Student Senate cabinet responds to published criticism

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(Left to right) Alex Thiessen, Hannah Keeney, Jakob Miller and Sarah Lewis. Image courtesy of Facebook.

Recently, The Hilltop Monitor published a controversial opinion article criticizing the current Student Senate. The article was written by a bystander of the Senate, not a current Senator, and was based on information made public through the organization’s website and social media, as well as observations from the April 2, 2019 meeting.

As a publication striving to maintain high standards of both accuracy and fairness, the Monitor ensured the Cabinet in office was able to respond to the published piece. This article includes both the initial allegations made against the Senate as well as their responses to those claims.

It should be known that the current Cabinet was made aware of the critical opinion article prior to its publication and a meeting was facilitated by the Monitor between the author of the article and the members of the Cabinet.

The purpose of good journalism is to hold up a mirror to the community it serves, creating space for self-reflection and critical insight. These mirrors can take the form of opinions or facts, and sometimes they are hard to look at. Through The Hilltop Monitor we seek to hold up a mirror to the William Jewell College community, allowing for reflection on both the good and the bad. Hence, facilitating an opportunity for the current Senate Cabinet to respond to the original opinion piece was essential.

In an effort to facilitate dialogue, Co-Editor in Chief of The Hilltop Monitor Christina Kirk sat down with Student Body President Jakob Miller, Vice President Sarah Lewis, Treasurer Hannah Keeney and the author of the original opinion piece. Secretary Alex Thiessen was unable to attend the meeting as he was committed to playing in a Jewell sponsored soccer game.

From the outset, the Cabinet was adamant that they did not perceive the expressed opinion to be credible. Speaking on behalf of the four leaders, Miller explained that they did not agree that the information the author relied on was sufficient to support such a critical view of the Senate.

“I believe wholeheartedly, and my Cabinet does as well, that the opinion is not credible,” said Miller. “Though I do agree, and members on the Cabinet do agree with some of the criticisms made, we just don’t think it was a credible opinion. For reasons, as you say in your article, you came to one meeting and from that you’ve observed what happened there and you decided to write about what you saw and then generalize[d] Senate in the process throughout your article.”

To the critique that students cannot be expected to be completely informed on Senate activities due to the Cabinet not posting minutes on the website in a timely manner, Keeney made clear that the representatives work hard to balance the workload of Senate on top of other school related responsibilities while acknowledging that – as is the case for all of us – sometimes they miss items on their to-do-lists.

“The lack of minutes on the website can largely be explained by an absence of our Secretary, but that was due to school sponsored events,” Keeney said. “I do agree that the minutes need to be revamped, but to claim that the Senators argue personal agendas based on the minutes alone I don’t believe is fair. […] I think it would’ve helped if you reached out to one of us, or even a Senator, rather than relying on minutes and what you saw at one meeting alone.”

In response to the article’s claim that due to the fact that Senate has not publicized its achievements, it seems Senate has enacted no tangible change on campus, Miller read out a list of Senate’s accomplishments from the past year.

The list included, but was not limited to: Coffee With The Prez events, Lighting of the Cardinal Tree, Diversity and Inclusion events, tweaking the Student Rights and Responsibilities and providing solutions to last year’s controversy surrounding the Journey Grant program.

Further, Miller emphasized that, while it is Student Senate’s duty to change campus for the better, it is not necessarily their job to publicize their achievements. He pointed to The Hilltop Monitor as the entity responsible for communicating Student Senate’s work to the student body.

“This is kind of an echo chamber in here, and we are all spouting our ideas and talking about things, and then we just forget about what’s out there. And that’s where I think the Hilltop has an opportunity to come in here and communicate that gap,” Miller said. “I mean we’re already doing so much work to make change happen, it’s another step then to try and project that to students. And so, I think, to solve this problem that you’re talking about is just a better partnership between Senate and The Hilltop Monitor.”

“I think it is easy to fall into complacency, so I think having Hilltop publish more articles about Senate would be great,” Keeney added.

The opinion article also critiqued the demographic makeup of the current Senate. While the current Cabinet acknowledged that certain campus affiliations are over-represented, they explained that each student is given the opportunity to run for the Senator positions and the elected Cabinet does not dictate the outcome of those campaigns.

This means that the diversity of Senators is in the hands of the student body. If students only vote for students from one organization – for example: one fraternity or sorority, or one campus political group – then those will be the students making up the Senate.

In an effort to facilitate a more representative Senate, the current Cabinet explained several ideas they have brainstormed related to changing the campaign rules.

“One of the ideas that came up to us was electing senators based on [their] housing arrangements,” said Miller. “So we would elect Senators from their constituencies, their housing arrangements, so you would have a couple of Senators from Semple, one Senator from Jones… Kind of like a house representative thing. [sic]”

While expressing their desires to move forward and implement new initiatives, the current Cabinet also expressed frustration that even when they have communicated with the student body – such as about events and openings on the Senate – it has been difficult to get interaction.

“We can always do better to communicate, but if we can’t get student engagement then that communication is just irrelevant to me at that point,” said Miller.

Each of the cabinet representatives remarked on the format of the article, wondering why the author elected to write an opinion based on just public information – publicized minutes and attendance of one meeting – rather than an investigative news article with more extensive research and interviews.

“There should be some quotational evidence here. You should be asking senators what they think. You should be asking independents what they think. Because this is larger than just one person’s opinion. This is about what the student body thinks of Senate – not just one student,” Miller said.

Lewis mentioned that she was also put off by the tone in which the article was written.

“When we’re such a small campus we need to work as a team in order to have positive growth, and criticism needs to come in a constructive way, and I don’t think that was how it was approached,” she said.

Lewis specifically took issue with the opening sentence of the article.

“Honestly, with the initial sentence of ‘Student Senate is embarrassing,’ I think your purpose wasn’t in a positive light. I honestly think it was an attempt to kind of humiliate us – mostly us on the cabinet,” Lewis said. “We’re clearly not flawless, and we’re aware of that.”

The author explained their desire was not to humiliate the current Senate but to spark discussion and debate in an effort to reduce apathy on campus.

In response, Keeney pointed out a contradiction she noticed.

“If your goal was to decrease apathy, if I’m reading this article as an unaffiliated-with-Senate student, why would I ever want to be involved with an organization that’s being accused of being embarrassing? I’m having a hard time connecting the two. I think it completely annihilates our cabinet – and unfairly so. I think it’s completely wrong to say that people wouldn’t be interested in reading an article if it wasn’t inflammatory or, frankly, rude,” said Keeney.

The Treasurer defended the current Senate and iterated that, at the end of the day, we’re all just trying to do our best.

“All four of us – and I can honestly speak for the [senators] who consistently show up to Senate – they all want to make Jewell better,” said Keeney. “To be accused of being, basically, a mockery… that’s not gonna decrease apathy. [sic].”

To conclude the meeting, Miller read off a prepared statement:

I would like to end by expressing my gratitude again for giving Student Senate the opportunity to respond to this article. There is much censorship around the criticisms and ideas students address about the College. While we, the Student Senate, may not agree with all that’s been said in the article I do appreciate the discussion that we are having now that came as an outcome of it. At some time in our lives, we were all freshmen at Jewell and we all took Responsible Self learning the significance of discussion. I believe this article has made very fair criticisms and has given Senate the opportunity to be transparent. With censorship, this article and the productive dialogue that arose from it would not occur. I can only hope this particular instance is well broadcasted enough to set an example for the rest of the College and community.

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