Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The RHA Exemption: Ideology vs. Practical Solution

This letter to the editor in today's Diamondback is an excellent response to the exemption policy adopted by the Department of Resident Life and the RHA. Julia Burke makes two important points about this policy. One, that RHA members that receive an exemption are not facing the same major problem (that is, the housing crisis) that the students whom they represent are facing, and are, by virtue of this fact, significantly disconnected from their constituencies. And two, that juniors and seniors serving in the RHA do not actually represent resident students because the vast majority of resident students are freshmen and sophomores. Burke states that she's "disenchanted" with the RHA's apparent disavowing of "the democratic principles that elected them in the first place."

The concern with the democratic principles and the accuracy of representation are the absolute best ideological arguments that could be made, in my estimation. (Indeed, they're exactly the ones I would make, if I were to argue against the policy.) But the problem is ideology versus practice. The thing about theory is that in theory, it always works in practice. But this whole situation is (as most real-world ones are) imperfect and not ideal. So, we are forced to make concessions.

The best leaders are ones that have experience (among other qualities). The main thrust behind this policy is to have better leadership and to more effectively advocate on behalf of students. Older students, the ones not catered to under the current housing commitment groups policy, are both left off campus and the most qualified for student leadership positions. The exemption is actually created to improve (or maintain the quality of) advocacy for students, not worsen.

And hey, aren't we just one resident student population? On-campus resident seniors that represent freshmen and sophomores are no less able to adequately represent the latter group simply because they're not the same year. Resident student leaders that live on campus represent students that live on campus, not others of their class standing.

Further, Burke asserts that RHA members, students that have this great voice in the making of policy, according to many decision makers, are making decisions without adequately considering the viewpoints of students, and indeed are making the wrong decisions because they don't have to worry about these things personally. In theory, this is possible. But in practice, it's not happening. Most of the students with whom I work in the RHA Senate and around the policy sphere do their jobs well: they talk to students and consider the issues from all angles. The vast majority do not consider only themselves when making arguments and considering solutions. (There are always a few bad apples, in every organization.) Moreover, the students who voted on the housing policy questions last semester included RHA Senators and RHA Executive Board members. Only 8 students (the EB) of a 48-voting member body would be eligible for an exemption - hardly a figure large enough to force founded worries of corruption.

The issue we're talking about here is one of theory/ideology versus practice. Some things that sound really good on paper just don't work in practice. For instance, "small government and low taxes" - personally, I love these ideas, as something of a libertarian, but you can't make government based solely on these principles. Sometimes, the government needs to step in to make a change. Most of the time, this requires resources. And sometimes, that means more taxes. The question we should be dealing with is not, "Does this decision [whatever we're talking about, from Medicare* to a housing exemption] fall in line with our ideological guidelines?", but instead "Does this decision fall in line with our practical goals [of providing adequate health care to Americans* or providing the highest quality student leadership to resident students]?"

With that, I would that we see this policy in that light. While the decision that was made, to an arguably greater or lesser degree, defies purely democratic principles, it will yield results that are quite in line with the practical goals we have: high quality, experienced student leadership.

*I am making absolutely no comment about Medicare. I am not qualified to do so.

Posted By: Sumner Handy, President

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