Proposed New Government Sparks Controversy

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Proposed New Government Sparks Controversy

Vidal Glassman speaks to Senate.

Vidal Glassman speaks to Senate.

Sophie Bell

Vidal Glassman speaks to Senate.

Sophie Bell

Sophie Bell

Vidal Glassman speaks to Senate.

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An upcoming vote, planned for April 25th, will determine whether Juniata Student Government adopts a New Constitution and bylaws.

The choice on whether these new documents are adopted is, much like this newspaper, in your hands as a member of the student body.

The proposal has been met with mixed reactions by the current Student Government. The ideas in the proposed documents are supported by some, while other members are against adopting the policies.

Erin Paschal, the StudGov Staff Advisor since 2016, who “supports the students as they navigate the Student Government landscape and create the government that they want” said that she “would not want to weigh in with positives or negatives, but what I think I can say is that both models, their current one and the ones that they’re proposing, exist elsewhere, so I think they’re just trying to find the balance for Juniata.”

The New Constitution and bylaws were written by former Policy committee member Rian Fantozzi, along with current Policy members Haley Lederer, Kayla Shellenhammer, Kaden Zellers, Vidal Glassman, Jackson Bourgeois, Jeanette Harijanto, and with Caitlin Binner, Emery Malachowski, and Hugh Garry. Fantozzi says the idea of a New Constitution and bylaws began for him in June 2018, and he began writing the New Constitution in August
2018, when the current one was discovered to be lost. The authors, who are called JC Evolves, hope to pass the ‘new government’ by the end of this semester so that it can be implemented by the 2019-2020 academic year. Fantozzi resigned from Policy committee in February in order to more ethically fulfil his role as Editor-in-Chief of The Juniatian (You can read his resignation letter in the February 1-15 issue of The Juniatian.). However, he is still dedicated to passing the legislation which he wrote before his resignation. (The Author’s Note at the end of this article addresses the issues of conflict of interest that arise because of the involvement of the Newspaper’s Editors). Fantozzi’s role after stepping out of Policy does remain a source of friction for some who oppose passing these new policies, including Sully Stuehrmann, whose opinion is that it’s “sketchy.” Despite this, Fantozzi can still act as a member of the general assembly, under Article 1 of our current governing documents.

The proposed government that Fantozzi and Policy committee have written is over 163 pages, as of now, and quite detailed. This article can only hope to cover the basics and describe some bigger, identifiable changes from the way Juniata’s current Student Government runs.

One hotly contested change regards the composition of Senate. Juniata’s current Student Government functions with a Senate made up of Class Boards. Each class currently elects four class officers to represent the interests of their year. A major proposed change that the new government would make would be to elect Residence Hall Senators instead of representatives for each class. A population-based number of 2-8 representatives would be elected from each place of residence, rather than having Class Board Officers.

Another major change that the new government details is replacing yearly elections with elections every semester. Voting methods are another thing that might change. If the new documents pass, Residential Senator elections will be carried out using the single transferable vote method, and Executive Council meetings will be held using the instant runoff voting method. An addition to the newly drafted Constitution is the inclusion of a student bill of rights. According to Fantozzi, our current Student Government does not include a student bill of rights, an oversight that the reform group believes is a big problem. Indeed, the available copy of the current Governing Documents does not appear to contain a bill of rights.

JC EVOLVES EXPLAINS WHY

To begin with, adding Student Rights is important, as Fantozzi explained, “because we’re a private college campus, First Amendment protections don’t apply. At a public school they would, but a private one, not as much. That’s one of the reasons why student governments matter a lot, because they’re the ones to speak for students.”

The General Rights of the Students include the Rights to: Safety, Self, Equality, Self-Government, Vote, Campus
Media, and Right of Override. The Right to Equality protects students from discrimination “on the basis of age, gender, sex, color, race, creed, religion, national origin, disability, status as a member of the armed forces, political affiliation, economic status, or any other means protected by law” (Article 1.1a). The General Rights say “Student Government will work to ensure that any activity or organization that discriminates in one of these manners is handled in a manner as befitting an academic institution” (Article 1.1b).

Because we’re a private college campus, First Amendment protections don’t apply. At a public school they would, but a private one, not as much. That’s one of the reasons why student governments matter a lot, because they’re the ones to speak for students.”

