Letter to the Editor: Student Senate’s Woes

Dear Dickinsonian —


Ben Warren’s excellent article on lack of interest in running for Student Senate (“Senate Struggles to Recruit Students,” Feb. 23, p. 1), reminded me of my second year at Dickinson, when I was elected to serve on what was then known as the Academic Program Committee. I didn’t ask to serve, but was picked by the nominating committee, and during a faculty meeting I received more votes in an election in which I did absolutely nothing to campaign against one other nominee, who, like me, was probably hoping against hope to lose.


My main memory of my stint on the curriculum committee is of being outvoted. There was a popular proposal at the time to institute a community service requirement for graduation. The whole committee was for it, but like a character in “Twelve Angry Men” I argued myself blue in the face that community service should be voluntary, and the only result would be a lot of grumpy, unwilling students working with community partners, and that the thing would be a nightmare to administer. 


The requirement passed, proved to be a nightmare to administer, and was abolished within a couple of years. I say it here: I told you so. [Breathe.] 


Despite its time-consuming frustrations, however, my time on the committee ended up being a pivotal experience. I understood and appreciated the college and its curriculum in a completely new way. I saw the hard choices and hard work that go into running the college. 


I acquired deep respect for my colleagues, was impressed by the students on the committee, the dedication of the administrators, and Dickinson’s (rather unusual) tradition of shared governance in all its messiness. After all those memos and debates I felt like I was really a part of the Dickinson community. It was good for me, and (hopefully) it was good for the college to have my perspective.


It seems to me that the best solution for the current predicament of Student Senate would be to follow the example of that purest of democracies, ancient Athens, and institute service by lot. 

Lottery would have several benefits: representation by a truly random sample of students from each class year would ensure that a broad set of constituencies had input. Second, it would tap into the talents of people who would not be moved to run but may have a great deal to offer in the way of ideas, personal connections, and organizational moxie. Third, it would eliminate tiresome and anxiety-inducing elections. Fourth, and perhaps most important, it would give a broader section of students a chance to really see how decisions are made at the college, and crucial experience in deliberative situations. It might convince them that they too are suited to exercise leadership roles as citizens later in life. 

I recommend a great episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast “Revisionist History” (Season 5, Episode 3: “The Powerball Revolution”) that describes cases in which student governance lotteries have worked brilliantly in exactly these ways.


Now, this proposal may seem to contradict my argument about the necessity of community service being voluntary. But if students who are tapped randomly to serve on Senate have the option to refuse then nobody will truly be compelled to serve. Not compelled, just expected. I think that those who agree to serve will have the same experience that I had: work, exasperation, and a growing, sustained love of Dickinson.