A call to remember what the SA is for
We, as active participants in the Student Association Senate, feel that the SA is currently operating by a top-down model, with the chain of communication beginning with Rice administration and ending with the students. But the intent of an organization like the SA should be the opposite. It’s not meant to be a conduit through which university administrators impose their opinions and projects. We have lost a sense of student agency in the SA Senate, and this is a dangerous path for the SA to continue on. The SA is 4,000 students, not just a few elected college representatives and an executive team. The SA Senate is made up of a system of delegates for the sole reason of representing the student body, so let’s use them and listen to them.
Throughout previous and current terms we have seen the erosion of student autonomy. For example, in 2016, the imposition of an 18-credit hour cap on undergraduates provoked student outrage and protest. In the decision to build an inflatable dome, while student opinions were collected, the process was rushed and resulted in miscommunications between the administration and students. We have seen more restrictions placed on student events and traditions. Now, with the upcoming development of the Ion, the Rice Management Company is warning the SA Senate that if we support a Community Benefits Agreement with a coalition such as the Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement, a group representing Houston’s Third Ward, it would delegitimize the voice of the SA Senate, and as a result the entire SA, both for this project and in the future. It is unfair of administrators to attempt to manipulate student opinion through implied threats.
As we make this critique, we recognize our own participation in this cycle, and we must note that our student leaders and administrators do their best and truly care. We view the erosion of student autonomy as a process that has occurred slowly over time. As a byproduct, the 2019-2020 SA Senate has grappled with how to respond to campus events and a sense of uncertainty permeates each discussion about how to make statements on behalf of the student body. We suspect that the underlying cause of this sentiment is a fear of angering administration. It is important for our Rice community to recognize and acknowledge that we have lost sight of the intended purpose of the SA and now it is time to stop, reflect and change.
The SA Senate should be able to convey student opinion without being delegitimized and without the fear that future student leaders will be punished as a result of our expression and validation of student beliefs. Our opinions are not meant to be in perfect agreement with those of the administration. We all come from unique backgrounds and have different perspectives on Rice issues, so it makes sense that we will develop differing views. So please, Rice administration and Rice Management Company, let us express those views, without threats and manipulation, and listen to them from a place of respect. We coexist at Rice, and our ideas and opinions should be allowed to coexist as well. If Rice is truly a place where diverse ideas and perspectives are celebrated, then the SA Senate should be able to present those ideas to our administration and have them be recognized as valid and truthful. We come to Rice to learn how to critically think about the world, and student governance provides students with that opportunity.
The role of the SA Senate is broad, but we should not be afraid to let a lack of specificity stop us from representing the student body. Our mission as a senate is to listen to the 4,000 voices of the Student Association, and this term the students have made their voices clear: They want big statements calling for action. We have set the stage for more and now it is time to act. It is time for the SA to adapt, listen to the students and our peers, take charge and make real changes on campus. We implore future voting members to take to heart their role as conduits of student opinion, and we ask that our fellow Rice students be active in conveying their opinions to their representatives. To administrators, we ask that you understand and respect that the SA, through its various projects and resolutions, is attempting to reflect our views as students. Our message is clear: We as students deserve an SA Senate that can freely express opinions to the administration. Once Rice can develop a true system of shared governance, we can achieve a relationship founded on trust and collaboration between the SA and Rice Administration.
Ariana Engles served as SA President during the 2018 - 2019 year. Ashley Fitzpatrick is the Martel College SA senator.
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