— Rian Fantozzi

I asked why the wording of this was vague, given many students were bothered by the College administration’s disappointing lack of consequences for hate speech incidents last year. Could Student Government make this more specific to enforce and dictate strict punishments for discriminatory actions? Fantozzi answered that it relates to how a student government speaks.

“Student Government speaks through passing bills and resolutions…on those sorts of things. For example, on the one hand you absolutely have the right to not be discriminated against…but at the same time you have to have the right to some kind of method of free speech…So how do we balance those two? That’s why there’s two separate clauses there, one on ‘handled in a manner befitting an academic institution,’ so if some group gets shut down immediately by administration, and student body thinks it wasn’t just or was a violation of free speech, then a resolution can be passed defending the organization. At the same time, if an organization starts saying things that border on, or are in fact hate speech, there will be a method of recourse for that too…they’re both really important. It’s kind of deliberately vague to allow for interpretation there,” he said. Fantozzi continued, explaining that “this is where Best Practices come in, so that people know where they can go to find information.” Best Practices are a set of professional procedures that are generally accepted as the most effective steps to take. (In the example Fantozzi discussed, he says Best Practices would guide toward a book on free speech on college campuses by the Foundations for Individual Rights in Education.)

Some of JC Evolves’ other goals in writing this new government are hopes it will increase the participation and accessibility of Student Government for the student body as a whole. In the newest draft, the minimum number of officers necessary has gone up from 16 to 20, and there will be government positions available for up to 69 people—60 Senators plus 9 councilors.

“One of the things we’ve done is lowered barriers to entering the Student Government. As much as there’s more seats, that means there’s now more people running for those seats, and that makes it more competitive. People think we’re saying contradictory things when we say more access and more competition. Those are not mutually exclusive ideas, those things can exist in the same system,” said Fantozzi. He stressed that early engagement is what keeps people coming back and participating in the government.

This was one thing JC Evolves emphasized about their new government: its aim to appeal to underclassmen. Getting new students involved in StudGov within their first six months is a big goal. Fantozzi cited a study which showed that if people were not asked to actively participate in an organization in the first six months, it led to very low engagement. Current support from freshman officers seems to align with this goal. “We want to make the Student Government more accessible and more of a useful resource for students,” said Haley Lederer. She expanded by saying that “for many students, StudGov feels like an exclusive thing, or is something they’re not aware of,” and one of the goals of this new document is to open it up to more people.

Caitlin Binner echoed this idea in a Senate meeting, when she said Student Government should be “thinking into the future and encouraging freshmen to step forward.”

Vidal Glassman, Policy Committee Chair, said he has approached getting more students involved and participating in the government with an “if you build it, they’ll come philosophy.” Glassman also highlighted the new documents’ official endorsement of caucusing, which the committee thinks will also encourage more students, underclassmen especially, to run (A Caucus is a group with a certain interest, like a political party, meeting to help encourage people to run, or register their support behind a particular candidate).

In terms of increasing participation, Class of 2019 Vice President, Charlie Jones, voiced a differing opinion. “Increasing the amount of positions doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to increase the number of people who want to get involved. I think it would be a good thing if it happened. I think it’s a bit too idealistic to think that it would just because you offer those positions,” said Jones. He cited that in his sophomore year, “all four of our officers had to step down for various reasons, and we had an enormous amount of trouble getting enough people to participate.”

Another goal of the New Constitution’s authors is to clear up present confusion about the current governing documents, since “if we want students to value and use their government and take it seriously, we need a legitimate document to legitimize the group.” Members of Student Government have stated the current documents “messy and unclear” and result in a lot of “rule-breaking.”

Hugh Garry, Vice President of the Class of 2022 said, “When I first became a class officer, I went through and read our Constitution bylaws and realized they were severely flawed. I just happened to stumble on a group of people who shared the same views, and I was happy to see that there was already a work in progress to amend them,” said Garry, who has read through the document and offered his suggestions.

“Beforehand, the Constitution and bylaws were both a mess. They disagreed with one another, there were things in the Constitution that should not be Constitutional issues, there were things in the bylaws that should be Constitutional issues. That’s been tidied up a lot,” said Fantozzi.

