Vacant Senate seats, unattended meetings: ASWU restructuring looks to boost engagement
Updated: Apr 1, 2021
Empty seats inside Kremer Board room in Ford, where ASWU met before the pandemic. By Rebecca May.
Engagement at Associated Students of Willamette University (ASWU) meetings has been extraordinarily low throughout this past year. Student body attendance has been low and often nonexistent, and a number of open Senate seats have not been filled due to a lack of candidates.
When asked why student engagement with ASWU has been low, ASWU vice president Mary Robicheaux (’21) said over email, “There might be a misconception on campus of what ASWU is and does.” Cleighton Roberts (‘23), who was elected senator in the fall but later resigned his position, agreed. “We sent this survey to our entire class and a big portion was unsure of what ASWU does,” said Roberts, “Therefore ASWU was viewed as powerless and that's the biggest reason why I think people aren't doing it.”
ASWU President Claire Mathews-Lingen (‘21) said the pandemic has impacted ASWU engagement, although there weren’t many students that came to meetings before COVID either. She added, “Not everyone feels like a traditional student government set up is a space where their voice can be heard or where they would want to be involved.” Senator Andrea Griffin (‘23), who is also a layout editor for the Collegian, agreed, “People are confused about what ASWU's purpose is and may feel intimidated by the formal structure, language, and rules that are in place.”
Robicheaux said that student engagement is low because, “ASWU meetings could be perceived as boring to someone not in ASWU.” During his time in ASWU, Roberts “didn’t feel like there was a whole lot to do every meeting.” He said that many meetings end up being dominated by debates over “semantics.” Several meetings this past year stretched over two hours, which was difficult for Roberts to balance with homework and other priorities, especially when he didn’t feel that some of the conversations were productive. While there were a few meetings that did interest him, Roberts chose to resign because he wasn’t doing a lot. ASWU “wasn't really a priority” for him—especially on top of the five classes he’s taking this semester. Since he left ASWU, Roberts said he has not found a reason to attend another meeting.
Not only did Roberts feel like there was not much going on in the meetings, he was unclear on his responsibilities as senator when he joined ASWU several weeks into the fall semester. “I was kind of lost in the woods,” he said. “I was a brand new senator and I was in the dark about a lot of things, and I was never really sure what was going on… I didn't really have the energy to go out and figure those things out for myself.” According to Roberts, he never received any training after joining ASWU. Robicheaux said in a follow-up email that all senators receive a training day at the start of each semester, but no onboarding is provided to senators that join in the middle of a semester.
Ongoing restructuring processes in ASWU are attempting to address low student engagement. One of the current efforts is looking to redefine and deepen the senator role. Mathews-Lingen said: “Right now, the role [of senator] is pretty general. It really depends what someone makes of it for themselves… But I think we've seen that senators want more direction and structure for what to get done when, and what their responsibilities are.” One example Robicheaux pointed to is efforts to change the campus improvement project each senator takes on every semester. ASWU is working on changing them to “make them interest based, longer, and more impactful,” Robicheaux said.
Some restructuring changes have already been passed: the number of [Senate seats per class year will be reduced from five to four] next fall. According to Mathews-Lingen, no peer institution she knows of has five senators per class year—it was an “unreasonable expectation” for the WU student body to meet. Rather, she said reducing Senate seats might increase engagement: “We've adjusted the roles that each person has in the caucus… I think the people that will be in office will be people who are committed to this kind of role with more responsibilities. Having actual tasks that you have ownership of is a big part of building people's commitment and stake in an organization.”
Several new opportunities for ASWU responsibilities have already been created. In the fall, ASWU created a “Committee on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion,” which [will review and approve club anti-racism plans and also organize anti-racism trainings]. This committee will be made up of ASWU senators and other student volunteers.
When asked if paying senators would be an effective way to boost engagement with ASWU, Mathews-Lingen said she had “mixed feelings'' about it. She said many senators have not been doing much work, since a large part of the current role is just attending the weekly meeting. “There's not a lot of wide-scale deeper involvement,” she said. She said that while she could be wrong, she does not feel like senators think it is an injustice that they are not being paid. However, due to ASWU restructuring, senators will soon have more responsibilities. When that process finishes, she hopes to have an open discussion on whether senator compensation is needed given the role’s new size.
Griffin, on the other hand, said senators should be paid because they have to volunteer their free time outside of the weekly meetings in order to get “any real fulfilling work” done, on top of other extracurriculars. “We can't expect a minority of students to take on the weight of the university's issues for no compensation.”
Robicheaux said that ASWU restructuring efforts are currently looking to compensate senators either through a leadership award or class credit.
Griffin, one of the senators working on restructuring, said that visibility and communication is a priority, “In order for ASWU to work effectively, we cannot operate behind closed doors or be an island to ourselves, we must have frequent and open communication with students, especially other student organizations, in order to know what issues need to be resolved.”
Mathews-Lingen hopes that greater social media use will increase ASWU’s visibility. She created an ASWU Instagram account in the fall, but it has been inactive since September. “No one else was going to do it so I just made one [an account], but I clearly was not able to actually put time into it,” she said. She said that publicizing the meeting agenda ahead of time would increase ASWU visibility and interest in, “If there’s a topic that students really care about, it would be helpful for people to know what the discussion is going to be like that week.”
While many changes have already been made as a result of restructuring, many more are yet to come, all geared towards boosting student engagement and improving ASWU’s relationship with the student body. Griffin said on ASWU’s role: “As a Senator, you are in a great position to advocate for students and support the other campus organizations. To me that is the ultimate and best possible role for ASWU on campus: to help support student clubs or organizations and create a more cohesive community.”