Putting Jumbos First: Evaluating Student Government at Tufts

Disclaimer: Sharif Hamidi is the TCU Treasurer. However, this article is the personal opinion of the author, and does not constitute an official statement on the part of the TCU Treasury, TCU Senate, or its Executive Board. 

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on how student government, as a concept, is a bit of a double-edged sword. At its worst, it sits idly by and does nothing to address problems, or even wastes opportunities to make things better. At its best, it does some good—sometimes pretentiously. I have no illusions about how small or insignificant student government is in the grand scheme of things. Truthfully, I never ran for anything before coming to Tufts, but I ran for TCU Senate in September 2017 because I realized that the kind of work I wanted to do—addressing the problems I wanted to solve—required winning an election. I feel grateful to have won that election, and every one since. I ran pledging to help solve our campus’ problems while fully aware that the things we do aren’t going to change the world. Still, if I can do good for even one person in the Tufts community, then the work is worth doing; that’s why I’ve stayed as long as I have. 

My goal has always been disproving the theory that student government can’t work, and I’ve found this to be a shared mindset for lots of the people I’ve worked with. And over the years, I think we’ve shown that we can create meaningful change. Recently, we successfully advocated for the Exceptional Pass/Fail policy that recognizes the challenges of learning during a pandemic, and transferred TCU Treasury funds to the FIRST Center to support low-income students during the chaotic shutdown of last spring. Being effective demands a results-oriented approach and adjusting to meet the challenges ahead. But sometimes, choices get made and actions are taken by people on student government without due consideration for the circumstances or the impact on the students they claim to serve.

Thursday, November 12 was an example of that. Overall, it was a silly spat over obscure bylaw procedures that don’t affect the daily lives of the vast majority of students. Long story short, there was a miscommunication. The TCU Judiciary was under the impression that a combination of nepotism and corruption was going to bypass the election process, allowing handpicked candidates to waltz onto student government. The confusion stemmed from the use of the word “appointment”—a process that allows candidates running uncontested for a position to be automatically seated. Nonetheless, the Judiciary issued invalid suspensions against the executive board of TCU Senate, the body that represents student interests, as well as the Elections Commission, the body that runs elections, on the grounds that the two were conspiring to violate the Tufts community’s right to choose who represents them. The problem is that no such thing was ever considered, planned, or executed. The Judiciary rescinded their suspensions on the same day, and the entire episode wasted a lot of time and energy. 

Beyond the inconvenience it caused, that suspension debacle nearly resulted in the cancellation of the special election on Tuesday, November 24. Doing so would have caused the Women’s Center and the International Center to go even longer without a Community Senator, and denied the Tufts community the ability to participate in critical referenda about campus safety and investment of the endowment. Regardless of how anyone might personally feel about the candidates in the election or the referenda questions on the ballot, it should be obvious that the priority should be to let the student body compare candidates, discuss the issues, and express their preferences by voting. Anything that would have improperly interfered with letting students have their say never should have been seriously considered as a course of action. All of this was jeopardized when the Judiciary chose to suspend the Elections Commission, until they reversed course. In effect, they nearly obstructed the democratic process they claimed to be defending when they issued the suspension. 

The Judiciary’s suspension of the Senate Executive Board had a similar effect. Projects that are currently in progress had to be put on hold temporarily as time and effort had to be redirected toward addressing the suspension. This included extending flexible academic policies for the next semester, exploring new ways to leverage the TCU Treasury’s financial resources, and reimagining the use of campus spaces during the age of social distancing and de-densification. Student government work that would tangibly benefit students was temporarily stopped. And the worst thing is that the stoppage wasn’t because of an administrator refusing to negotiate, or a lack of resources, or implementation concerns; instead, progress was delayed because of an action taken by other people within the same student government. While I’m sure that wasn’t the intention, that was the impact. I’m not mad at the Judiciary or even trying to single them out. This broader trend—stalling or even sacrificing results in the name of adhering to processes that serve nobody, due to their age or their inapplicability to the present moment—is what deserves criticism, and it isn’t limited to any one group. 

This pandemic is a crisis. The fact that life has gone on, in the limited ways it has, doesn’t change the reality that we are all attempting to navigate unprecedented times. A crisis demands that all of us prioritize, wherever we are and in whatever we do. It means giving serious thought to what policies and procedures are essential, which ones can be streamlined, and identifying what no longer matters. 

When you’re in a leadership position, actively standing in the way of progress and endangering the solutions-oriented work of others is misguided at best and neglect of responsibility at worst. Those who repeatedly do it should be held accountable, using the measure already built into the system: voting them out. That’s why contested elections and increased turnout matter at all levels—they increase accountability and incentivize effective representation. 

Running for any elected position is effectively asking a lot of people at once to trust you with the work that comes with that position. Winning that trust comes with an obligation to prove that they made the right choice, and that means taking the work seriously and doing it as well as you can. Approval, in a way that feels so public, is nice, but it’s only satisfying when it’s deserved. It also means not allowing your focus to shift from the work to yourself. The issues affecting our community should be taken seriously, and you can’t do that if you’re taking yourself too seriously. I think these rules apply no matter how small the election or role may be in the grand scheme of things. If you got yourself into a leadership role not to serve others, but just to pad your resume, boost your reputation, or entertain yourself—you’re in it for the wrong reasons.