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Monday, April 19, 2021 — Houston, TX 58°

Student Association committees deserve more from students


By Madison Bunting     3/30/21 9:56pm

Editor’s Note: This is a guest opinion that has been submitted by a member of the Rice community. The views expressed in this opinion are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the Thresher or its editorial board. All guest opinions are fact-checked and edited for clarity and conciseness by Thresher editors.

Rice students don’t pay attention to the Student Association. This is clear from recent Thresher coverage on the low voter turnout during the SA election and students’ inability to identify the people they “elected” to the executive team. If it weren’t for current SA President Kendall Vining’s encouragement to apply for Academics Committee chair last year, I would have fallen into that category too. I learned that although the SA is designed to represent and empower all student voices regardless of whether they hold a formal SA position in order to better our campus and broader Houston community, it struggles with apathy (or worse, alienation) and a lack of participation. This has adversely impacted its capacity to be a force for change and to create a shared space for pursuing fulfilling work and building community around student-driven goals. This organization wants and needs broader campus engagement to effectively advocate for students’ needs. One particularly accessible yet historically underutilized means for doing so is the Standing Committees.  

Committees are an opportunity for students who might not have chosen to run for an elected position to still engage in collective student advocacy. There are nine, each focused on a distinct area of the Rice student experience: academics, athletics, beyond the hedges, diversity & inclusion, environmental, student health services, student life, students with disabilities council and wellbeing. Committees work on projects, meet with administrators and students, conduct research, host events and produce legislation. Some notable past initiatives include advocating for composting in the serveries, lowering costs for on-campus STI testing, increasing access to research opportunities and creating International Night.

As much work as committees have pursued in the past, based on my experience, committees are fraught with problems that extend past the difficulties of Zoom University. Committees are relatively hidden. Even from those familiar with the SA, I have been told committees are often a mystery. Historically, members of the SA Senate only hear about committees during beginning- and end-of-term Senate presentations, and there is a reputation that nothing happens in between. This means that when students bring ideas to their college representatives (or representatives have project ideas themselves), committees are far from top of mind, and representatives pursue the projects on their own or encourage interested students to turn to other areas of the organization for support. Additionally, internal vice presidents have struggled for years to recruit chairs; some committees remain leaderless until well into the fall semester, and often directionless due to unclear leadership. 

From my perspective, the tradition of the co-chair leadership structure of committees compounds the issue, and can lead to unequal sharing of responsibilities. Absent well-defined leadership or projects, some committees legitimately accomplish very little, justifying perceptions of unproductivity in a self-fulfilling prophecy, overshadowing the work of the most active committees and keeping all of them stuck in the cycle of invisibility. This year there will be some changes to the committee leadership structure, from co-chairs, to distinct positions of chair and vice chair. The differentiation of responsibilities will make it easier for students who have not engaged with the SA before to become involved, but creating the opportunity won’t lead to change if no one applies for the role or takes steps to become more engaged. To break the cycle, committees need intentional and dedicated leaders that will support their committee members in pursuing projects that make a tangible impact on campus and increase committee visibility. 

I feel strongly about the potential committees have to be spaces for productive communication and collaboration, and I hope our reach expands to students who haven’t previously connected with the SA. Although committees need intentional and dedicated leaders, this can also look like pursuing projects as a committee member, partnering with the committee and/or sharing ideas with committee chairs, or simply being active about staying updated on SA communications. When students engage with them, committees become spaces where any student can leverage the SA’s relationships and resources in pursuit of their proposals, whether you are a formal committee member or not. Committees become places to brainstorm and connect with similarly passionate people in other pockets of campus, who become a support system in both long-term research and short-term action-oriented steps to enact your ideas. As conduits, committees possess the potential to link students with SA experience to those who do not, and empower all students to turn their ideas into reality. When students across Rice participate, committees become idea generators, wielding SA resources to tangibly impact the lives of their peers, their colleges and their campus.

Madison Bunting is the Student Association Internal Vice President. 

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