Op-Ed: A return to referenda

On Thursday, April 26, Tufts undergraduate students will have an opportunity to vote on a referendum that will amend the TCU Senate constitution to allow students more of a say in Senate resolutions. Implementation of this amendment will allow for a change in the process through which the student body’s wishes are represented. The text of the referendum is as follows:

Do you support a change to the TCU Senate Constitution, adding a new process for referenda with a new procedure in Article VIII, that states, ‘If members of the TCU wish for a Senate Resolution to be switch to a referendum, they can do so in the process outlined below:

A petition with the signatures of 300 members of the TCU must be collected and presented to the TCUJ to initiate the process of changing a TCU Senate Resolution to a university-wide referendum.

ECOM shall approve all petition designs prior to the collection of signatures. ECOM shall ensure that the petition is valid prior to the day of the vote.

Upon approval of the petition by the TCUJ, ECOM shall be charged by the TCUJ to organize and conduct a referendum within 14 days of the petition’s approval. ECOM shall also arrange a forum for discussion no fewer than two days before the referendum.

To clarify the remainder of Article VII, the word ‘additionally’ shall also be inserted before the word ‘members.'”

As it currently stands, any resolution proposed to Senate must be voted on by Senate as a resolution, regardless of the content of the resolution or the impact that it may have. Referenda may also be proposed to the student body, though they are extremely rare, as the process for getting a referendum on the ballot is difficult, and it is far easier to convince a room of Senators on a cause than to convince the entire undergraduate student body. For many student groups proposing movements, resolutions are far easier than referenda.

The relative ease of passing a resolution compared to a referendum means that nearly all propositions are resolutions, bypassing the opinion of the student body and allowing votes solely to Senate, regardless of whether students wish to be voting on it or not. The only say students have in the matter, beyond speaking to their representative or attending a forum for discussion, is voting for their Senator. When many of the seats are uncontested, as it was in the last election, students have essentially no say in the resolution process.

Senators are elected by the student body to lobby on behalf of the students for that which the students find important. This year, I voted for candidates who wanted to expand spaces on campus for students of marginalized identities and who wanted to ensure that students who did not fit on the gender binary could use a bathroom without fearing for their safety and comfort. I elected these students to assist in lobbying the administration for greater resources to be supplied to the undergraduate population, and I believe they have done an excellent job with this. The addition of community representatives — the Africana Community Senator, the Asian American Community Senator, the International Community Senator, the Latinx Community Senator, the LBGTQ+ Community Senator and the Women’s Community Senator — has worked to ensure that historically ignored and underrepresented students are given sufficient resources to organize and support their communities.

Sometimes, resolutions in Senate seem to extend past its purpose of representing student wishes to lobby the administration for resources and change. Tufts, which has historically featured a politically active and civically engaged student body, has relied on resolutions and referenda to represent student sentiment on issues beyond our campus. TCU has called for a divestment from fossil fuels on multiple occasions, for support for the Massachusetts Safe Communities Act, for support for the movement for Indigenous Peoples Day in Boston and for divestment from apartheid South Africa. These are all issues in which an overwhelming majority of students can get behind the Senate on their decision to support issues seemingly outside of our direct Tufts community.

Sometimes these resolutions are divisive, controversial and less popular with the student body, and in these instances, many students express anger at Senate and a desire for a greater space for student voice. This happened last spring, when the TCU Senate heard and voted on a resolution calling on the university to divest from companies said to be involved with the “Israeli occupation.” Students felt strongly that they had not elected their Senators to make major decisions on behalf of the undergraduate student population regarding the position the school should take on major geopolitical conflict in the Middle East. Many times, outrage at the process by which Senate heard and voted on the resolution without sufficient regard for student opinion outweighed the outrage at the outcome of the resolution. I personally remember standing in the meeting room and watching my Senator, who had promised me that he would vote against the resolution, vote instead to abstain. I remember feeling that the Senate did not represent me, a sentiment shared by many other students.

When that resolution was heard, votes were not publicized and the meeting was not livestreamed via video, as all other meetings are. This was done out of concern for the safety of Senators, as there was potential for retaliation against Senators for the ways they voted. A referendum in which votes from students are kept private and secure would remove the threat against Senators when controversial resolutions are proposed, as private student votes would mean that Senate and the rest of the student body could keep their votes secret.

Furthermore, referenda carry far more weight with the administration than resolutions do. It’s easy for the administration to disavow a controversial resolution passed by Senate that many students feel does not represent them. It’s a great deal more difficult for the administration to ignore student calls for action when the entire student body votes and takes a stance, as the Tufts student body did when 60 percent of the student body voted to divest by May of 1987 from South African companies that contributed to the apartheid regime there. With mounting pressure from students that was solidified by the referendum, the Board of Trustees voted to divest entirely in 1989.

Senate has done a great deal of good for our community, and it will likely continue to do so. When Senate votes on resolutions that students find to be well outside Senate’s jurisdiction, Senate’s successes and accomplishements are eclipsed by student anger. Tufts students deserve a greater say in the processes they find particularly relevant to their representation as members of the student body. This proposed amendment creates a way for students to do this. Be sure to vote on Thursday, either in person in the Campus Center or on tufts.voatz.com.