“The rules are unclear, or not followed, and rules get broken every meeting,” said Policy member Jackson Bourgeois, speaking about how the current government runs. The way StudGov currently runs, many of the members of the government are unelected and can simply walk onto the general assembly and vote to make decisions for the student body as a whole, which is one of the reasons the reform writers feel things are currently undemocratic. JC Evolves thinks the clarity of their new documents will help solve this.

MEETINGS WITH SAUR

Policy has been meeting with various groups on campus to pitch their idea for a new government and explain their reasoning behind it. On March 25th, they had their first meeting with SAUR: Student Advocates of Universal Respect.

SAUR is “a student-led organization and a branch of student-government that exists to:

“Support and empower marginalized groups in our community

Educate about issues of bias through events or demonstrations

Address bias incidents through an intersectional perspective

Propose, amend, and vote on legislation with the voice of marginalized groups

Hold the campus community accountable to creating a safe and welcoming environment by fostering universal respect.”

(SAUR Mission Statement)

SAUR Chair, Pixie Estrada, wanted to clarify SAUR’s role in the Student Government and elaborate on their goals. She said, “I think what gets miscommunicated is that we do want what’s best for the school, not just the underrepresented students. We want to make the community better for everybody. We want everybody to learn about themselves, and about each other—I don’t want to say kumbaya— but just learning to have respect. We all have our differences and just making sure that we tend to each other’s needs.”

During the March 25th meeting between the JC Evolves, SAUR, and SAUR Advisor, Dr. Marita Gilbert, SAUR members raised several important points of concern, such as suggesting that those who wrote the new proposals should be more collaborative with the rest of Student Government in their approach. It was also pointed out that some of the language was problematic in that it was “setting SAUR up to be otherized” from the rest of Student Government. The take-away for many members of SAUR after this initial meeting was not positive. They felt the reforms that were presented did not consider the importance of SAUR, nor show evidence that JC Evolves had been thinking of SAUR as an integral group who helps to do the work of Student Government.

“Part of the problem was the fact that at one point [during this initial meeting] we were compared to environmental club, or music clubs, which I think goes to show the idea that most people have on campus about representation
of underrepresented students. We’re not just a club, we’re not just for fun. We have a purpose, and we’re here to advocate for those students and for the needs of those students to be addressed by students, faculty, and administration. I think that the fact that this was not implemented beforehand shows that,” said Pixie Estrada.

“SAUR is the only protected aspect of Student Government that represents POC students and underrepresented people on this campus, and I personally think that we fought way too hard to actually be a protected entity of this Constitution,” said Hong.

Other SAUR members expressed their frustrations in feeling that they always have to fight to ensure they, and those they advocate for, have a voice, and that they had to ask for the role of SAUR to be rewritten in a way that ensured SAUR would retain both their voice (votes) and funding. The three options SAUR was presented originally were forming a caucus, becoming a special interest group, or becoming a foundational organization. None were ideal because either money or representation would be lost.

“To put this stuff on us? All we’re saying is we’re fighting really hard because we care—it’s about the future of SAUR on this campus. If things are not protected, they will not stay,” said Sam Hong.

“And then who’s there to support the people that come next that look like us?” asked SAUR member Anne-Marcelle Kouame. “As a graduating senior, I’m looking back, like ‘shit!’ and you can quote me on that; it’s worrisome.”

Currently, SAUR receives votes and funding. This helps ensure that underrepresented groups on campus have representatives who are able to make their voices heard. Originally, in the new documents, SAUR was offered either funding, if they became an SIG, or votes if they ran as Res Hall Senators. However, since the original meeting between the JC Evolves and SAUR, there was an additional, closed meeting in which it was decided that SAUR’s funding and votes would not be changed from how it is this year.

“SAUR was originally sort of envisioned to be a SIG, [Special Interest Group]. SAUR still kind of acts like a SIG but they now have Constitutional protections, which we realized was important at the meeting with SAUR. Given that they deal with underrepresented groups, that is a strong benefit. In the conversation with them they really kind of showed us why,” said Fantozzi.

“We’re just back to where we started,” said Sam Hong. “We don’t have anything more, everything’s just the same.”

Something that would change is that SAUR would actually be officially written down in the New Constitution. That is a problem with the current Constitution. As of now, SAUR is still not officially written in. Members, like Hong, said that a New Constitution is necessary—in large part because SAUR still isn’t included in the current Constitution— however, the document that has been presented to them did not do enough for SAUR, as well as having other flaws.

