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McKeever ’22 and Caplan ’22: For effective governance, UCS must reform its bylaws

For most undergraduates, apathy would best describe what they feel toward the Undergraduate Council of Students. In the last election, only about a third of students voted for representatives, and UCS Fall Polls and surveys have consistently revealed a student body that is unaware of UCS achievements and developments. Most, we imagine, would be hard-pressed to even name the elected officials that represent the student body. 

While UCS has certainly made progress in recent years through greater outreach to the student body and more ambitious advocacy projects, many structural barriers still plague UCS and diminish its ability to effectively support students. In particular, current bylaws prevent UCS from implementing any sustainable changes for the student body.

As the Chair of Appointments and Chief of Staff of UCS, our responsibilities include understanding governance structures. Whether it be in appointing members to external University Governance Committees or internal UCS policymaking bodies, our jobs have been shaped by bylaws and the ways that they can determine governing effectiveness, accountability and representation. When we served together on the Appointments Board last year, we created and enlarged a number of University Governance Committees (including the College Curriculum Council and the Dining Council), which are directly involved in University decision-making processes.


Interestingly enough, these University Governance Committees are usually much more effective at implementing change than the undergraduate student government itself. These committees have clear governance structures and policymaking objectives, which allow for their members to better advocate for and pass measures with direct impact on students’ lives. These committees are also designed to be accessible for interest groups that should be represented. For example, within a year of its creation, the University Dining Council began collecting student recipes for dining halls, looked into increased ethical food sourcing, started developing a meal swipe donation program and introduced the express lines at the Ratty. In this same amount of time, while individual UCS members and committees have done some effective work in advocating for students, UCS as an organization has succeeded in endorsing just one initiative as a general body. This raises the question: Why is student governance at Brown so ineffective? We believe that these issues stem from the organization’s bylaws. While at first, bylaws may seem unimportant, these outdated rules have restricted UCS’s action throughout years of the organization’s existence.

UCS has struggled over the past year, specifically with questions about its bylaws’ role in determining who can participate in student governance. One way that we tried to address these structural issues within our bylaws was to propose the creation of elected representatives from each class year, via the Class Representatives Act, a bill that would expand upon the successful First Year Representatives program and implement two class representatives for each class year. The bill would allow for more input from the student body, while also preserving accessibility for members who wanted to join our general body via our signature requirement. But the very need for this bill and the process to implement these reforms indicate the structural issues created by our internal bylaws. 

This bill was not a radical proposal — it would have created new positions to determine the effectiveness of elected student representatives by class year. It would put UCS in line with the representative systems currently in place at other institutions and even others at Brown — the Graduate Student Council elects members based on assigned representatives per department. Meanwhile, UCS allows any individual to become a general body member, and a representative of the entire student body, through the process of collecting just 20 signatures. At previous UCS debates over organizational bylaws more than a decade ago, Student Activities Chair Brady Wyrtzen ’11 argued against changing the bylaws by saying that Council members “don’t actually represent the student body, in that we weren’t all elected to be here.” Today’s Class Representatives Act aimed to remedy the structural issues posed by organizational bylaws that make UCS unrepresentative, the effects of which are evidenced by the fact that the general body only has one senior representative.

But the bill itself fell victim to the poor design of our internal bylaws. Last fall, the Class Representatives bill was supported by a majority of the UCS general body ― specifically, 55 percent of all voting members. However, the resolution failed as a result of an archaic bylaw that made it unclear when a vote required a supermajority. Instead of spending the remainder of the semester advocating for student interests, many of our meetings ended up becoming muddled with debates over the meaning of our current bylaws. In fact, almost any resolution requires a two-thirds majority vote in order to pass, meaning that a simple majority of representatives often cannot pass resolutions that express support for student initiatives.

Other flaws also exist within the current bylaws, creating an organization that is unable to govern and represent students effectively. For instance, even now, as student organizers are coming to general body meetings to place referenda on UCS’s spring ballot, the Council must take two weeks to pass any individual vote — a measure that is especially prohibitive in a virtual environment where synchronous voting is hardly possible. The bylaws also specify that any initiative pursued by a student or an organization can be blocked by only a third of the general body, even after the necessary signatures have been collected.

Bylaws reform is a key step toward ensuring equitable student governance. UCS must prioritize reforming our bylaws through legislation we plan to introduce this week: The Bylaws Review Committee Act would create a committee charged specifically with recommending structural changes our organization can make, and would allow non-UCS members to participate in the committee. 

Bylaws reform might not be the most attractive topic, but the student government’s ability to represent and advocate for students to the administration and our community depends on how our organization is structured, and how UCS chooses to move forward on these necessary reforms.

Eamon McKeever ’22 is the UCS Chair of Appointments and Sam Caplan ’22 is the UCS Chief of Staff. They can be reached at eamon_mckeever@brown.edu and samuel_caplan@brown.edu. Though they are members of the UCS Executive Board, the views expressed in this opinion are their own. Please send responses to this piece to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



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