Yesterday, the Undergraduate Student Government announced that all four referenda to amend Princeton’s Honor Constitution had passed by wide margins. The election saw unprecedented turnout, with 64% of the student body voting on the referenda. This high turnout was likely driven in part by the binding nature of the referenda; amendments will now immediately be made to the Honor Constitution. This is unique in contrast with the typical USG referendum that is unbinding and generally constitutes calling for USG to investigate a matter, rather than to make immediate changes. Given this, the Board would like to offer a timely suggestion to USG and administrators concerning the procedure of typical Princeton referenda and reform.
We praise USG for frequently appealing to the student body to gauge the school’s stance on pivotal issues, but we are critical of the lethargy with which school legislators approach the implementation of referendum-approved policies. As such, the Board advocates increased transparency in the months following referenda and school reform surveys so that the student body knows the state of the proposed changes. While we acknowledge the need to coordinate with administrative and faculty partners can slow down USG’s response, the student body should still be updated on the progress of the reforms they approve. The Winter 2016 eating club demographic collection referendum and the March 2016 calendar reform survey are particularly illustrative of this troubling lack of transparency, while the Spring 2016 prison divestment referendum highlights the downsides of not being responsive to student expressions of opinion.
In the winter of 2016, the student body voted on a referendum calling upon USG to work with the Interclub Council to have eating clubs collect and release demographic information like race, gender, and academic major about its members and bickerees. The referendum passed overwhelmingly, with nearly 70% support. But a year later the motion seems to have fully dissolved; two, nearly three, rounds of bicker and sign-in have come and gone. While a committee has been appointed to consider the eating clubs, this committee will expressly not deal with the collection of eating club demographics. The student body at large has heard little about USG’s progress on this matter since last December. As Leila Clark, the referendum’s sponsor, explained in a October 2017 Prince op-ed, USG initially voiced their support for the referendum’s suggestion, but then grew frustratingly elusive in the months that followed.
In March 2016, USG partnered with the Dean of the College, the Dean of the Graduate School, and the Graduate School Government to administer a student survey regarding proposed calendar reform which would move fall finals to before winter recess. A staggering 72% of 2,580 votes supported the reform, finding that looming exams added stress to their holiday breaks. Following this, in October 2016, a University Task Force on General Education released six recommendations, including one that would move finals to before winter recess. While an Ad Hoc Committee on Calendar Reform has been working since May 2017 to implement the calendar change, the student body remains woefully uninformed about what progress has been made. The only subsequent public discussion of the Committee’s work has been one report it made to USG in November. While The Daily Princetonian reported on this update, progress on change of such great interest to the student body should be reported directly and regularly to students.
Given the opaque response to past referenda, the Princeton student body has lost some of its enthusiasm for supporting reforms to its community. In the spring of 2016, for example, the student body voted on a referendum to divest from private prisons and detention corporations, which profit from incarceration and immigrant-deportation. The referendum enjoyed a overwhelming majority: 89%. But still the referendum did not pass, because only a small proportion of the student body came out to vote on it – more than the 30% of the student body that must vote on a referendum for the vote to count. Should we be surprised by the low turnout? Probably not: most referenda have no inherent power. They are simply gauges of student opinion; the power falls entirely to USG and the University administration to decide whether to act on that opinion. In theory, this is a reasonable, even necessary procedure for implementing reform. Ideally, our student and faculty leaders would approach the proposed reforms with energy and transparency, making steady progress and keeping us informed on the state of the referendums.
But as experience has shown, USG and the University administration can be slow-moving and elusive when it comes to implementing pivotal reforms that enjoy overwhelming support from the student body. What is at stake here is not individual reforms and stances on them—indeed, it is worth noting that while the Board supported the winter break calendar reform, it did not support the eating club demographic referendum—but rather the very mechanisms by which we effect change at this school. If the reforms students are collectively excited about continue to disappear in the bowels of USG and administrative bureaucracy, rarely to be discussed again, then students will become less and less engaged with school reform. As the prison divestment referendum highlighted, this will be a fatal blow to our voice as a student body. The Board, therefore, calls on USG and the University administration to be transparent and aboveboard about their progress on all reforms proven, by survey or referendum, to enjoy the popular support of the school. This means periodic updates, published benchmarks, and candid notification when reforms seem unlikely to be implemented. The Board understands that not all student-approved reforms can feasibly be implemented in practice, but the student body still deserves to be updated on any attempts, even if unsuccessful, to do so.
We accordingly cannot emphasize enough the importance of USG and administrative responsiveness to student-approved reforms, as well as transparency about the status of their response.
Rachel Glenn ‘19 and Carolyn Liziewski ‘18 recused themselves from the writing of this editorial.