A senate divided

Courtesy Photo / Megan Sundberg
GVSU 2011-2012 Student Senate

Courtesy photo

Courtesy Photo / Megan Sundberg GVSU 2011-2012 Student Senate

Anya Zentmeyer

As Grand Valley State University expands in population and complexity, so too must the structure of the Student Senate to include not only a higher level of graduate student representation, but also more student prepresentation across the board.

That conversation, which began last winter semester, came to a halt following an Oct. 6 Student Senate General Assembly meeting when members of the Graduate Student Association were invited to voice ideas and opinions on the restructuring process.

“There’s been some conversation going on that has sort of gotten stymied, and what we’ve been trying to do is kind of step back and reframe and get a small group of undergraduate representatives from the Senate and representatives from the graduate student population to come together and begin talking about this again,” said Bart Merkle, dean of students.

Though Merkle said it is difficult to put a finger on exactly what the issue was that halted the process, matters of personality clash and miscommunication may have been some of the major factors that contributed to students’ low motivation to move forward on both ends of the conversation.

“I would say it’s a new process for both of us, the graduate students and the undergraduate students,” said Nick Ryder, vice president for public relations on Student Senate. “A lot of us see narrow sided, so we want what’s best for our own group, and not necessarily the entire student body. So we needed to take a step back – that’s kind of why we put it on hold – and reevaluate what’s best for the student body and not what’s best for just our own demographic in what we’re focusing on.”

Now that the hiatus is over, a smaller group of students will come together to discuss how to move forward. That committee will be made up of four undergraduate representatives from the Student Senate, and three graduate representatives that have yet to be selected by the Dean of Graduate Studies.

After that group comes to a consensus, the graduate representatives and the undergraduate representatives will take it back to their respective organizations and put it up to a vote. Once Student Senate passes the new plan, it will have to pass through Tom Butcher of University Counsel and then through the Board of Trustees before the group can start tangibly restructuring things.

“I think we’ve kind of let that settle, and now we’re maybe getting some new people around the table,” Merkle said. “We’re talking about probably inviting Bob Stoll and Diana Pace out of my office to kind of help facilitate conversation.”

Merkle said as someone who has been involved with student governance for a long time, Stoll, director of Student Life, has a deeper understanding of the allocation process and the way student governance works. And though Associate Dean of Students Diana Pace does not have any history of student governance involvement, she has a talent for mediation that Merkle hopes will help students to better facilitate thoughtful discussion.

“So, together as a team, I think they’re going to be able to really help the group of students grapple with these issues and not try to steer them, but rather facilitate them coming to a conclusion that makes sense to them,” Merkle said.

He said the restructuring is a student issue and the administration does not want to step in and tell them how things should be, but rather provide support to help the students engaging in some of the challenging conversation and assist in making sure all voices are heard as the group continues to strive toward a consensus.

Though the current Student Senate is open to any student who wants to run, including graduate students, Merkle said the current governance system is not very conducive to graduate participation in terms of things like structure, meeting times and locations.

Jeff Potteiger, dean of graduate studies, said for graduate students, it boils down to two main issues: making sure graduate students get representation on student governance and also making sure they get the resources to do the types of things that they want to do from a graduate student perspective.

“I think what graduate students want to do is have program that is more focused on graduate student needs and issues,” Potteiger said.

Merkle said though there are some who have the perception that the undergraduate body and the graduate body are at largely at odds, he is not sold on the idea.

“I’m not sure I totally buy that kind of perception,” he said. “I mean, I think that, to be certain, there are some differences between undergraduate students and graduate students, but both of those categories of students are students at Grand Valley. If I’ve learned anything about our students here at the university, it is that they have a great capacity to grapple with difficult issues and to kind of sort out what the issues really are and come to some conclusions that really are in the best interests of students at the university.”

Moving forward, Ryder said the Student Senate is coming up with structural models that they believe will best suit both graduates and undergraduates. However, heading into uncharted territory in a school that looks much different from most other universities can be a challenge.

“There are a lot of models that we’re looking at through other schools, but nobody is like Grand Valley, and that’s what’s hard – we’re such a different institution than most other schools around the country, that we have to take what’s best from all of those and put it together to make the best fit for us,” Ryder said.

While the students talk, toil and plan ahead, all parties involved are hoping for a quick consensus in matters that lend themselves to lengthy processes, all aimed at strengthening student governance.

Ryder said the Senate is still aiming for the initial deadline, with plans to have the new model of student governance ready for action for Fall 2012.

“I’m looking forward to seeing where the group ends up,” Merkle said. “As I said, I have great confidence in our students. I just believe that our students will figure out an effective way to improve student governance so that it will benefit all of our students and also benefit the university, and I couldn’t ask for anything more than that.”

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