to fill all the chairs. In the Class of 2022, nine candidates ran for eight spots, technically a competitive election, but only just so. It’s often said that the people who deserve power are the ones who don’t want it. If true, this would make the AAS the finest legislative body in the country.

The only group of Senate elections to be consistently competitive are the ones for the first-year class. (It says rather a lot that only the students with no experience in the AAS want to be members.) The problem is that first-year elections are just as much a sham as those of upperclassmen. Lots of students run, but the candidates and voters have only arrived on campus about three weeks before the vote. The candidates don’t know what they’re signing up for, and the voters don’t know the candidates. Can you imagine having to work for a whole year with the people you met in the first three weeks of your first semester? Real democracy requires voters to have information, and so the first-year elections are little better than a big spin wheel. It’s no wonder that voter turnout for all AAS elections is abysmal.

The fact that so many Senate elections are uncontested should immediately raise alarms. Senators are not accountable to their voters. No matter what a senator does in their term of office, they are likely to be reelected, simply because the AAS does not have enough candidates. The AAS might as well be handing us ballots with a single candidate and check marks already inked in. Amherst College prides itself on advanced political theory, so it seems appropriate that it has managed to replace democracy (rule of the people) with a never-before-described form of government: an ethelocracy (rule of the volunteer).

The AAS, furthermore, is not exactly a forum for debate on contentious campus issues. Of the 40 roll call votes taken by the AAS last semester, only four registered any opposing votes. The average AAS senator votes “yes” to more than 98 percent of motions. Some have never voted against anything in their entire Senate careers. Maybe we should be glad that the AAS is apparently so good at building consensus, but I’m not sure I could think of any important and meaningful issue that we could get 98 percent of Amherst students to agree on.

But what about the public comment that Mr. Graber-Mitchell speaks so highly of? At least students bring their concerns to the Senate. Except they don’t. According to last fall’s Senate minutes, only one student delivered a public comment over the course of the entire semester. The subject of the comment, appropriately enough, was a complaint about AAS’ lack of publicity.

If the AAS were truly a democratically elected organization, accountable to its constituents, I doubt it would have appropriated thousands of dollars of student money toward luxury clothing and luxury dining. I doubt that, due to a wave of resignations and (one can only assume) apathy, only an average of 24 out of the 33 senators would have shown up to each of last semester’s Senate meetings. That’s an attendance rate of 72 percent.

I have nothing against the members of AAS, many of whom are deeply invested in making the campus a better place. The AAS, moreover, provides valuable services to the Amherst community, like sitting on faculty committees and managing club budgets. The problem is not that the AAS does these things — the issue is that the AAS sees itself as more than an administrative body. It believes that it is the legitimate representative of student will, and can therefore spend student money without restrictions, and speak for the entire student body.

That said, I don’t think the AAS is beyond saving. If it wants to become a healthy democracy, it will need to institute serious reforms. First and foremost, we need to get people invested in participating in the AAS elections. Perhaps that would mean giving AAS senators a salary for the hours they work, or simply putting more hot-button issues on the AAS agenda, so that students will feel that there is more at stake in the debates. The Constitution could also use some changes, to add more specific rules about AAS spending, and maybe even require a certain level of voter participation before senators can officially take office.

If all that sounds like too much work, however, there is another solution. The AAS could just change the way it describes itself. Instead of calling itself a Senate, it would be far more accurate for today’s AAS to call itself a group of administrative volunteers. That’s not an insult. Amherst already has plenty of important committees where students are present, without claiming to have any kind of democratic mandate. Of course, “volunteer” doesn’t look as good on a resume as “Elected Senator representing the Student Body,” but democracy, first and foremost, requires honesty.