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Out of Order: Reexamining Engagement

Almost every modern organized group—states, corporations, institutions—has a small group of people who lead. In the United States, we elect Members of Congress and a Chief Executive for this purpose. At Grinnell, a small group of about nine senior staff, led by the President of the College and ultimately supervised by the Board of Trustees, directs the business of the institution. However, within Grinnell’s Student Government Association, policy can be set and enacted by as many as 1600 students and as few as one.

Organizationally, that’s pretty unusual, but it is (at least theoretically) true: almost all SGA committees are open, including financial committees, and because anyone who shows up is allowed to vote, a committee’s voting membership could in theory consist of the entire student body. One of two of the only closed SGA bodies, Cabinet and Campus Council, is open to non-members anyway (with the proviso that non-members have voice but no vote).

This structure is intentionally open. Since the writing of the current SGA Constitution, the philosophy of SGA has been that, if open participation is allowed, more views will be heard and SGA actions will more accurately represent the views of the student body. In a perfect system, the thinking goes, students would engage in the process at all levels of interest to them.

For the past several years, however, SGA’s upper echelons have bemoaned the lack of student involvement with some of SGA’s key policymaking bodies. Past presidents have complained of poor attendance at Campus Council, low voter turnout in campus-wide elections, and disdain for the decision-making process itself (this was no more apparent than when “No Confidence” was elected as Senator several semesters ago).

To remedy this perceived problem, SGA has made some significant changes. A new cabinet-level position, the Outreach Coordinator (now Diversity and Outreach Coordinator), was created. The Campus Council meeting structure was drastically altered to create a friendlier and more expedient atmosphere for visitors. Cabinet office hours have received greater publicity, with some members of Cabinet holding office hours in unconventional locations. The SGA website has been overhauled.

None of these fixes would have happened if no one believed there was a problem to fix. However, I am troubled by the circumstances that gave rise to this supposed “problem.” In recent years, it seems, SGA’s tone with regard to the Constitution’s open structure has shifted from encouraging participation to demonizing lack of participation. Even as recently as the SGA President and Vice-President candidate debates, publicity for the event read, “Be there or be an uninformed Grinnellian!” The tone has shifted, and engagement for the sake of engagement appears to be supported. Not to engage is a bad thing.

But engagement has no intrinsic value. To be engaged with something about which one does not care is not civic activism, it’s a waste of time.

I am not arguing that no one should be involved with SGA’s decision-making processes—indeed, as co-chair of the SGA Reform Committee, I wish that our committee meetings would overflow. Rather, I want to suggest that the concept of engagement, especially in an SGA context, is more nuanced than the current state of affairs suggests.

If engagement for engagement’s sake is not a good thing, is it really a problem that no one reads Campus Council minutes, for example? Is it really such a bad thing that some clusters have low numbers of Senator candidates? Indeed, might this logic be taken even further to assert that it is a good thing that relatively few people are involved with or care about things like SGA Constitutional amendments, to use a frequently cited example, because that small group of people is likely to be highly interested and knowledgeable in that area? Some have asserted this to be the case.

You may disagree with this view. You may believe that SGA is as opaque as ever. Or you may agree with my (admittedly slightly exaggerated) commentary. In either case, I want to hear from you. Do students fail to engage enough with SGA policymaking processes? How do you observe this? What might be done to fix this problem?

Or is it a problem at all?

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