Correction: A sentence that stated a USG employee said Alrassi did not attend office hours was unclear. He often does not attend office hours as scheduled, though he does complete his requirements, according to multiple sources.
Alrassi dressed as a judge for Halloween, though the gavel he wielded during the meeting on Oct. 30 was not part of a costume. Photo by Trevor Christian.
By Trevor Christian
James Alrassi’s request for quiet travels across the Student Activities Center classroom. The 30 or so people in the room instantly ended their side conversations after hearing the rapping of Alrassi’s gavel. Alrassi opens speaking in a faux-British accent when he silences the senate.
The tact, Alrassi explained, is part of his efforts to keep the Undergraduate Student Government’s senate an open place for discussion while making sure it still takes care of business.
Alrassi said that while he follows Robert’s Rules of Order, the legal guidelines for public meetings, he promotes discussion by allowing for an open atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable to partake in debate.
“I think that’s one of the hardest things for a senator to do, to stand up against the majority and say ‘I don’t agree with this,’” Alrassi said. “We have that this year. I’m so happy for that and I do attribute that to the atmosphere of friendliness.”
The USG Senate is a body of about 20 students that votes to fund clubs and host events throughout the year using the student activity fee, which university students are required to pay. USG as a whole also puts on major concerts and helps students in other ways, like providing free tutoring.
This year’s senate has maintained an unusually jovial atmosphere, at least compared to the last few years in which fewer laughs were to be had and tensions from divided executive councils boiled over. Major conflict has not emerged this year, at least not yet. (Even in good years, the Spring semester is more contentious.)
Ryan Heslin, a graduate student serving as parliamentarian and a veteran of the Anna Lubitz administration two years ago, agreed.
“It’s good to have a little comic relief that breaks up the tension,” Heslin said. He added that he thinks the senate as a whole was responsible for the jocular tone, though it is his opinion that Alrassi is more tolerant of jokes than the executive vice president he served under.
Not all members of USG said they approved of Alrassi’s handling of the senate. One USG employee remarked that he often failed to show up to his scheduled office hours. Alrassi said he attends more than the minimum 15 office hours a week, however. A senator felt that the meetings he runs should be more orderly. Neither wanted to be identified by name or directly quoted for fear of creating an uncomfortable working atmosphere for themselves.
That’s not to say debate hasn’t been substantive. Meetings often run later than scheduled due to long agendas and discussions on policy. Alrassi participates in debate fairly regularly considering his position. The executive vice president must temporarily cede his seat to the president pro tempore of the senate to partake in debate. Alrassi has done this three times so far this year, mostly during debate on major legislation. Alrassi said it was more ethical to partake in debate than to select only speakers who would agree with his position, though he isn’t worried about being biased. He said he typically selects speakers based on who gets their hand up first, then towards the end of the meeting he searches for those who haven’t spoken as much.
“When I step down it’s because those in the senate cannot speak to it themselves and need some kind of outside information on it,” Alrassi said, pointing to an example where he understood the process of legislative review better than anyone else in the room.
There have been a few moments in the senate where certain actions have seemed less than professional. An election between two senators for a trip to a student government convention was decided by a game of rock-paper-scissors, something Alrassi said probably saved a fair amount of time. Many members of the senate also appeared in full costume during the meeting that occurred the day before Halloween despite having Sacha Kopp, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, in attendance to promote his new discussion groups. Kopp joked with the students about the costumes.
Senator Nathan Blazon-Brown made a last-minute decision to dress as Alrassi for Halloween by bringing a gavel to the meeting. He jokingly called for order before the meeting in Alrassi’s British accent.
“Senate can lose attention sometimes when it’s very dry,” Blazon-Brown said of the atmosphere, “so I think it’s important for us to have fun with what we do.”
But even on Halloween’s Eve, Alrassi found a way to balance fun with professionalism. Dressed as an old English judge, he moved Senator Valliappan Lakshmanan’s name tag away from the plastic zombie another senator had placed it in front of and returned it to its rightful owner. The zombie was allowed to stay and, just as at every meeting but one this year, the entire agenda was resolved.