Students vote to approve new, wide-ranging SGA constitution

Coughlin%2C+second+from+right+in+the+bottom+row%2C+in+a+remote+Student+Assembly+meeting.

Media: Courtesy/Will Palauskas

Coughlin, second from right in the bottom row, in a remote Student Assembly meeting.

By Andrew Brinker, News Editor

A new constitution for the Student Government Association was officially ratified Tuesday, drastically altering the fundamental operations and direction of the organization and marking the most significant change to student government at the college in more than 20 years. 

The new constitution will pivot SGA to a legislative model featuring three branches—a legislative, executive, and judicial—a stark contrast from the previous structure that placed emphasis on the executive and financial branches. The new framework will expand the group’s legislative branch and shift the focus of SGA to the model’s namesake—legislation—in an attempt to achieve an effectiveness and level of representation the organization has struggled to reach in the past.

The proposal received overwhelming support from the pool of students who participated in the ratification vote over the weekend, with 216 voting to approve and just 20 voting against. 

The previous structure, which the organization has operated under since 1999, did not have a formalized process for bringing forward changes to college policy. The occasional proposal was passed, but these propositions could only change SGA policy. Under the new model, any student will be able to bring forth legislation that will then be subject to a vote by the group’s governing body. While SGA does not have the power to actually change college policy, legislation can be far-reaching—addressing anything from SGA to academics—and will serve as an official charge from SGA to the college to change a policy. 

“If there is a need that the student body needs, definitely SGA will be able to write up something and have a seal-like print of approval from the student government,” Chief Justice Joseph Johnson said in a Zoom interview Tuesday. “The administration can take that need much more seriously.” 

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The ratification effectively rounds out a semester-long effort by the organization’s executive leadership—spearheaded by Executive President Will Palauskas—to overhaul the basic framework and functionality of SGA, which has been plagued by questions surrounding efficiency and representation in previous years

The new constitution, Palauskas said in an interview via Zoom Tuesday morning, is the answer to those questions.

“It was thinking about really, what would be the best for Emerson College students, not just this year, but in 10 years or 50 years from now,” Palauskas said. “I think students, now more than ever, really want to have a seat at the table to make sure that all parts of the institution are being held accountable.”

Legislative Branch

The legislative model is popular among student governments at institutions across the U.S., like the University of Connecticut. Palauskas said the current executive board took inspiration from UConn and other universities when writing the new constitution.

Under the old constitution, which had just one body in the legislative branch, the Senate, SGA struggled to attract the interests of many students at the college. The organization has been historically afflicted by low voter turnout and unfilled representative seats. The new constitution places more emphasis on voices within the student body with an expanded legislative branch that will feature three bodies—the Academic Senate, the Student Experience Senate, and the Financial Equity Committee—charged with carrying the majority of SGA’s principal work. 

The Student Experience Senate takes over the role of commissioners in the previous constitution and is designed to keep a finger on the pulse of different groups at the college. The Student Experience Senate will consist of elected representatives from each class as well as appointed representatives from various identity-based groups on campus such as LGBTQ+ Student Senator and POWER Senator.

“Historically you would have had a commissioner who is like ‘I work really closely with the Health and Wellness Center, I want to be the Health and Wellness Center commissioner,’ and they would advocate almost for that office’s needs,” Executive Treasurer Abigail Semple, who played a large part in writing the new constitution, said in a Zoom interview Monday. “Now it’s more like ‘I am a student who has been affected by this and I want to make some positive change.’”

The Student Experience Senate will be chaired by the executive president.

The Academic Senate takes the place of the Senate in the previous constitution, fulfilling the same goal—hearing the needs of students within each academic department. Like the old Senate, the Academic Senate will feature elected representatives from each major on campus and will be chaired by the executive vice president.

The Financial Equity Committee is charged with hearing student concerns surrounding financial needs and puts into practice a proposal Semple has advocated strongly for since the beginning of the January. Initially named the Financial Equity Board, the committee was first rejected by members for a number of qualms with the specifics of the proposition. The version passed in the new constitution is more vague, which Semple said will allow future SGAs to shape the committee.

“We are completely looking at SGA in a new way and saying SGA is not a focus group, it’s a legislative body that makes change,” Semple said. “That includes financial change.”

The Financial Equity Committee will function as the sister of the Financial Advisory Board and will be chaired, like FAB, by the executive treasurer.

The new constitution will also include a Legislative Review Board, which will operate outside of the three established branches. The board’s sole purpose will be to aid students in the process of writing legislation and will be composed of SGA officers appointed by the board’s chair, the executive vice president.

Executive Branch

The Executive Branch remains relatively similar to what it was under the previous constitution, still featuring the organization’s highest tier of leadership—the Executive Board—and the Executive Cabinet, created at the beginning of the semester by Palauskas. 

The Executive Board will still feature the same four key members: the executive president, the executive vice president, the executive treasurer, and the chief justice. The only change to the board under the new constitution is the stipulation that the board can add four other members to the group if they choose to, including the chief of staff, the executive secretary, the vice treasurer, and the deputy justice. All four must receive endorsements from their respective superiors to be appointed. Once approved, they would be full Executive Board members.

The Executive Cabinet remains the same under the new constitution, charged with coordinating the inner workings of SGA under the direction of the executive president. 

The only other change to the executive branch under the new constitution is the addition of a formalized President’s Council, made up of the presidents or president-equivalents from each class. The council will update the executive president on the progress of the class councils. 

Judicial Branch

Much like the Executive Branch, the Judicial Branch remains relatively unchanged by the new constitution. It is made up of two boards similar to those in the previous constitution—the Judicial Review Board and the Elections Board.

The Judicial Review Board takes the place of what was the Constitutional Review Board. Chaired by the chief justice, the board’s sole duty will be to review and interpret SGA’s constitution and bylaws when necessary.

The Elections Board is charged with overseeing each round of SGA’s elections, making sure all candidates follow the established campaigning guidelines and that elections are run in compliance with the constitution. The Elections Board will also be chaired by the chief justice.

SGA’s weekly meeting featuring all elected and appointed members has been rebranded in the new constitution, now named Student Assembly instead of Joint Session. Palauskas said the change is indicative of a conscious effort to make SGA work for students under the new constitution, a cue straight from the community governance model of Marlboro College. The new constitution, he said, is designed to empower the voices of students.

“For a really long time our unofficial motto has been ‘make your voice heard,’” he said. “It’s all about really taking people who otherwise might not have an outlet to really express their concerns or express their needs, and channel that into something bigger to make that actionable change.”