Union Restructuring: Why Did It Fail?

Of the changes proposed by the Constitutional Review Committee, none received more discussion than the Union government restructuring — the elimination of the Senate and the creation of a smaller Assembly and a Club Support Board.  It was endorsed as a great way to improve Union government efficiency by a wide range of campus sources, from the Justice editorial board to President Andy Hogan to our own writers.  Despite this, it was one of only three (out of 13) proposals that didn’t get the 2/3 majority of the student vote needed to be added to the Constitution.  So why did it fail, and what can we learn from it to fix the problems in the Union government?

I’ll start by saying that I really didn’t like the restructuring proposal.  I’m not sure that it would have actually solved the problems it tried to address, and there were several consequences of its changes that made me pretty uncomfortable.  It would have taken fewer students to make consequential decisions like de-chartering clubs, it would have raised the electoral barriers of participation higher, and it would have set up some explicit conflicts of interest for Club Support members.

But I doubt that even the small percentage of students who took the time to vote actually looked into the amendment very deeply.  Many of them probably saw the amendment for the first time when they voted, and their priorities were probably on amendments they saw as more directly impacting their lives on campus (SSIS, SEA, etc.).  Still, they chose to support most of the other proposals, even one which only changed a single word.

I think the problem with the restructuring proposal was much more simple: there was no immediately obvious benefit to the changes it offered.  So they wanted to make the Senate smaller and move the club chartering process to another body — why?  There’s a perception that students hate the Union because of its overly formal procedures, but I don’t think that’s true.  After all, how many students have to deal with the Senate on a regular, extended basis?  I think the real concern is what the Union actually does and the apparent disconnect between the Union government and the students, and there’s no reason to think that shrinking or dividing the governing bodies would have made a concrete change.

Thus, to most people, the government restructuring came down to a simple rearrangement of the deck chairs.  When you take out the votes of the CRC, the E-Board, and the Senate (who all actively worked to put the amendment on the ballot), you’re basically left with a coin flip from the voters.  There are definite problems with the way the Union works, but solving them requires a more direct approach than the CRC took toward the review process.


The front page of this week’s Justice has, as its lead article, a story about the Constitutional Review Committee’s final report.  The article is well-written, comprehensive, and informative, and it’s accompanied by a nice, eye-catching picture.  The problem is that I don’t think anyone cares.

The CRC is one of those topics that’s only interesting to the very small minority of students who follow the Union closely.  Its meetings were held behind closed doors, its mission is basically just a reshuffling of the Union government, and even the best changes it proposes will measurably affect only a small percentage of the campus community.  You don’t have to take my word for it; in same issue’s ‘Brandeis Talks Back’ section, all four of the students they interview express complete apathy to the process.  Yes, the report is significant enough to merit coverage, but does it really deserve its front page status?

Meanwhile, you’d have to turn to page 5 of the paper to learn that a potential hate crime occurred on the Brandeis campus this weekend.  The newly-refurbished Muslim Student Association suite was viciously vandalized on Friday.  The wall in Imam Talal Eid’s office was permanently damaged, and his personal copy of the Quran was stolen.  The nature of the theft makes it hard to view this as anything but an attack against campus Muslims, and it absolutely sickens me to think that such a vile invasion could happen at the school I call home.  But apparently, it’s worth only one-sixth of a page buried in the News section, next to a full page of advertisements.

During Diana Aronin’s impeachment and trial, many people complained about the petty disagreements that the Union officers turned into a public spectacle.  I agree with them, but the campus media need to be held culpable as well for turning what should have been an internal Union affair into a weekly front-page spectacle.  If our Union government suffers from self-importance, it is only because they’re used to getting undue attention for every minor issue.  Meanwhile, the papers will continue to alienate their readers if they glorify topics that are ultimately irrelevant for most students.  I suspect that students are far more interested in uncovering hate on our campus than on how big the Union Senate will be next year, and I think the every campus media outlet needs to reassess what its reporting priorities should be.

The Dearth of Democracy (aka: Why Innermost Parts exists) Part 2

The problem of Brandeis civil society cannot be solved merely by elections. We cannot shove elections down the throat of a mostly apathetic and uninformed populace: with a typical voting rate of 30%, Brandeis students vote less often than the population at large. The newspapers, which are the first line of defense for this sort of thing, have their problems as well.

There are two Brandeis newspapers – the establishment Justice, and the ambitious Hoot, and they present the same sort of challenges. Both are under the control of an executive editor (elected by writers at the Justice, unelected at the Hoot) Both operate under the rules that have them write one article issue for each piece of news and consider it “covered”. Both are prone to holier-than-thou, split-the-difference editorials. (Though the Justice has gotten much better in this regard). Both are extremely reluctant to challenge the administration: the head of the Justice recently told me that “the trust of the Administration is very important to us”. How can I trust them to report on the administration, then? Lastly, they are read by only a portion of the student body.

The student body, finally, is split into clubs. These clubs are fragmented, numerous, and rarely talk to one another. Great projects might be taken on in the dark, mainly because no one club knows what the others are doing. Each club wants to plan their own events, so a barrage of speakers and gatherings overwhelms even the most active students. There was no strong voice or “propaganda of the deed”  promoting a culture of activism or awareness of Social Justice as a holistic movement on campus.

With a student body atomized in discrete clubs, and the newspapers failing either to interest or stand up for them, how can they be united for any task? The Student Union, the natural (and official) nexus of all interests and all students, is one hand paralyzed in the Senate, and on the other hand unaccountable in the executive board. If we can’t even govern ourselves, how can we realistically ask for more control in governing the school?

