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In Student Assembly, Two Sophomores Call for More Moderate Voices

Michael Proietta, MCAS ’19, looks more eccentric than most people on campus, with his trademark bowtie and wild-man, mad-scientist hair. And then he gets going on something in his deep bass voice, a sort of low, breakneck murmur, and you realize he sounds the part, too. But it might be what he’s saying that generates the most interest.

Proietta is a senator in the Student Assembly (SA) of the Undergraduate Government of Boston College. He and Raymond Mancini, CSOM ’19, have developed something of a reputation this year for being contrarians, automatic dissenters in SA resolutions dealing with social issues or diversity on campus. They certainly would like to see some changes in the SA, but Mancini said the overall characterization is unfortunate. What they’re really out to do, they said in an interview Monday, is find some balance. And as Proietta demonstrated this week, they aren’t definite “no” votes.

At an SA meeting this past Sunday, as members debated whether they should adopt a resolution endorsing a petition calling on BC to designate itself a sanctuary campus for undocumented students, Proietta raised his hand.

“This is dealing with fundamental human rights,” he said. “It’s an ethical and to a great extent religious imperative to support something like this.”

Another senator raised his hand right after: “Call to end debate?”

Some people laughed at the abruptness, and Meredith McCaffrey, UGBC executive vice president and MCAS ’17, kept the debate open, but the sense was that since Proietta supported the resolution, when he may have been viewed as likely to dissent, everybody else was a definite yes. That’s exactly the type of situation he and Mancini would like the SA to avoid.

When they were talking before the meeting, even though they disagreed, Proietta encouraged Mancini to dissent on the resolution, just because he knew there would otherwise be no dialogue. Though Mancini eventually voted yes, he argued for several minutes that becoming a sanctuary campus could endorse BC’s violating federal law.

It’s a familiarly minority position. This semester, the pair has had a finance committee resolution it proposed voted down 22-2; voted against resolutions calling for the University to establish an LGBTQ resource center and a better bias incident reporting procedure; and gotten a spirituality resolution passed after it was postponed and rewritten.

Each of those moves has come out of a frustration with the politics of the SA, a sense that its focus should be elsewhere, or a feeling that the proposals it considers are unnecessary and toothless, just empty rhetoric. Mancini voted against the LGBTQ resource center resolution, for example, because he thought it wouldn’t make a big change in the community. He thought the resolution’s statements about a potential center’s purpose were too vague, and he would have voted for it had it been more specific. Proietta agreed that it was vague and didn’t see the need for a separate building, thinking instead that a student center could contain LGBTQ and other resources. The resolution, however, does not call specifically for a separate building, just a resource center intended to provide education, programming, advocacy, and support, and a steering committee that would work out the details with administrators. Overall, Mancini and Proietta saw it as an ineffectual statement, and were the only dissenters in a 15-2 vote.

“UGBC is really a monolithic organization, they’re impervious to change,” Mancini said. “Many of the senators don’t want to make any overhauls that would actually develop meaningful change within the organization itself.”

Proietta described the ideology of the SA as dominated by a “complacent leftism,” and said that even though he considers himself politically closer to the left than not, among members of the SA, he might as well be in the Tea Party. Ultimately he thinks that mindset is damaging to intellectual growth.

“What the left, I think, is trying to promote is the overcontrol of ideology, in that their ideology becomes the truth de facto against all others,” he said. “I really think change is possible only through dialectic, through diversity of observations, and when you have this monolith of this complacent, hypersensitive rhetoric where you can’t say anything, you can’t use the wrong words … there’s such an overfocus on what to say and what not to say that I think it really steps far beyond what is actually important.”

McCaffrey said in an email that she has been impressed this semester by the willingness of SA members to debate and consider different ideas, even if they don’t agree with them. She added that analyzing the SA based purely on the resolutions it has passed is hard, given that a resolution’s final text doesn’t always show the discussion and revision that went into it, or the exact feelings of every SA member.

“I strongly feel that until UGBC is willing to escape its echo chamber and foster more ideological diversity within the organization, it will never gain widespread respect in the student body.”

