The Student Association's preamble, mirroring the eloquent flourishes and idealistic goals of our nation's Constitution, outlines SA's duty to "exercise the fundamental responsibilities and rights of a democratic society."
Despite the lofty professed intentions, essential components of a democratic government are compromised by SA's administration, both structurally and in practice. The fault is unrelated to the individuals currently occupying SA's seats of power. The practices existed long before this year's slate of students took office, and will likely exist indefinitely, unless significant changes take place.
At a senate meeting earlier this month, SA Vice President Joshua Korman said the SA constitution was written when "SA was a student government in the absolute most stereotypical sense," indicating that it has deviated substantially from that model. Instead, Korman said, SA "has shifted into being more of an activities-based corporation." I find Korman's statement true, but disturbing.
The Student Association, funded by the hard-earned money of students and intended to be accountable to those students, should embody the principles of representative government. SA's function should not solely be to entertain students through speakers, concerts, performers, club events or comedians. Rather, SA should serve as representatives of the students to the administration, fighting for student-friendly policies and working as advocates for students' social, academic and personal needs.
The shift away from a traditional government to a service-distributing company mirrors the shifting of power from SA's three branches to the executive board - analogous to a corporation's chief executive officers or board of directors. The vice president's statement, for example, was made in the context of the senate debate on an amendment that would require presidential and vice presidential candidates to run on the same ticket.
While Korman touted the reform as a means of improving governmental efficiency and reducing gridlock in the provision of services, I worry that the measure removes one more check from a system where authority is already concentrated in the often-overpowering SA executive branch.
Prior to the passage of the amendment, there was at least a possibility for a split-ticket executive with the president and vice president coming from different parties and thereby representing different interests. In such a case, one would hope that they would check each other and ultimately arrive at decisions made in the true best interest of their constituents.
In the ideal world, one would want a united executive to put forth a unified vision for student government without the cumbersome process of trying to reconcile party differences. This year's e-board is an excellent example of a successful, single-ticket relationship. Korman and SA President Christian Oliver ran under the same party platform and were able to begin to fulfill their campaign promises immediately after their election. The result was a tightly-run organization responsible for big-name events, increased student services and revamped communication capabilities.
Contrast this state of affairs with the possible split-ticket composition of next year's e-board. A Litwak-Brace administration or a Oliver-Sciortino match-up would likely make for a semester of partisan bickering, rather than united action.
The same goes for our national government. Had a Bush-Lieberman administration or a Gore-Cheney team emerged from Election 2000, it is obvious that much time would have been wasted hammering out policy conflicts and that - for better or for worse, and I definitely fall on the worse side - many of Bush's "accomplishments" this term would never have come to fruition.
Efficiency and unified action, however, bring with them the negative possibility of misuse or abuse of power - or actions taken not for the benefit of the many, but for the self-aggrandizement of the few. While I am certainly not accusing the current administration of such behavior - quite the contrary - I cannot speak with such certainty for future e-boards placed in the position of tremendous power and multi-million dollar budgets, coupled with very few checks on that power.
In the case of a unified e-board, the legislative and judicial branches must act as counterweights. SA's legislative branch, in its current state, is no match for the increased power of the executive and is in fact, in the words of Founding Father James Madison, in danger "of being crushed by the disproportionate weight of the other parts."
Our nation's founders feared the accumulation of power in the executive, since that branch was naturally composed of strong-willed, ambitious individuals who, unchecked, could return the country to the tyranny represented by the British monarch. While SA is clearly on an entirely different scale than a government representing millions of citizens, the same tendencies Madison feared are prevalent in student government.
In order to prevent one branch overpowering another, our national government has developed to keep each branch separate and distinct, although the duties of each branch overlaps to some degree. Senators or representatives do not hold slots in the president's cabinet. Presidential or vice presidential staffers likewise do not people the seats of Congress. Rather, the legislature and the executive branch function in separate spheres of influence - a political maxim ignored by UB's student government.
SA's executive assistant to the president, for example, also acts as secretary to the assembly. With one foot in the executive branch and the other foot in the legislative branch, it is impossible to discern where her loyalties lie. SA Directors, who report to the SA president and therefore reside clearly in the executive branch, also chair committees in the assembly, which is supposed to represent the interests of all students, not just those within the SA power circle.
Since the assembly is afforded the constitutional power to approve or disapprove all SA appointments and SA Directors are executive appointees, the dual positions violate every notion of the separation of powers or effective checks and balances.
Even if such seat-sharing was eliminated, the assembly historically has not functioned as a reliable check on power. While numerous students collect the signature required to gain a seat in the assembly, the bulk of them drop out within the first weeks of the semester, often crippling the body.
In past years, the assembly has been marred by weak leadership, poor attendance and general inertia, leading e-boards to all but dismiss the body supposed to represent every UB student. The e-board is thus able to dictate the legislative agenda, eliminating the possibility of organized dissent.
The senate is dominated by club interests and e-board members themselves who dole out the $2.2 million provided to them by the Student Mandatory Activity Fee. The power is a tremendous one; many college students can barely balance their own checkbooks or manage their own meager savings, let alone fairly allocate the millions of dollars placed at their disposal by every undergraduate student, two-thirds of whom are not involved in SA clubs or organizations.
The bottom line is that SA's legislative branch has essentially been reduced to the rubber-stamping function of approving or disapproving executive decisions in terms of appointments, budget allocations or other e-board initiatives. The most trumpeted accomplishment of this year's legislature - the passage of three constitutional amendments, for example - was proposed by Oliver, not the legislators themselves.
Such top-level dominance is desirable in a corporation, but certainly not in a governing body.