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Rice needs more streamlined democracy and less Ed. Board tabloidism

By Riley Barker     1/17/23 11:45pm

Editor’s Note: This is a letter to the editor 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. Letters to the editor are fact-checked to the best of our ability and edited for grammar and spelling by Thresher editors. 

Last week, I quit my role as Student Association director of elections because I need to take more time for music and academia this semester, but there are two additional reasons I left the position relevant to campus politics that I want to share.

First: the Thresher Editorial Board is the most vocal critic of the Student Association, and I did not want to battle tabloidism through March. The Board has published 11 editorials since 2017 criticizing or complaining about the SA. Last year, the Board opted for a curt, holier-than-thou message to the entire Rice undergraduate population: “Vote. It’s not that hard.” The Board will hide behind positive SA coverage, press privilege and good intentions, but by publishing backhanded, sardonic jabs which dramatize Student Association news without seriously considering what publicly undermining their peer Blanket Tax organization will accomplish, the Board ends up further pushing Rice students away from the ballot each year, delegitimizing the very institution it claims to support. The Thresher is a fantastic student-run newspaper, but the Board’s implicit claim that they keep the flame of campus democracy alive is hypocritical.

Second: I left because I felt that, though there have been many successful, virtuous projects completed by past student Senates, the current approach of the legislative body lends itself generously to stagnation. Between executive board dawdling, Thresher election sensationalism, the naturally narrow scope of SA committees and the rarity of ballot initiatives (which would otherwise enable all Rice undergraduates to vote on important campus matters), SA has acquired a reputation as generally apathetic. Additionally, strict proceduralism keeps Senate structure as rigid and slow-moving as national government. In their current form, the SA’s rules of decorum and various regulations have become, as Kafka wrote of in “Before the Law,” gatekeepers of swift or sweeping action. The Rice undergraduate community is neither properly self-governing nor fully engaged because SA proceedings lack experimentation and flexibility. Leadership has expressed no public interest in reimagining SA’s perception problem or fixing internal structure.

Despite my own criticisms, I believe the Student Association is vital to Rice campus. Rice students pay an $85 “union due” each year to SA and other student-run organizations, which means undergraduates have a real financial incentive to vote in SA elections. However, most Rice students are unaware of the tax and view elections as largely inconsequential. Low-participation will not suddenly shift because of a few condescending Thresher editorials or an extended campaign period. However, as I wrote last March, there is a solution: SA should implement universal voting and prioritize frequent referenda/initiative elections on driving issues instead of shifting the responsibility of action onto an SA legislative process, which takes anywhere from months to years to carry out. I tried to move this idea forward as director of elections, then independently through a ballot initiative, but was stonewalled at every turn. Ultimately, we can generate interest in SA, expand non-elected engagement and make our only self-governing, student-run institution far more democratic and egalitarian, but we must be one, united student body in this effort.

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