—John Daniell, former UGBC senator and MCAS ’17

One example of something that received extensive debate was Proietta’s spirituality resolution. Passed two and a half weeks ago, after a vote was postponed at a previous meeting, it was meant as an affirmation from UGBC that spirituality is “a prominent component of education and student life.” Its eventual passage followed concern among some SA members that part of the resolution might seem unwelcoming to people who aren’t spiritual—the SA, Proietta included, voted to delete a sentence saying that spiritual formation should address the whole person, not just a fraction of a person. Proietta said in the interview that the resolution had a broader purpose for him.

“Though I didn’t phrase it as such, because I did want to get the proposal passed, it was in a sense a direct attack on the overwhelming ideology of the organization,” he said.

Several of the actions Mancini and Proietta have taken pose a challenge to a trend they see in the SA of every issue being reduced to a matter of race or gender. Mancini also criticized the fact that 60 percent of UGBC’s $328,000 budget goes toward diversity initiatives and programs. This includes $123,822 allocated for diversity and inclusion programming, or 37.75 percent of the budget, which goes toward four well-attended, annual events, one of which is the AHANA Leadership Council’s Showdown. Money allocated specifically for ALC, the GLBTQ Leadership Council, and the Council for Students with Disabilities makes up an additional 22.84 percent of the budget. For an organization with a significant focus on diversity, Mancini and Proietta said UGBC isn’t diverse. At least, not intellectually.

“It’s sad that the only time you’re going to get controversy in voting process or in debate is if you get these people who would be viewed as radical conservatives, which is a problem,” Mancini said.

The goal of his finance committee proposal was to bring in four external members who would have different perspectives and potentially disrupt the way UGBC currently allocates its budget. The intention behind it might have been clearer than how the actual plan would work. Niki Patel, UGBC’s vice president of financial affairs and CSOM ’17, did not support the plan and said at an SA meeting in October that it added an unnecessary step to the budget approval process, which already goes through several checks before it even gets to the SA.

So other than the spirituality resolution, Mancini and Proietta have hardly been successful. But one current and one former member of the SA agree, at least in part, that the SA has at times suffered from a bias.

Josh Daniell, a former UGBC senator and MCAS ’17, said in an email that he left the SA based on its ideology. Other people in the organization told him they appreciated his outspokenness on controversial issues, but he said his objections were meaningless because SA votes are often unanimous or nearly so.

“I strongly feel that until UGBC is willing to escape its echo chamber and foster more ideological diversity within the organization, it will never gain widespread respect in the student body,” he said.

Hagop Toghramadjian, MCAS ’17, has been in the SA since he was a freshman. His first year was very formal—everybody wore suits, every member showed up to every meeting, and they passed more resolutions. But they actually took themselves too seriously, he said, and the SA lost touch with the important issues. The next two years it was the opposite. Members were casual, missing meetings, and according to Toghramadjian, the SA got too involved with student initiatives work and event-planning rather than advocacy. He views the SA less as an actual government and more as a lobbying group that works on behalf of the entire student body.

“I think the true power of the organization is when it represents everyone, and everyone can see themselves and hear their voice in the Student Assembly, and that way when we do take a stand on an issue that might be pushing the envelope a little bit … we’ll be taken seriously when we do so,” he said.

Last fall, Toghramadjian introduced a bill slightly similar to Proietta and Mancini’s spirituality resolution. Co-sponsored by Eileen Corkery, MCAS ’17, it would have symbolically aligned UGBC with BC’s moral purpose and Jesuit history and identity. The measure failed—nine yes, 14 no, and six abstentions—but Toghramadjian said it was the first time in his experience there had been a close vote on something, and he thinks it’s important not to stigmatize voices with alternative views. He said this year has been the best so far in terms of balancing a seriousness with a down-to-earth attitude in UGBC, for which he credits McCaffrey and Russell Simons, UGBC president and MCAS ’17.

Reed Piercey, MCAS ’19, is also a senator. He said he doesn’t think anyone would deny that there’s a majority opinion in the SA, but because it gets elected by the student body, there isn’t really a good way to quickly have more diversity of opinion. That would have to be voted in by students, which McCaffrey echoed over email, but he does think everybody should feel like their voice matters.

“The problem is more that if they don’t feel heard, then we should somehow do a little more to try and be open-minded and really sit down and hear what they think, because changing the representation of an elected body isn’t something that you can just do,” he said.

Featured Image by Amelie Trieu / Heights Editor

December 8, 2016