Meet ODU’s Senate: The Leadership Behind SGA

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Elena Harris

The entrance to the Senate Chambers, which remains locked when not in use.

At freshman orientation, students are made aware of ODU’s Student Government Organization (SGA) after six hours of officers herding newly admitted students around like cattle. At no point during that orientation, however, are students alerted to the existence of a mysterious ‘student senate’. Rest assured though, ODU students can sleep tonight knowing that the Senate is definitely real and that tuition money generally does not fund them. 

 

Its purpose is admittedly novel for the SGA and ODU – in theory. The ODU Student Senate serves as the SGA’s legislative body separate from elected officers and directors like the president or secretary. This means that the Senate is the entity responsible for introducing the campus-altering legislation that student governments are known for, as well as voting on amendments to the SGA’s foundational documents, such as its bylaws and constitution. In order for the SGA to mandate any internal changes, a bill must be drafted, introduced and passed in the Senate. 

 

A recently drafted bill, which is not yet introduced, allows for QR codes to be put on campus doors to act as a hotline for maintenance in the event that one is mistakenly locked. Improving efficiency is the backbone of the Senate’s work. 

 

Senate meetings are held every Tuesday in the Senate Chambers, a richly appointed corridor hidden within a dark corner on the Webb Center’s first floor. It’s a very nice – probably very expensive – space with eleven rows of swivel chairs, paintings and photos on nearly every wall, and a boxy, multipurpose chandelier hanging from its ceiling. On the front wall, behind the speaker’s podium, is a large sign with the ‘Old Dominion’ logo backlit by warm LEDs – a glowing reminder to senators of who they serve.

 

Meetings are attended by senators, advisors, guest speakers, and every officer of the SGA. Senators are volunteers, so it’s bizarre to think that an unbiased legislative body of volunteers has its meetings in the same room as its paid – and separate – leadership. 

 

Senator pay is “one of the discussions [the Senate] is going to be having in January…. I think there could be a real argument for [senator pay] because in many cases the senators do more work than the directors and just as vital work as them. We’re writing legislation, pushing for change, being outwards and talking to students, we’re doing stuff in committee meetings. I think that could be something to be looked at,” said Senator and Elections Chairman Reed James, who entered the Chambers this September.

 

Directors sit behind the podium, facing the Senate at all times. James felt that the seating arrangement “creates an inherently adversarial environment [between senators and directors.]” He believes that one of the many challenges facing the SGA is making sure that meetings are “more conducive to discussion” by leveling the playing field between the executives and the Senate – although that tends to be hard when you have no senators. 

 

As of late, recruitment has been a major issue for many organizations, Senate and SGA included. James said that multiple senators had recently left due to time constraints, general frustration, or points of difference between their policy goals and those of executive board members. 

 

On Nov. 15, only eight senators sat down for their weekly meeting – over ten were required to begin. It eventually began late with thirteen senators dispersed between the first and fourth rows of chairs. 

 

On the docket was Bill #0001, which has been the first and only legislation proposed for the fall semester. Affectionately titled “Build Back Better Recruiting Standards,” the bill’s abstract states that it “seeks to set clear standards for recruiting new individuals for director or Senate positions;” essentially an acknowledgement that the SGA has recently struggled with demonstrating how students can enter its fray. 

 

James said that this is largely in part because “the SGA isn’t very good at advertising itself.”

 

But how do you staff an accurate representation of ODU’s student body? The short answer is that you can’t. But the SGA is attempting to find a way through reserved seats for club representatives. Seats would be allotted to certain mainstay clubs on campus, such as fraternity and sorority life, and after a vetting process certain club members would become members of the Senate.

 

A short debate on Nov. 15 discussed ways in which the SGA could make these reserved seats a possibility and begin solving its recruitment crisis. One senator said that his only concern with reserved seats fell on a fear of “organizations that use student government as a weapon against other clubs or choose to funnel resources to their own club.” 

 

Bill #0001 was drafted by James as a means of “rebuilding the SGA after COVID.” James said that although pandemic reconstruction “is coming to an end,” nearly the whole of the fall semester had been spent fixing internal systems that shouldn’t have been there in the first place. 

 

News clipping of ODU student senate members taken sometime between 1950 and 1955 (Photo courtesy ODU Special Collections and University Archives).

One of the systems that received backlash were office hours. These were essentially two hour slices out of a senator’s week in which they’d report to a designated space and proceed to “show up and wait for something to do,” as one senator put it. Although small, this required time commitment has been enough to sway applicants away in the past.

 

Towards the end of the Nov. 15 meeting, senators agreed that office hours were a vestigial structure from previous administrations that didn’t have a laptop or smartphone. James said that, currently, office hours were still in the Senate’s constitution, but are no longer being enforced. He expects the requirement to be removed from the constitution “by the end of this semester.”

 

Later in the meeting, a few senators issued protests against the status quo, stating they felt unfulfilled in their positions. 

 

“It kind of feels, as a senator, that you’re just not involved, that you just don’t do anything,” one member said. 

 

“You kind of just show up here, you sit, you listen, and you leave. Then you sit in an office for two hours and you don’t do anything. Maybe if I had a goal that I was trying to accomplish, and I was contributing to that overall goal, then I’d feel more secure. If I was helping my director achieve their overall goal, then I would feel like I was contributing enough.” 

 

What that senator referenced by wanting to “[help their] director” is a focal point of the Senate’s duties – committee work. Committees are headed by one or more executive board members, with their purpose being to identify issues among the student base, campus, or within the SGA, and introduce legislation that’ll solve those issues. Committees allow senators to platform legislation they’re passionate about, but meetings don’t happen as often as they should. 

 

James alleged that some executive board members hadn’t “even [run] a committee meeting yet, even though they’ve got senators signed up for it,” which made the rare meetings that did happen all the more important to future external legislation, which he said is still “on the way” despite the hiccups. 

 

James is, as of now, the only senator to have proposed official legislation since the start of the school year. He has continued to work within committees for the sake of developing and improving the SGA and Senate. Senators have joined and quit almost weekly since November 15, but the group is now fourteen members strong. 

 

“Most senators would say that they’re not fulfilled. I feel that I am, but only because of what I’ve done,” he said.