The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Commentary December 9, 2005

Referendum For What?

Every semester students are treated to yet another chance to make their voices heard in the form of the student senate referendum. This year Senate deserves credit for getting the referendum approved and sent out to students in a timely fashion, as opposed to last year when heated, emotional debates stretched long into the night and the process was delayed by weeks at a time.

What is less clear this year is what exactly will result from this process. This referendum contains questions relating to United States foreign policy, as well as several policies that clearly could never possibly be implemented. Other than giving students an opportunity to vent, it is unclear what exactly is to be gained from much of this referendum.

The question on the referendum that has attracted the most attention asks if the U.S. should pull out of Iraq. While proponents of this question are quite right in their belief that the war in Iraq is an issue that has captivated students since it began, anyone aware of the political proclivities of most Oberlin students could easily predict the outcome. It is unclear what policies either Senate or the College could enact based on the result. The question’s practicality is comparable to one of last year’s questions, which asked if Oberlin College should divest from a long list of countries, including the United States.

We also find little evidence to support the claim that this question will “start debate” on this issue. Aside from the fact that most of the debate thus far has revolved around the phrasing of the question rather than its actual content, this issue is already quite present on campus without Senate’s intervention, as last night’s spirited debate at Dinesh D’Souza’s lecture proved.

While taking a poll on issues of this type might certainly be of use to campus activists, it is unclear why they merit the attention of this body — a body already overburdened by attending to questions of student governance in a time of massive institutional change.

Closer to home but no less impractical is question 13, which proposes a system under which student organizations would have to receive approval by a vote of the student body to add paid positions. The explanation for this question uses the Review and The Grape as examples. Any student who has ever worked as an editor at either of these organizations, however, is aware of the frequency with which paid positions are added and subtracted as circumstances and efficiency dictate. It is not an exaggeration to say that neither organization could operate under such a system, nor would such a policy ever be enacted.

Equally unlikely are the reinstatement of the credit/no entry system and the creation of smoking lounges in dorms. Both questions regard policies that have been in place in practice if not in word for several years and that have been debated exhaustively by both students and the faculty.

The inclusion of questions that could not possibly have any effect on administration policy or Senate priorities raises the question of what exactly the purpose of the referendum is. If the referendum is merely an opinion poll designed to gauge student views with few actual consequences (last year’s no-confidence vote in Nancy Dye would seem to be a prime example) then it is unclear why the referendum has to take up almost a month of Senate’s time every semester, time which could be better spent advocating for student concerns.

If, however, the referendum is meant to dictate Senate priorities and be taken seriously by the administration, it should probably be held far less often and guidelines for including questions should become more stringent.

Senate has taken great steps in the last year toward being a more credible and efficient organization; it must now examine the ends toward which this credibility and efficiency is directed.


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