Estrada said one thing SAUR wants “is more participation from the Senate. What’s troublesome about it is that you can’t write in the Constitution ‘all Senators will participate in SAUR activities’ because you can’t force anybody to do that… I think what we’d want is an extensive description of the things that we do and the purpose that we have, not just for underrepresented students but for the community, for the school as a whole.” She explained that “SAUR does not only do advocacy things, but fun things as well” (A few of the events SAUR has put on this year are the Black Excellence Dinner with Umoja, a viewing of Us (2019), and Black History Month factoids.) SAUR has felt disappointed by a lack of involvement, support, and participation from some of Senate in their past events.

“I think it’s rusty as of now,” said SAUR member Sarah Napoleon. She clarified that meant she thinks it needs more work. “I don’t really trust that it will be ready by the end of the year.”

MEETING WITH STUDENT GOVERNMENT: SUPPORT AND DISSENT

On April 1st, the Constitution authors presented their new government idea to the rest of Student Government. Most members of StudGov say they first heard about the idea of government reform approximately a week before this meeting. The document was emailed to them less than an hour before the meeting. Sam Hong, Class of 2021 President, took issue with the amount of time Senators had to read the document prior to their meeting.

During the meeting, Senator Haley Walker voiced her concerns about replacing Class Officers with Resident Hall Representatives. Walker also pointed out the potential for the Senate president to have too much power, and said she did not support introducing the new documents. Taylor Hallabuk was also among Senate members who voiced disagreement with changing from Class Officers to Residence Hall Senators. A related concern of dissenters was whether underclassmen living in dorms like East or TnT would feel comfortable running against a senior. The potential of unequal representation of each class without Class Board Officers was something that came up most often in interviews and meetings.

Walker defended the need for Class Boards, arguing that “one of the main points is a big camaraderie aspect that allows us to grow together with our class and our class to know that we are people they can come to and talk to…it’s also a familiar face.”

This Res Hall Senators aspect of the new government also concerns Yangsheng Zhou, Class of 2021 Vice President. “In my opinion, we stand for our class,” said Zhou. “I think we have a better connection with our class. If you’re elected from your residential buildings, you’re indifferent from the residents and don’t talk with each other. With our classmates there’s more communication.”

Policy members say that Residential Hall Representatives are a good idea because it allows for an increased number of positions within Student Government and makes Senators closer and more accessible to constituents, because they will be “right down the hall.”

Stuehrmann said, “I’ve spoken to people and they say that they would prefer to have representation by class than by res hall because a lot of people don’t even really feel any form of allegiance for people in their res halls. I mean all I do in mine is sleep.” During the April 1st meeting, Vidal Glassman responded to similar complaints, defending the idea of Residence Hall Senators. “That’s anecdotal, saying everyone feels more unity with their class. I don’t hang out [with] my class,” said Glassman.

“I think as it stands the New Constitution and bylaws are very effective,” said Hugh Garry. He said the initial push is to pass the Constitution, and that once the Constitution passes, the bylaws are “100% open up to change, by nature of being bylaws.”

The idea of Res Hall Senators is not the only one which has been met with some skepticism. Having elections every semester has raised concern about turn-over, confusion, and lack of student engagement among members of the government, like Walker, who said having elections every semester would make it more confusing for people to know who to go to for help on specific issues.

“Having the elections every semester would allow for people who studied abroad to still be part of Senate,” says Vidal Glassman, Chair of Policy Committee. “It would also increase the level of democracy and engagement if you are able to vote every semester.”

Another topic of debate is whether JC Evolves is making compromises. “We’ve definitely been very focused on student concerns throughout this, they were designed as front and center,” said Fantozzi. While the reform writers say they are open to compromise and suggestion, members of the Student Government have different perspectives on whether their advice is being taken into account.

“I do think they are open to suggestions and comments and doing a good job of making sure everybody has a bit of a say,” said Class of 2022 President Talia Bertrando.

Hong expressed a different view. “Everything that we’ve been telling the people that are working on this New Constitution just really has not been listened to. I think they’re hearing what we have to say, just not really comprehending it or taking it into actual consideration,” said Sam Hong. She described it as “a very defensive atmosphere, which is understandable because these students have been working on this Constitution for so long and have put in so much effort, and when you see something that you’ve worked on for so long and you think it’s really great—which many aspects of it are—I guess when people say here’s what we think needs to change, you know, who wouldn’t be defensive about things?”

