Top Hat

On compromise and change: how the Senate writes policy

By Cait Bennett October 5, 2022

One of the key ways that the Student Senate represents student interests is in Institute and Union policy changes. The Handbook of Student Rights and Responsibilities is reviewed by the Student Senate. The Senate often collaborates with the Executive Board on the Rensselaer Union Guidelines and Procedures. Creating cohesive policy requires more than just writing ability: active listening, negotiation, and prioritization are crucial skills.

The first step to policy creation is identifying key stakeholders. These are individuals and departments who might be influenced by the policy changes. In my opinion, this is the most important step. Without having all the relevant voices at the table, the end policy might not serve the constituency it was designed for. The knowledge gained from these stakeholders could completely change the current perspective on the policy.

Your Vice Grand Marshal and Class of 2023 Senator Alexander Patterson ’23 is currently working on updating the Institute’s sign policy. This policy defines how clubs and organizations can physically advertise around campus. Clubs and organizations have a vested interest in determining these rules, so we will be consulting our Executive Board and our Student Advisory Resource Persons. Additionally, these changes will be made in the Student Handbook, so the Dean of Student’s Office will be involved. Campus maintenance and cleaning is taken care of by Environmental & Site Services, and managers for specific buildings are often involved in those processes. Finally, risk managers will also be involved to ensure that policies created produce minimal risk to the community.

After determining key stakeholders, the next step is listening and learning about conflicting priorities between the stakeholders. Everyone is pushing to make RPI a better place, but they may disagree on how to get there. For the student groups, the main goal is to get people to join clubs; therefore, they value the ability to poster in highly trafficked areas such as glass doorways. However, for risk managers, the main goal is safety, and postering on doorways could abstract vision and cause risk. It’s not that risk managers don’t care about club engagement or that student groups don’t care about safety—it’s just that conflicting priorities cause disagreement on how to make the Institute’s policy better.

A draft policy is created following the listening and learning period. This policy attempts to appease every departments’ priorities, but that is much easier said than done. A good compromise might leave everyone a little unhappy, but still improves the situation. As Grand Marshal and a policy-writer, I struggle with the balance of creating compromise and pushing for radical change. I think, if I create a good compromise, then things are better than before, but not as good as they could be. Is it worth it to push for radical change if it sacrifices the potential for a small step in the right direction? Which policies and values cannot be compromised under any circumstances? Is it ethical for me to compromise on an important principle if I improve the situation somewhat? These questions swim around my head regularly, and I often ask them directly to the stakeholders to figure out what just cannot be compromised.

In the final stage, feedback from each stakeholder is integrated into the policy. This might be an iterative process—policy may go through three or four stages before it is ready for any review. And while it is being reviewed by representative parties, like the Student Senate or the Institute General Counsel, issues may arise that require rewriting the policy yet again. This iterative process of feedback is critical to eventually gaining approval from all representative parties.

This is certainly a simplification of a complex process, but these core steps are what enable policy-makers to push the Institute slowly but surely in the right direction. Some of the Senate’s current policy initiatives, including the Sign Policy and Alcohol and Other Drug Policy, are going through this process right now, and we hope you’ll get involved if it’s something that interests you.

Until next time!