So you want to be a senator

ASMSU’s new student senators will begin their one-year term on Thursday, Sept. 27. Though we don’t yet know who those students will be (check on Friday for election results), we do know more than half of those elected will be new to the position.

High annual turnover — a constant problem with all student organizations — makes it difficult for those in student government to effectively advocate for students’ interests. ASMSU’s new process of electing the entire senate in September only makes that problem more acute. As a result, the senate’s efficacy and influence is far from consistent.

If the candidates’ on-camera interviews are any indication, our student senators seem to have more enthusiasm for the position than knowledge of the roles and responsibilities it entails. That’s not really surprising, nor is it necessarily problematic. Being “in-the-know” means little in the context of student government; it’s each senator’s willingness to listen, learn, evaluate and interact that will determine the group’s success.

In any case, they’ll certainly need to hit the ground running.

The outgoing senate’s Sept. 13 meeting would have served as a great introduction, had any of the first-time candidates chosen to attend. For the bulk of the session, senators debated the appropriateness of a proposal by the Procrastinator Theatre to place a “student’s choice” film on this week’s ballot.

The senate ultimately denied the request, on the grounds that the ballot should be reserved for different kinds of measures or that its inclusion might cause students to take the election less seriously. Sen. Hannah Mains, who is running for re-election, said she worried that it could influence senate elections if students interested only in the film also cast their ballot for senate candidates at random. Such students “don’t really deserve to vote,” she said.

It’s worth noting that much of the senate’s reasoning was built upon an analogy between student government and other, “professional” representative bodies — a point of reference that is debated perennially among student senators. While some characteristics, such as the challenges of representational leadership, are worthy of comparison, other matters — like the sanctity of the ballot — probably are not.

ASMSU is lucky to be working with a university administration that is responsive to student opinion. In the administration’s eyes, the student senate is the symbolic bearer of the student’s position, whose support they seek when considering campus policies, such as tobacco. And that’s in addition to the responsibility of approving over $1 million in student expenditures.

That is to say, being a student senator is a responsibility worth taking seriously.

Nevertheless, it’s possible to take the senator position seriously without mimicking the approaches of other governing bodies, which function in radically different contexts. Senators acting as dress-up legislators will only alienate themselves from their constituents, a situation in which neither takes the other, nor the ballot, seriously.

A good example of this attitude can be seen in a message sent on Wednesday by incumbent senator Erica McKay to student members of the Montana State University Facebook group, in which she encouraged voters to identify with a college other than their own: “If you happen to be in the following colleges, your senators are running uncontested races and therefore are already decided: Agriculture, Education, Arts & Architecture, and Nursing. I would like to extend an invitation to come on over to the College of Business and vote for yours truly!”

If ASMSU strives to make service to students a priority, it doesn’t need power-seekers, hard-nosed ideologues, ambitious brown-nosers or casual résumé-padders in its ranks. Recognizing that they will, at times, discuss foam parties and gender equality in the same breath, our new senators ought to take a different approach. They should approach it not like politicians but, well, like students.