Now that the presidential debates have concluded and the 2004 election is continuing to heat up, the College has found itself in a controversial political situation of its own. Within the Student Government Association (SGA), a so-called coalition of some of its members, concerned about student governance on campus, has been established.
Matthew Civiletti, SGA vice president of administration and finance, is one of the forces behind this new approach to SGA. Civiletti, who terms this coalition a "student reform group," said approximately 12 out of 40 senators, as well as a handful of executive board members, support it.
Pedro Khoury, executive president, Stephanie Nieves, alternative student trustee, Ravi Kaneriya, senator-at-large, Todd Stoner, freshman class president and Jasmine Charlon, senator of nursing are among some of the supporters of this newly-founded group.
According to the student reform group, SGA has neglected some of its purposes for students on campus. "SGA is defined as the umbrella organization for student organizations and because (its) job is to help students, if SGA doesn't help facilitate an atmosphere where organizations can thrive, especially smaller ones, then it's not really doing its job," Civiletti said. "There are a lot of concerns that don't make it to SGA, and when they do, they're not taken seriously enough."
"Personally, throughout my two years as an associate member, SGA (has) always said it's the voice of the students," Kaneriya, sophomore political science major, said. "Frankly, it does not act on behalf of the students."
Civiletti, who served as the senator of engineering last year as a freshman, points to his early experiences with SGA as his inspiration to bring about change.
"I just felt throughout most of the year that there were a large amount of things that SGA could improve upon," Civiletti said. "It just frustrated me that (it) could do so much more to help students and it wasn't really trying."
While running for his current position last spring for the 2004-05 school year, Civiletti said his experiences and vision for an improved student government were the core issues on which he campaigned.
He outlined the three main points of his focus: to re-emphasize SGA's primary function as an "umbrella" for student organizations on campus, to allow associate members the right to speak at meetings, and to stand up for students' rights.
According to Civiletti, at the first executive board meeting, his proposition of allowing associate members speaking privileges at meetings was opposed. This prompted his attempt to reach out to other members of the student government.
According to Brian Mulvihill, executive vice president, the rights of associate members and their speaking privileges stem from the SGA constitution, which delegates that only voting members can debate.
He said there appears to be three distinct groups this year within SGA, the neutral members and two opposing sides. He refers to the "student reform group" as the minority.
"Their perspective of the students is not every student's perspective but their (own) perspective and their clique's and common friends'," Mulvihill said. "We'd had different cliques in SGA, but never really clearly defined groups."
According to Civiletti, SGA has not reached its full potential in protecting and voicing students' rights. "If SGA wasn't living up to what it's supposed to be, a student government, that basically means students don't have an organized voice," Civiletti said.
Members who helped coordinate the student reform group emphasize the fact that SGA, as the only government representing students, can wield a lot of power.
According to Kaneriya, the College's student government has the resources and potential to affect change. Nieves herself is an example of such power, as she represents student issues on one of the most powerful administrative organizations on campus, the Board of Trustees.
Kaneriya said because SGA does not accomplish what it should, students have to find other outlets to voice their opinions and create changes within their campus community. According to Kaneriya, Dailyjolt.com has served as one of the outlets - currently providing postings, taking polls and criticism of Sodexho and the Carte Blanche meal plan.
"There's a disillusion of SGA, and we're not doing our job," Kaneriya said. "It's disappointing. Students are turning to alternative venues because they don't have SGA anymore."
When asked about how the student reform group would accomplish its goal of receiving student feedback, Civiletti said the SGA Web site has recently been altered, making it more effective in allowing students to post comments. He also has outlined a new plan by which to set up forums within residence halls on campus and receive students' feedback on various campus issues.
"We need to take an active approach instead of a passive approach," Nieves said. "Our main goal is to maintain positive results and not sugarcoat student demands."
One of the primary focuses of the coalition is Sodexho and the Carte Blanche meal plan. Civiletti said SGA's approach to this student concern had provided the greatest motivation for the formation of the reform group. Civiletti referred to the SGA meeting on Sept. 15 - during which SGA allowed only four questions to be asked of Sodexho employees - and SGA's management of the meeting.
"That's a manifestation of everything we see wrong with SGA," Civiletti said. "Dozens of students came to our meeting to tell us their concerns, and we just brushed them off. That's a real shame."
According to Charlon, a student survey is currently being drafted to distribute to one-third of on-campus students in order to gain student input on issues at the College.
"The initiatives (of the student reform group) were developed with the goal of providing more two-way interaction between SGA and other clubs and organizations at (the College), as well as increasing the level of awareness of issues of governance amongst the entire student body," Magda Manetas, SGA advisor and director of student life, said.
"I honestly haven't noticed any 'coalition' or any specific changes that were proposed (within SGA)," Annelise Catanzaro, student trustee, said. "But I do think that every year with a new administration, there will always be individuals striving to make SGA more effective and more helpful to students. In fact, it (is) the responsibility of all elected members of SGA to do so.
"We all agree that it's not about us," Charlon said. "We need the opinions of the students and not just our own six voices."
According to Civiletti, the coalition will be holding its first student forum on Oct. 21 at 7 p.m. in the Allen Drawing Room. The SGA student reform group urges students who wish to gain more information about SGA in general or its specific views to visit the SGA Web site at tcnj.edu/~sga or e-mail Civiletti at email@example.com.