Chase: How I failed Senate and Senate failed me

Ben Chase, Op-Ed Contributor

I should never have become a senator. After nearly a year serving in Associated Student Government, I realize I lack the experience, passion and dedication necessary to succeed in this position.

When I first ran for Senate, I lost the election within my own residential community, which includes Allison Hall, Shepard Hall and 1838 Chicago. Instead of my Senate career ending then and there, I was offered a different seat as a senator representing Foster-Walker Complex. Not one person in Plex viewed Senate as a worthy endeavor, exemplifying Northwestern students’ extreme apathy regarding student government. The absurdity of a freshman representing a building full of mostly upperclassmen, a place where I did not even live and only had access to the ground floor, continues to perplex me. It was the first in a series of red flags highlighting Senate’s inefficiencies.

My rocky start with Senate continued into our first meeting. All new members arrived 30 minutes early to receive a well-intentioned yet completely ineffectual orientation. Senate runs on Robert’s Rules, a set of parliamentarian guidelines I still cannot describe if you asked. Procedurally, I did not understand how anything in Senate worked until the fourth or fifth meeting. Right from the start, Senate failed to take advantage of the opportunity to smoothly orient and teach new members.

My next wakeup call was a speech by Senate Speaker and soon-to-be president, Nehaarika Mulukutla, about the importance of attendance. Immediately, I was reminded of my chemistry professor insisting in vain that Chemistry 101 is not a weed-out class: The more Mulukutla urged senators to attend, the more convinced I became that people shirked their senatorial responsibilities for a reason. Soon after, the reasons behind Senate’s attendance problems became clear.

The largest factor is simple: Senate lacks teeth. We are allowed to make changes only as far as the administration will allow. So, in order to truly challenge the administration, Senate must demonstrate an ability to mobilize the entire student body behind a cause. Yet Senate cannot even unite itself.

As an example of our failure this past year, examine how we responded to the sexual assault allegations against Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. Senate should have quickly and unanimously passed a bill condemning SAE and calling on the University to take actions to protect students on campus from sexual assault. Instead, a multi-week drama unfolded as we rushed out a bill, and an Interfraternity Council senator and substitutes staged a walkout. What did we accomplish? Senate drew attention away from the survivors, and onto itself.

Furthermore, Senate fails to create a positive working environment. In all of my time at Senate, only Mulukutla actually attempted to get to know me. I still do not know many of the other senators’ names. If we are to address critical issues facing Northwestern today, we need to at least know each other, respect each other and maintain functional working relationships.

To be clear, I am not trying to minimize Senate’s accomplishments. President Christina Cilento and executive vice president Macs Vinson have led several impactful initiatives, including adding menstrual products in several restrooms, distributing free bike helmets and changing ASG code regarding sexual assault. Yet in the end, Senate lacks the power to stand up to the administration on many truly important matters, as seen in the wake of the recent sexual assault allegations. Until we commit to creating a more open, less corrosive atmosphere, the student body will remain voiceless.

To this day, I attend every Senate meeting with a pit in my stomach. I will finish my Senate term and run for the hills, but not everyone has to have the same experience that I did. Like so many others in ASG, I had my own attendance issues and never fully committed to representing my constituents. Only when Senate changes its culture to promote functional working relationships can it build a united front and increase its influence. Only then might attendance issues disappear. Only then will Senators more qualified than me take the job that I did not deserve.

Ben Chase is a Weinberg freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.