Pending revolution, a realistic goal would be survival: holding the administration (and faculty) accountable and advocating for a better future. Individual student clubs might be too small on their own to do so. The newspapers are afraid; too dependent on access to serve as the only check to power, and the Student Union is a wildcard: it could be strong, principled, and effective advocate for students (see the Jason Gray administration), or it could fall into the traps of either adopting too harsh a tone which alienates, or being too accommodating to do much good. We need another strong body, standing powerfully for student interests and whipping others into doing so as well. We need an institution that looks something like what Innermost Parts strives to become.

(The second paragraph has been corrected to clear up how internal policies (such as elections) work for the Justice and Hoot. The last sentence has also been rewritten for style)

An Interfaith Success Story

If you could sum up successful interfaith dialogue in three words, what would they be?

How about “Homies in Harmony”?

If those aren’t quite the words you had in mind, then you clearly weren’t one of the organizers of last week’s Jews and Muslims Session: Homies in Harmony III.  I wish that I had been able to make the event, because it seems like it was just as successful and entertaining as its name.  Check out this story in the Justice for a full overview of the event, but the basic premise was to create an interfaith conversation that would both allow for discussion of personal, controversial feelings and maintain a level of respect that would encourage participants to form friendships with people from unfamiliar faith tradition.  My good friend Neda Eid helped to organize the event, and she told me after the fact that she was very excited by how well it turned out.  Judging by the quotes from the article, it seems most of the participants felt the same way.

Last year marked a low point for interfaith dialogue at Brandeis.  It seemed that every few weeks introduced another controversy that played itself out in the papers and left a lot of hurt feelings.  The charter of Students for Justice in Palestine, the Israel 60th birthday resolution, aspects of the Mamoon Darwish saga and of the Senator-at-Large election and Judiciary case — I’m sure most of you still have sour memories of all of these events.  Even the Boston Globe took note of the firestorm the campus had become.  It’s counterproductive to go back and assign blame for everything that happened (I certainly don’t claim to be innocent myself), but I think it was clear to everyone that something had to change.

And something did change.  To the credit of the entire Brandeis community, this year has been almost completely free of the public battles that marred ’07-’08.  It’s hard to say exactly what did it; perhaps everyone just got tired of seeing so much bad blood.  Regardless, everyone at Brandeis should be proud that the interfaith dialogue on campus has improved so substantially over last year.

However, this clearly doesn’t mean that anger and bitterness don’t still exist.  Tension among religious groups has existed as long as humans have; should we really expect it to disappear overnight from our campus?  And just because it isn’t spilled out over the front pages of the Hoot and the Justice doesn’t mean that it has no effect and that we are best off ignoring it.  JAM Session should serve as a model for how to deal with these tensions productively and turn them into tools for strengthening our community.  It seems that plans are already in place to develop a more frequent series of conversations, and I encourage everyone to get involved with this in some way.  The elephant in the room is the Israeli-Palestinian tension, the biggest source of interfaith conflict on campus.  JAM Session wisely kept the focus on more general interfaith issues (though Israel/Palestine wasn’t explicitly excluded), but eventually that discussion needs to be had.  We should look at JAM Session as a model for approaching these issues in a way that allows respectful disagreement and productive action.  Brandeis has come a long way since last year, and though we may not be there yet, I have great confidence that we’ll eventually be able to engage even the thorniest of issues and remain homies in harmony.


I just got around to reading the Justice’s article about the State of the Union today, and one thing in particular really jumped out at me:

“I think his speech was one of the most outstanding you can imagine from a student leader,” said Rena Olshansky ’56, a member of the Board of Trustees’ Students and Enrollment Committee, who said that it was her first State of the Union address. Commenting on the Union Rena said, “I think the [students] set their agenda, and that’s important.”

University Provost Marty Krauss, who attended the speech, said in an interview with the Justice, “[Gray] has a tremendous amount of respect among the members of the administration because he’s a mature person; he’s diplomatic; he thinks about the perspectives of many constituencies; he’s smart; and he makes really good recommendations, and he gets things done.”

Senior Vice President of Communications Lorna Miles, who also attended, added that Gray “has been incredibly vital; his legacy is having created a consciousness in the University among the administration and the faculty that students are part of the day-to-day governance of this community.”

That’s an incredible amount of respect for Jason Gray coming from the administrators and trustees who attended the speech.  We’ve already heard the great praise that Jason gets from the student body, and it’s really satisfying to know that the other members of the Brandeis community feel the same way.

This kind of universal acclaim is impressive enough on its own, but I find it even more impressive when viewed in the context of the content of Jason’s address.  The speech was not tailor-made to draw praise from the administrators.  Several times, Jason challenged the University to meet goals that he set, and he wasn’t afraid to call the administration out on several mistakes.  Most notably, he directly stated, “[T]here is no doubt that the Rose Art Museum has become a case study in what not to do procedurally.”  Isn’t that hard-hitting?

So what does all this mean?  First, it says something very positive about our administrators.  By praising the speech so effusively, they’re letting us know that student participation is not incumbent on our complete deference to their decisions.  They are willing to have a dialogue with us, allow our disagreement, and even to admit mistakes and work towards changing them.

But it also says so much about Jason himself.  He has the rare ability to say exactly what needs to be said while striking the right chord for every party involved.  This didn’t just happen overnight; it is the culmination of a year’s worth of hard work, determined advocacy, and appreciation for everyone’s point of view, and it shows what big shoes our next Union leaders will have to fill.  Ultimately, Jason’s greatest success might be that he was able to treat every single Brandeisian with respect, and it should be no suprise that he has received so much respect in return.