With the start of the new Student Governing Association senate term, questions remain as to the senate’s diversity after a March report found several multicultural groups are underrepresented in the senate.
“This is a huge issue, and by huge, I mean it’s huge in terms of magnitude and in terms of severity,” Jack Ayres, junior in chemical engineering and student body president, said. “It’s something we struggle with because it says our student government is not as representative as it could be. It’s also a big issue because it’s a difficult one to resolve—to provide a sustainable solution long-term that addresses these issues and works to make them better.”
The report, conducted by SGA’s Special Committee on Membership and shared with senators at the end of the last senate term, included results from a demographic survey that was distributed to 60 student senators toward the end of the last term. Of the distributed surveys, 46 were returned to the committee.
The survey found that one large discrepancy between senate and student body demographics was affiliation with fraternities or sororities. In a 2015 campus climate report by the university, 12.4 percent of the student body indicated involvement in a Panhellenic organization, yet according to the committee’s survey, 73.9 percent of senators said they belonged to a fraternity or sorority.
In comparison, over 26 percent of students in the campus climate report indicated they lived in the university’s residence halls, while about 11 percent of senators said the same.
“It’s very apparent in the survey that the majority of students who are in SGA are Greek, and there is a small minority of students who are from on-campus living specifically,” Ryan Kelly, freshman in civil engineering and College of Engineering senator, said. “It’s hard for us residence hall students to vocalize the and communicate the ideas and concerns of students in the residence halls when there are so few of us.”
Stephen Kucera, senior in accounting and music and former speaker pro tempore, said one possible reason for the overrepresentation of fraternities and sororities in SGA is that existing senators encourage other members of their chapters to run for office, creating a cyclical system where it is difficult for students from other backgrounds to get the same support as students affiliated with fraternities or sororities.
Results from the survey indicated the senate had no Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, veteran or transgender/non-binary representatives. Non-Christian students affiliated with other faiths make up 3.1 percent of the student body, veteran students make up 7.3 percent and transgender students make up 0.1 percent, according to the campus climate report.
Other demographics that were found to be underrepresented in the senate—in comparison with demographics found in the campus climate report—are LGBT groups, international students, multiracial students, female students, out-of-state students and disabled students.
The bill that originally created the special committee also tasked it with reviewing the degree to which the senate reflects and represents the student body and taking action by crafting legislation aimed at recruiting and representing more diverse groups.
In March, the senate voted to expand its intern program to include as many as 35 students in the hope that a larger class size will offer the opportunity to become involved in SGA to a more diverse set of student applicants.
In the same month, the senate passed an amendment to its constitution giving the speaker pro tempore the responsibility of collecting demographic data on the senate. Prior to the survey conducted by the Special Committee on Membership, no such survey had been conducted in over 20 years, the report said. However, the amendment did not specify a timeline for the speaker pro tempore to collect that data.
At the end of the senate term, senators voted to give presidents of student organizations, or their designated delegates, speaking rights on the senate but stopped short of granting them voting rights, although pending legislation could grant voting rights to representatives from select multicultural organizations.
The senate also created the Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Ayres said the he would work to give power to the committee so it can continue its work to increase senate diversity.
“I think it takes a lot of different approaches to make change happen,” Ayres said.
Jonathan Peuchen, junior in mechanical engineering and likely speaker of the student senate, said he will work to create the special committee again this term.
“They did great work, but there’s still more to be done,” Peuchen said.