“I think it’s frustrating that they’re adding Res Hall officers instead of class officers, and that they’ve changed all of this within the Constitution, without really consulting anyone who has had a position as a class officer for an extended period of time. I don’t think it’s feasible. They didn’t have meetings with people in the administration to see how it would affect positions,” elaborated Walker, during an interview on April 11th.

“I think they are trying to take what we’re saying into consideration, I just think that they’re very steadfast on some things that we disagree with and that’s where the conflicts come in. They were at least receptive to keeping Class Boards to some degree,” said Charlie Jones, Class of 2019 Vice President.

Fantozzi said one compromise JC Evolves has already made is dropping a rule that would stop Resident Advisors (RAs) from running to be Resident Hall Representatives “after having lots of discussions with RAs.” He said, “we found few had a small interest, but the ones that did felt they should have a path open. We frankly dropped that from the Constitution, figuring if it became too much of an issue, we can add that in as a bylaw.”

The idea of reform has been met by support from some members of Student Government, like Class of 2022 President Talia Bertrano, who said, “As Policy Committee, they really took their position to heart, in my mind, and they saw some issues with the policy of how our government works and took it upon themselves to change it and create a better culture, so I really appreciate their initiative and I think, personally, I do like the new things they’re proposing.”

Other members of StudGov thought the government reform documents could bring positive change, though they had minor reservations. Many felt that a reform of some kind was necessary, despite having concerns and suggestions for Policy Committee’s current draft. “It’s definitely necessary, however there are a few aspects of the new government that need to be fine combed in order for everybody to be on board,” said 2022 Class Board Officer Ishiyihmie Burrell. Asked to expand on this, Burrell referenced the disagreements among Senate members over the transition from Class Boards to Resident Hall Senators.

Class Officer of 2020, Karan Nair, said, “I’m very, very much in support of the changes they’re making, except one, which is the removal of Class Officers—well it’s not exactly the removal of Class Officers. We’ve had a lot of discussion about it in the past couple of days since the meeting…the way it stands right now is that Class Officers are a part of Senate and they have a vote and they are a pre-approved group that is there every year. What [the new documents] are doing is they’re changing that so Class Officers are not a given. We can make Class Officers if we want but they’re not a part of Senate that is guaranteed a vote. To be a part of Senate we have to [be]
what they’re planning to call Res Life Representatives, so we have to go through our residence halls into Senate, and we have to then join certain other committees to be considered a part of Senate. Only then would we have a vote. This is a huge change from just being Class Officers and having a vote in Senate.”

When asked how much they knew about the Student Government bylaws or Constitution before these issues came up, current members of Student Government acknowledged that there were holes in their knowledge. Several brought this general confusion up as a problem which they thought should be addressed, and a strength of the New Constitution. Ishiyihmie Burrell said, “[what I knew was] not as much as I should know, largely because I was never told to read it, and I didn’t know where to get it.”

“Honestly, [I] didn’t know a lot, and that’s an issue they’re trying to address with the New Constitution. They’re trying to have that culture change. It is something that I definitely think is a flaw in how student government is right now. I think if people were more aware and more knowledgeable of what the Constitution was and what the bylaws were it could be a whole lot more fluid and more efficient,” said Karan Nair.

“I think that’s something that they’re trying to alleviate now, trying to make it more of an approachable document,” said Class Board 2022 member Talia Bertrando.

Policy member Vidal Glassman says that this general confusion and lack of clarity surrounding the current government is one motivation in writing a new one.

“I think something that is a really great step that they’re planning is after people are voted into Senate to have like a test on the Constitution, like a quiz…and it’s not a pass/ fail kind of thing, they’re going to take the test and whatever a bunch of people…don’t seem to be knowledgeable about this, there will be educational sessions on that. The whole point of this is so that people come in with this base knowledge of how the Constitution and bylaws work, which will honestly make the Student Government so much better,” said Nair.

