Senate Activism Vital to Political Resistance

Kameron Dunbar, Contributing Writer

This op-ed is part of the Review’s Student Senate column. In an effort to increase communication and transparency, Student Senators will provide personal perspectives on recent events on campus and in the community.

Student Senate passed a resolution on March 18, 2007 in support of U.S. Senate Bill 2695: a federal bill allowing taxpayer access to federally funded research introduced by then-Senator Joe Lieberman and Senator John Cornyn.

I came across this resolution a few months ago while doing some independent research on the history of Oberlin’s Student Senate. Last year, I didn’t think of Senate as a political actor. Recently, many have been fed the idea that Senate is supposed to be an apolitical body. This line of thinking makes sense. How can a group of 15 students make political decisions on behalf of the entire student body? I found the 2007 resolution to be a striking example of Senate using its political agency to advocate for positive political action in students’ interest, even to the extent of weighing in on a debate taking place far outside of Oberlin’s campus.

This is something Senate negotiated throughout this fall semester. It’s not a new trend per se, but it’s an underlying ethos that existed last year. As Communications Director, I have the privilege of setting the tone of Senate’s various modes of communication. At what point does our universal endorsement of civic engagement turn into partisanship? Should we have sent campaign material for Hillary Clinton out in the Senate Weekly email if her campaign had asked us to?

For a while, I found myself fixated on the idea of non-partisanship, but my thinking on the matter has since changed. While it’s true that Senate can’t possibly articulate and act in the voice of all 2,800 students, it’s also true that we haven’t attempted to do so. The student body is not a monolith and neither is Senate, which is why I wasn’t surprised when Senate received both internal and external pushback on the resolution endorsing the boycott of Gibson’s Bakery.

One student emailed the Senate account and asked why it is appropriate to ask students to boycott an institution. Shouldn’t that be a personal choice? Yes. Absolutely. Students have the autonomy and agency to act in whatever ways they choose, but Senate, in my opinion, has an inherent duty to support the student body in the ways it finds most appropriate and beneficial. In relation to the Gibson’s resolution, Senate observed a clear pattern of behavior we deemed unhealthy to our community.

It’s no secret that Senate has moved quickly on certain issues this year. From our letter admonishing the Oberlin Alums for Campus Fairness to the statement released after President-elect Donald Trump’s victory to the Gibson’s resolution, Senate has worked to further develop and construct itself as a political body. The common thread that weaves all these incidents together is our commitment to supporting students where they are, in whatever way they need.

The future of Senate is political. Student activism will become a vital arm of resistance over the next few years, and student governments are uniquely positioned as both bureaucratic and activist agencies to help students bring about change. Senate and student government in general are unique in that they have distinct, static institutional identities while still molding to the shape of their incumbency. The student body has a choice in how they want Senate to function; the way to access that choice is to elect members who truly represent your interests and beliefs.

Next Thursday at 7 p.m., Senate will be sponsoring a lecture by Angus Johnston, one of the nation’s leading historians on student activism in higher education. We’re trying to build, learn, organize and strategize just like everyone else. At the end of the day, we’re an extension of the student body.

We’re ready to join in this fight. We can’t realistically save the world as individuals, but together we can make a world of difference.