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Ashland University: The Small Republic

Res Publica

July 2001

by Michael Donatini

“University politics are vicious,” Henry Kissinger once observed, “precisely because the stakes are so small.” Kissinger’s words might have described the situation at Ashland University last spring when the Student Senate passed a resolution to adopt a campus creed.

The new creed seems innocent enough for a small university affiliated with the historically conservative Brethren Church. Those who recite the creed pledge to act with integrity, honor the university’s Judeo-Christian values, and respect and serve others. The Senate hoped that the creed would be taught to all incoming freshmen and made public for all other students, turning it into a part of the university’s culture.

But the proposition did not go unnoticed, as most Student Senate actions do. Several student objectors voiced their disapproval of the resolution at the Senate meeting on the night of the vote, while disgusted letters to the editor appeared the following week in the student newspaper. Some of the arguments against the proposed creed seemed topical and routine. First, the creed wouldn’t represent the values of all students at the university. Second, the creed wouldn’t have the force of an actual university rule, supposedly rendering it useless.

Creed supporters in the Senate argued that the creed was intended to express the university’s values, not necessarily the values of every student. They added that the creed, if properly promoted among the students, could have far more potential for good than for harm. Students with a true sense of virtues, after all, would follow the ideals listed in the creed by their own accord; out of righteousness, not for fear of punishment. By affirming ethical behavior, the creed should remind current and prospective students that respecting the values expressed in the creed is an informal condition of attending the school.

Another issue, however, seemed even more critical to many dissenters. Before the vote, one senator had motioned to put the issue to a referendum, so that the entire student body could vote on the creed. After much debate, the motion was rejected.

How, asked critics, could the Senate not trust the people with a direct vote on this matter? How could they call the people “uninformed?” How could they break “majority rule” by voting to adopt the creed when they knew that the resolution would never pass in a general election?

Let’s appeal to historical authority and look at the same question in the context of American government. In Federalist No. 10, Publius explains the purpose of having an elected legislature make laws, rather than a majority vote by the people. A legislature, Publius says, allows public views to pass “through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism…will be least likely to sacrifice [justice] to temporary or partial considerations.”

In essence, American citizens are entrusted to choose representatives who will pass laws with respect to both justice and national interest. The legislators have a responsibility to all who must live under their laws, not just to their constituents. Legislators are not unconditionally expected to vote as they would expect their constituents to vote; nor are they expected to leave the approval of any legislation to a general election. They are to act as a filter for public opinions, to see that decisions are made with a view toward their effects on the whole nation, so that all citizens’ rights are protected.

We call this system a republic, and if all works correctly, the republican system prevents unjust or unwise decisions by an ill-informed or factious majority, as might happen with true democratic rule.

Here’s the best part: with the campus creed resolution, the system worked perfectly. The constituents didn’t want the creed, but the senators knew that it could help the university to pursue a common set of goals and a culture of respect—a clear benefit to the university’s moral mission and to the students who choose Ashland University for that same mission.

It should come as no surprise that the Student Senate had the insight to accept the “statement of values,” as one Senator called the creed. They only needed to know the university’s core philosophy, that is, the goals that its founders had in mind when they decided to enter the public service of education. What is pleasantly surprising is that the senators, in rejecting the referendum, not only understood their role in government, but also braved criticism from fellow students and even risked their elected offices to seek the best solution, unpopular though it may have been. If a little bit of criticism from constituents to legislators is the price for wise legislation, the cost benefit is outstanding.

It’s often said that today’s students are “the future of our nation.” Indeed, some of these student senators might hold higher public offices within a few years’ time. Hopefully, the legislators of the future will remember that even a people capable of self-government cannot be immune from faction and that a legislative body must be a safeguard against unwise decision making.

Such an early display of political know-how as was seen in the Senate resolution indicates that at least some of America’s future legislators might be on the right track.

Maybe the stakes here weren’t as small as Kissinger would have expected.

Michael Donatini is a sophomore from Ashland, Ohio, majoring in political science and journalism/English.

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