It is also notable that Senators in nearly every interview I conducted made a point to acknowledge the efforts of Policy Committee in writing the New Constitution. “The people who framed the Constitution—great people—they worked so incredibly hard. I think the general public doesn’t understand how much work has gone into doing this. I know it’s something I really appreciate,” said Nair.  Bertrando and Burrell also cited the group’s passion. Even those who have been critical of the suggested reforms, like Hong, acknowledged the hard work that had gone into it.

The insights of StudGov members are important to report, due to their passion, involvement, experience, and knowledge of how the government works, but ultimately the decision for or against this new government is up to the student body.

VOTING IS IMPORTANT!

Sam Hong, a member of SAUR and President of the Class of 2022, has voiced concerns about the student body voting so soon on this document. She spoke about the April 1st Senate meeting, saying, “we spent the entire time talking about just a couple of lines, and we’re all people who’ve been in Senate the entire year and are somewhat familiar with certain vocab. How easy do you think it’s going to be for the average student who already has no idea what the Student Government does to understand that document? Let alone comprehend it. You can barely read 165 pages worth of words, let alone comprehend it. How are we to represent our peers correctly if they don’t even know what we’re doing?”

Other members of Senate spoke about how important it is for students to be informed. “For me, I think it’s important for students to know what’s trying to be placed right now in Student Government and to know their rights, because right now they don’t really know. I’m going to speak from experience, because before joining SAUR I didn’t know anything about Student Government. I’m still trying to fully comprehend what’s being said—and I’m angry that I can’t comprehend, because apparently to the rest of my peers in SAUR it’s really bad, but I don’t know why it’s not clicking for me. If I wasn’t in SAUR, I wouldn’t know what was happening, and then what if I voted for that?” said SAUR member Shamya Butler-Bonner.

The prospect of how the student body will be voting on the new bylaws and Constitution initially worried some Senators, like Nair, who said at first he worried voting “was going to be like an iPad outside of Baker while people were trying to get into lunch—and all [students] care about is getting in.” His worry was students would sign anything that sounded good. However, he said he was relieved to hear there is another plan in place, “something that I’m really happy about is, the way it was explained to me, there’s going to be an open educational forum that students are invited to attend, so everyone has that base knowledge and they can have the same discussions we had in our meetings. So they’re not going into it blind and there’s no one who’s really holding back information or portraying it in a certain light. So that makes it more equal.”

“We don’t have those scheduled yet, but we have allocated for two town halls that we hope to hold soon,” confirmed Fantozzi.

Hong thinks that assuming everyone will care about Student Government enough for this to work is “completely naive and not being realistic about the culture of Juniata.” She cites the example of the highly attended meeting last year about the changing food plans, and how interest quickly died out after one meeting.

JC Evolves, however, believe they can drum up support and interest in the student body by canvassing, tabling, and spreading awareness of the issues. As Glassman said in the April 1st meeting, “assuming apathy [from the student body] will result in apathy.”

If StudGov wants to spark change in the way the government runs now, and increase student body engagement, every decision cannot be made based off how things run now. The reform advocates hope to pass their New Constitution and bylaws by the end of the year. This would require at least 10% participation from the student body, with at least one-half voting yes, according to our current Constitution. Panels to educate yourself on this proposal and make an informed voting choice for yourself and the future of Juniata should be held in the near future.

Please, whatever you decide, remember to vote on April 25th from 7-10 p.m. after LAS!

Author’s Note

I have tried to be as objective as possible in writing this article and to conduct as many interviews and hear as many sides of this story as my own schedule, time, resources, and energy made possible, as well as the schedules, abilities, and willingness of others.

Since the Newspaper Editors are involved in this issue, in order to avoid bias they have not helped me with the process of writing this article. I wrote this article more independently than is typically the case for investigative pieces. The Editors did not give input on the content, analysis, or research, apart from giving interviews about their roles as writers of the Constitution. As Managing Editor, Emery Malachowski will still need to copyedit. However, in order to avoid as much conflict of interest as possible, I sought editing from an independent professor and Writing Center tutor as well.

If you met and discussed any of these issues with me, thank you very much for your time and consideration! Your opinion was, and is important, even if, for space reasons, I only have a few quotes from each of you. I have done my best to present this article in as logical, informative, understandable, and objective a way as possible, with the principles of journalism in mind, and with the goal of helping to inform the student body as a whole of some of the changes that might be made, along with various pros and cons from perspectives of people with experience in Student Government.

Thank you,

Piper