Student Assembly bridges gap between students and city

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November 10, 2008

11:43 PM

I believe in giving credit where credit is due, and this week it belongs to the College of William and Mary Student Assembly.

The reasons are twofold. The first is the incredible grassroots movement to register students to vote in Williamsburg. The second is the improvement in town-gown relations and the progress that has been made on the front of three-person housing, the most blatant form of discrimination that I have seen in my four years here.

Just as a quick reminder, the SA has been working tirelessly for the past several years — ever since David Sievers ’07 lost his bid for City Council in 2006 — to register students to vote, having realized that it was most likely the only way to reverse the city’s discriminatory policies. In the lead-up to this year’s presidential election, nearly 2,400 students had registered to vote in Williamsburg.

This past Nov. 4, history was made in the United States, but it was also made in Williamsburg as students voted alongside city residents for the first time. Then there were the SA members themselves, many of whom woke before dawn to staff polling stations, provide shuttle service from the Sadler Center for those who only had a short break in their day and to ensure that students did not find themselves suddenly disenfranchised when they reached the South Boundary Street Williamsburg Community Building.

Some people, including a columnist for the Virginia Informer, have decried the SA’s efforts on voter registration and Election Day shuttles, not to mention free hot apple cider at polling stations. I can understand the apple cider (it wasn’t very good), and maybe even the rides to polling stations (at least they weren’t limousines), but the voter registration efforts of the SA were its greatest accomplishment of the last four years. It will have a profound impact on town-gown relations.

Arguments against voter registration hold little merit in principle because they are based entirely on politics, advanced by Republicans and Libertarians who knew that a high student turnout in Virginia would help swing the state to Sen. Barack Obama. How else do you explain angrily denouncing attempts to get citizens interested in shaping the affairs of the community or the nation? Isn’t that the whole point of an election?

The SA lost the voter battle last semester with Matt Beato’s ’09 City Council loss, but it won the war this semester on Nov. 4. SA President Valerie Hopkins ’09 called the student turnout “exceedingly high.” Of course, a large part of this was the presence of a presidential candidate who appealed to college students and to the well-educated. However, it is difficult to imagine a turnout that even compared to the one I saw last Tuesday had the SA not made it a priority to register students to vote.

The second issue is the closely related problem of town-gown relations. First, let me be perfectly clear. Nobody in their right mind thinks the three-person housing rule will be abolished. Could it be amended this year? Perhaps, and hopefully. The important thing for those who have been following or working on this issue is not that it is changed in time for every current student to reap the benefits, but rather that future generations of students at the College can be treated as equals, not as second-class citizens. It is not a matter of convenience; it is one of principle.

That is why regardless of when the rule is changed — and it will be changed eventually, especially with the voting power that students now possess — we should be at least somewhat happy with what the SA has done this semester. Telling the city of Williamsburg to go fuck itself will get nothing accomplished. Civil conversations and negotiations could. For the first time in several years, the SA has chosen the right option.

The Flat Hat’s recent editorial on the matter was a good portrayal of what needs to take place, but, with a new City Council election not until next year, students should take any change they can get, and then work even harder to advance those changes.

Refusing any compromise because it does not fit the exact mold that students are looking for would only frustrate those involved and pass the process on to future SA presidents and senators. The city has the capability to drag things out as long as possible. Any compromise it puts on the table should be seriously considered.

To be sure, there are still some issues with the way that the SA conducts its business. Many members are still socially insulated from the rest of campus. They have done little on alcohol policy and student rights and have not been able to change a dean’s office that tramples on the Greek system like a horde of elephants.

But, for a moment at least, the SA deserves the respect of its peers.

Alex Ely is a senior at the College.

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