To say that the topic of the Association of Amherst Students (AAS) Senate was contentious among students last semester would be something of an understatement. Between rising discontent among students over budgeting issues, a controversial vice presidential election, and a sensationalized impeachment trial, the rift between Amherst students and their government has significantly widened. As we transition into a new semester, the Editorial Board hopes that this year will serve as a fresh start for a stronger, more trusting relationship between students and the AAS.
In order for this to work, however, both non-AAS and the AAS to put effort into mending this stressed relationship. The entire Amherst community, not either party alone, is responsible for the discord.
Student engagement with the AAS beyond seeking funding from the Budgetary Committee (BC) is practically nonexistent. Just look at our voter turnout for elections (maybe a quarter of the student body, on a good year), or the number of people who show up to public comments during meetings (usually zero). There’s a reason why many Senate races are uncontested — most students have little to no interaction with, or interest in, our student government. The impeachment trial was likely the most engaged the student body has been with the AAS in recorded memory.
We complain and complain about how ineffective the AAS is as an institution, but how is the Senate supposed to represent the student body if the student body doesn’t tell them what it wants?
At the same time, the AAS certainly has its own share of the blame for the state of relations between itself and the rest of the student body. Many students feel that the AAS doesn’t have enough transparency or accountability regarding its work. In the past, senators concocted expensive Senate projects, presumably for the good of the Amherst community, yet rarely consulted with students about what these projects were actually trying to accomplish.
The BC, the most community-facing AAS committee, is perhaps the most frequent subject of student ire. Some students object to a perceived lack of clarity and transparency with regard to funding decisions, and disappointment with the ongoing budget crisis.
The missing ingredient for engagement is a collective lack of understanding on students’ part of what the AAS does and what they have power to do. Without feedback, students can't hold the AAS accountable, causing it to function more as a club than a representative body. At the same time, the lack of clear and consistent communication between the AAS and students leaves it ambiguous what, exactly, students should be expecting from the body.
To their credit, the AAS has already begun making necessary changes that will change this relationship for the better, such as its newest Committee on Public Relations, which aims to increase engagement with the student body and give more publicity to senate projects. This committee would do well to enact several student-facing policies all at once, such as a question box where students can submit comments and concerns, as well as polls to gauge what on-campus issues students are most concerned about. Now, it’s time for us students to do our parts and actually be involved in the democratic process. We need to remember that AAS Senators don’t just represent us, but are also students, just like us: the same people we go to class with, eat at Val with, and see around campus.
Undeniably, there are many more complexities in the relationship between the Senate and the student body. The intensification of budget constraints, the administration’s poor communication with the AAS, the increasing discontent with the AAS’s constitution (time for a constitutional convention, maybe?): All of these factors have added their own challenges to the situation.
Though we can’t understand the specific challenges that the AAS faces, The Student, perhaps more than any other organization on campus, understands firsthand the challenge of representing the student body, and the potential pitfalls of being a separate organization, isolated from the rest of campus. Our critique of the sensationalization of the trial is particularly ironic, considering how our coverage of the event contributed to it — our article about the impeachment trial was among our most-clicked articles last semester.
Despite the drama of the night, the impeachment trial had an unexpected positive outcome: It showed the capacity of the AAS to be organized and carry out proceedings, of senators to be passionate about their love for Amherst and the AAS, and for students to be engaged. It is this passion and engagement from non-AAS students, AAS representatives, and other community members that will make Amherst a better place for all of us.
Unsigned editorials represent the views of the majority of the Editorial Board — (assenting: 11; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 1).