Students, Senate Vital to Productive Relationship

In discussions about the importance of engaging with elected representatives, our most local and available representatives are often left out of the conversation. Student Senate is a representative body, elected at-large by Oberlin students, tasked with working with both students and administration to represent the voices of the student body.

Unfortunately, Senate’s potential to advocate on behalf of its constituents is often overlooked by students, which results in perceptions that Senate’s work is not particularly important or relevant.

This perspective misses the mark. Student Senate works on a broad range of issues on campus, and though many of those issues largely play out behind the scenes, senators themselves are not interested in hiding anything from students. To the contrary, my experience with Senate has been that senators are excited to engage with students and talk about what they are working on to the extent that they are able. Indeed, many senators I have spoken to have expressed that they are interested in expanding student engagement with their projects and initiatives, not shrinking it.

I was excited last weekend, then, to see that Senate was sponsoring an open town hall-style event — an opportunity for students to learn directly from senators about what Senate is working on and to provide suggestions for Senate’s future directions to the people who are making those decisions.

As someone who is relatively informed on Senate’s work due to my role on the Review staff, I wasn’t optimistic that I would get a lot out of the event. However, I did have the opportunity to engage with Senator Liz Cooper on an issue of interest to both of us — whether the Office of Disability Resources should continue to be housed in the newly-created Center for Student Success, or whether it should become an independent office.

In a letter published Nov. 3, Liz wrote, “The administration’s choice to lump the ODR into the Center for Student Success is telling. It implies that Oberlin doesn’t value the kind of qualifications staff need to effectively support disabled students. It implies that they are willing to jeopardize the quality of support of both disabled students and low-income students” (“Insufficient ODR Funding Should Discourage Prospies,” The Oberlin Review).

The argument to keep the ODR within the Center for Student Success — one that has become convincing to me over time — is that such a structure allows for greater inter-departmental communication and collaboration. Fully meeting the needs of any student requires the time and energy of more than one department. In terms of making accommodations for accessibility needs, it is necessary for the ODR to work alongside other departments in the Division of Student Life — for instance, Residential Education and the Office of the Dean of Students. Channels of communication between these departments become more streamlined and less bureaucratic when they are housed under the same umbrella.

Ultimately, while Liz and I do not agree on the best structural resolution to the ongoing ODR fiasco, I appreciated the opportunity to engage with her on a topic we’ve both thought a lot about. She was respectful, heard me out, and responded thoughtfully, and I was grateful to Senate for providing the space for that dialogue to happen.

The event was not very well attended overall, which was disappointing but not entirely surprising. I’m not interested in shaming students for missing the event — there are many entirely understandable reasons why students would have decided not to take time out of their Saturday afternoons to attend the town hall. Chief among those, in my mind, is that a lack of personal connection to individual senators discourages students from engaging with Senate’s work.

For this reason, Senate should continue to emphasize events and initiatives that foster interpersonal relationships between senators and students. Doing so will encourage student involvement in Senate’s work, and will allow Senate to access valuable channels of feedback that it is potentially missing. To Senate’s credit, they seem truly interested in developing those relationships and seeking that feedback — through events like the town hall, and through increasing engagement from the student body, a stronger, more effective relationship between students and Senate can grow.