SGA initiates constitutional review process amid calls for reform

Lucia Cheng

By Lucia Cheng

The first rough draft of the Student Government Association (SGA)’s new constitution was passed out at an open meeting last Friday, kicking off what will be a semester’s worth of debate about structural reforms to Grinnell’s student government.

The document lays the groundwork for an evaluation and rewriting of the old constitution according to a newly solidified mission statement: a promise to the collective student body that SGA will ensure their voices are heard.

But why now?

“We’re an organization that has existed in its current state [for] a little bit over 50 years,” said Quinn Ercolani ’20, SGA administrative coordinator and the head of the SGA Constitutional Reform Committee. He stated that most SGA members are only involved in student government for three years at most at Grinnell. According to Ercolani, this short timeframe creates a system where, although students recognize that the structure is not working, nothing changes because there’s no time or motivation to do so.

“Everyone’s okay with the system. No one is happy with the system. And we can do better than that,” he said.

The system Ercolani refers to is laid out in the SGA constitution, which has guided Grinnell’s student government since its inception.

“[The constitution is] self-contradictory. And that leads to long Senate sessions where we’re arguing about what possibly the people who wrote this meant,” said SGA Assistant Treasurer Oscar Buchanan ’21.

“We don’t know who wrote it. We don’t know how long that wording has existed for, so it could have been anytime between now and 50 years ago. There’s just no records of the amendments and changes to the constitution.”

Ercolani and Buchanan both agreed that action had to be taken, and they thought the time was right: all of the current SGA cabinet members had run on reformist platforms, so the desire to make change was there. Reform had to be made. So began the SGA Constitutional Reform Committee.

“We started with a mission and purpose. What does SGA exist to do? What should we be doing?” said Buchanan.

As a result, the committee will hold an open forum every week where anyone who would like to share ideas can do so. Buchanan emphasized that the forums are “open to all”, and strongly encouraged students to take an active role in the process.

“These meetings are [about] lovingly throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks,” said Ercolani. “That is our goal. We want to have as much input as possible from anyone who wants to.”

He outlined the committee’s plan to start the reform conversation off in committee, take the new document to the Senate for approval and, if approved by the senate, have the campus vote to ratify the new constitution.

While the plan slowly starts to take shape, questions about practicality and feasibility arise. Will the document be able to encompass all student voices, or a select few? How will compromises be made? And most of all, will it work?

“The first reason you’re writing a constitution is because you want some sort of a pact that will last [a long time]. This is not a law that regulates a particular desire, but rather it is an agreement about how it is that we will go about coordinating ourselves,” said Professor Gemma Sala, political science. “Ultimately, you will see that the student body is not just one group, that it is many groups. And many groups have to agree that if not now, at some point you’ll have disagreements. And that’s what you want the constitution to do: how do we go about resolving the disagreement articulating it, and [how to enable] decision making.”

Sala said that the reformers need to figure out a way to enable a system that coordinates communication among students, so that the collective voice of campus constituencies “sticks”.

In essence, the constitution should uphold Grinnell’s value of self-governance. According to Professor Peter Hanson, political science, self-governance is fundamentally a decentralization of power, where decisions are made collaboratively and after much discussion.

“What is challenging about [Grinnell’s] self-government is that it requires a high level of engagement [from] people who are very busy,” Hanson said. “All of us, students and faculty, have heavy demands on our time at the College. And for self-government to work, people have to be paying attention. When people aren’t able to offer that, self-government doesn’t work as well, because you’re not getting all the ideas brought forward.”

Hanson said that any campus community should always be looking to improve.

“We’re never going to be perfect,” he said. “No democratic system of government is perfect. We are human beings being governed by human institutions. We do the best we can. Sometimes they’re going to work well; sometimes they’re not. They’re always going to need tinkering.”

From student government representatives to professors, all of the people interviewed for this article came to an underlying consensus: that the constitution should clearly uphold the principles the collective student body believes in.

“Participating in these [constitutional reform] meetings doesn’t require any knowledge about what SGA does right now,” said Buchanan. “And it’s really valuable, even in you hate SGA, if you have no idea what SGA stands for. We want to imagine what it can do.”