Senate Referendum Opens and Student Voting Begins
The war in Iraq, environmental standards, debt forgiveness, health insurance — it would not be surprising to find questions relating to these topics on a public opinion poll released by the United States Senate. But these are also the questions posed by Oberlin’s student senate this semester on the student referendum.
The 11th question on the referendum reads, “Should the United States plan and execute the immediate withdraw of all military forces and associated contractors from Iraq?”
“I wanted to start the debate,” said College sophomore Colin Jones, the senator who posed the question. “The point of this is to get people thinking. I wanted to get away from [only] College procedure — to get our minds on something off campus.
“This isn’t a student government issue,” continued Jones. “It’s an issue of wider campus debate. I think that if we can take a leadership position in it, then that’s appropriate. I think it will and is already getting people to think.”
Some students are thinking about it and objecting to it. Members of the Oberlin College Democrats came to Sunday’s senate meeting to lodge formally the organization’s complaint. The students claimed they had consulted with the Oberlin Republicans, who felt similarly.
“A yes or no question limits discussion rather than starts it,” said College senior and OC Dem. Natan Lipton-Lubeck.
“The question as it stands frames the Iraq war debate in the following way: either you believe we should pull out of Iraq or you believe we should stay the course,” said College junior Charlie Sohne, co-chair of the OC Dems. “But in reality, on a national level, that’s not where the debate is at. The issue is how much of a voice the American people have.”
Senator Dani Levine resented the implication that objections by the OC Dems and Republicans represented a majority of the student body.
“I don’t think we have the full spectrum involved here,” she said.
“We had a lot of grappling with the language ourselves,” said Jones. “We decided it would be best to just ask the question plain and start the debate.”
The questions about Oberlin’s environmental policy introduced another hot-button issue:
“Do you think Oberlin College is currently in accordance with the environmental policy adopted by the Board of Trustees?” and “Should all College facilities constructions and renovations be required to achieve a minimum LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — an environmental checklist] environmental sustainability rating of ‘Gold?’”
College senior and senator Marshall Duer-Balkind said that “last semester, Senate asked a vague question about [whether we should construct] green buildings. Eighty percent said yes. These questions are attempting to define what [that entails].”
Professor David Orr, chair of the environmental studies program, explained Oberlin’s policies:
“What the Board did was adopt a statement that was taken from the preamble of the Environmental Policy Advisory Committee report [two years ago],” said Orr. “The body of the report was taken as guidelines. I think it’s not too much to say that it hasn’t yet moved aggressively in following the guidelines.”
Orr pointed out that it is already included in the guidelines of the policy.
“It requires the College to build at the highest LEEDs rating possible,” said Orr. “The College didn’t do that as far as I understand on the new student housing just completed.
“I think the assumption is that it costs more money,” Orr continued. “But research says it doesn’t have to. It lowers operational costs. The trick is in the art of design. Lots of other institutions are moving aggressively and imaginatively.”
The issue of debt forgiveness is framed by this question: “Should the Finance Committee’s new debt policy include an automatic forgiveness of all current student organization debt?”
The background section of this question reads, “The Student Finance Committee recently installed a debt reduction policy. The policy dictates that if an organization is in debt, up to ten percent of an organization’s yearly allocated budget will be taken to ‘repay’ the debt.” This is the current policy.
“It’s not real debt, it’s ‘paper’ debt,” said College junior Matthew Adler, the senator who proposed the question and who sits on the SFC for the senate.
“When some of these organizations spent more than their allocated funds, this policy wasn’t in place,” he continued. “Holding groups to this policy is kind of ridiculous. It’s holding people to a contract after the deal has been made.”
Adler also commented on the question about whether or not the student insurance policy should become mandatory.
“If it passes it would be a secondary mandatory policy which would allow the company to lower the premium for those students without other insurance, if the company will continue to offer it at all,” said Adler. “Whether or not this is the best way to aid students facing increased insurance premiums, I’m not sure about. It would probably be about $304 a year but with $10,000 of coverage.”
Adler, in his role as SFC member, posed a lot of questions relevant to that committee. Another potentially controversial question asks whether all students — not just senators — sitting on committees should get paid.
“Since I sit on SFC for student senate I get paid for the time I spend on it,” said Adler. “Two treasurers get stipends. But the other six members don’t. It dawned on me that that’s pretty ridiculous.”
The only article on the referendum that will actually go into immediate effect also involves the payment of student senators: Should they get paid by the hour or through a previously-set stipend? This is a proposed constitutional amendment.
“It’s honestly not sketchy at all,” said Duer-Balkind. “Senate has been going through a process of looking at our constitution. It’s ten years old now and we’ve been doing things contrary to what it says. We don’t know exactly how that happened, we lost the paper trail. It says we should be paid for ten hours but we’ve been being paid hourly wages. We decided to put it to the student body. I think a lot of senators think wages is a fairer system because not all senators work ten hours a week. Then again, senators do a lot of work they can’t bill, like talking to students.”
Duer-Balkind also proposed a question asking whether or not Oberlin should replace the Pass/No Pass system with the old Credit/No Entry arrangement.
“A lot of students have been coming to senate with complaints,” said Duer-Balkind. “The big concern is with ExCos. [The ExCos] used to be just for education’s sake, but now they affect your GPA. A lot of student instructors aren’t comfortable actually failing other students.
“I personally think that, in general, Cr/NE helps more than it hurts,” he continued. “Why shouldn’t students be able to challenge themselves with classes they may not excel in? No Entry freed us from grade inflation and allowed students to take more risks.”
Finally, the first item on the referendum surrounds an issue that last year provoked controversy: the future of Middle Eastern and North African studies was brought to the forefront when Professor Khalid Medani, who taught about the politics of that region, left the College.
The referendum asks generally should Oberlin establish MENA studies, whether, if offered, the respondent would take Arabic and whether, if offered, they would take more classes focusing on the region.
“I think the reason it got to the referendum is that the College is at least thinking of taking further steps with MENA studies,” said College senior Ozlem Gemici, one of the senators who posed the question. “The thinking process is becoming more grounded. [The Educational Plans and Policies Committee] is forming a sub-committee on it.”
“That’s a big step for us,” said College junior and senator Azadeh Pourzand, the co-sponsor of the question. “We’ve been told that we will have instructors in Arabic next year by Dean [Harry] Hirsch and [President Nancy] Dye.
“We still have to show demand,” she continued.
Gemici added, “It was on the referendum five or six years ago and it passed with widespread support. Maybe now there’s a strong feeling about learning the language or politics, but students don’t feel we need a department or concentration.”
Other items on the referendum include extended Conservatory hours, raising the student activity fee, the establishment of Peace/Conflict Resolution studies, the need for student organizations to ask general student approval for having paid positions and the establishment of smoking rooms or lounges.
Students can respond to the referendum electronically until it closes on