2016 Feature: How Class Shirts Divided the Senate

Maxwell Sheremeta

For the past 12 months, the HKIS Senate has taken numerous breaks from its busy spirit-boosting, community-building, policy-reviewing, census-administering, donation-inquiring, and cafeteria-cleaning schedule to discuss a seemingly trivial issue: class t-shirts.
Bring up class shirts with any member of the Senate, and you’ll be sure to elicit either a fiery rant or a miserable groan (take a guess at which camp I belong to). Indeed, the question of class shirts has produced some of the most impassioned debates, Machiavellian political maneuvers, and closest votes that have ever been seen in recent Senate memory. But how did we get here?
Regardless of your feelings on class shirts (many have none), you’ll soon see that they’re not the real problem at hand. What’s really cause for alarm is the process used to discuss the issue, and what that process says about our Senate.
For those of you who don’t know, HKIS classes have had a longstanding tradition of printing class shirts. The Senate Class Officers would source designs from the grade, the grade would vote on said designs, and the winning design would be printed on a shirt of the class’s color (black for freshmen, red for sophomores, blue for juniors, and white for seniors). The intention behind class shirts was to build a unique class identity and boost unity during spirit days, as well as to provide each class with funding to pursue their projects.
On November 30, 2015, the Senate voted 16-6 to change the class shirt system. Citing concerns with sustainability and usage, the Senate decided that only seniors would be allowed to have class shirts. This decision didn't apply last year because most classes had already ordered their shirts, but it would apply from this year (2016-2017) onwards.
The obvious consequences of this decision were eliminating the main source of class funds (which are used for running parties, subsidizing prom tickets, running initiatives, etc.) and giving the seniors a significant advantage during Spirit Week and Battle of the Classes. These are consequences that last year’s Senate didn’t have to face, consequences that were instead unwillingly forced on this year’s Senate. Because of this, it was unlikely that this year’s Senate would want to maintain the decision.
And they didn't. On September 5, 2016, the Senate set "the decision last year regarding whether T-Shirts are mandatory” as an agenda item for the meeting. Sustainability and class funds were discussed, with the possibility of ordering from a sustainable vendor coming up as a reason to keep shirts for everyone, and the possibility of eliminating the Junior class’s prom subsidy as a reason to limit the shirts (most of the classes’ funds are spent on subsidizing Prom tickets in their Junior year. Under the current Junior class’s funds, eliminating the Prom subsidy would cause ticket prices to rise by $77).
Following the discussion, the Senate voted on whether all classes should be allowed to have shirts. 12 senators voted for this, and 7 senators voted against it (freshmen officers had yet to be elected). Despite this 63% majority, the Senate ended up deciding not to change the policy. This year, the senior class will still be the only one with class shirts.
The justification for ignoring this 63% majority was as follows: the current Senate should respect the rationale behind the previous Senate’s decision, and therefore we vote with a two-thirds majority to overturn their decisions. The idea behind this was to allow for the possibility that last year’s Senate had expertise that this year’s Senate doesn’t have, and thus their decisions should carry more weight than ours.
The obvious drawbacks of this mindset are that this year’s Senate is more representative of the current student body than last year’s Senate, and shouldn’t be unduly limited by decisions made last year. It also forces the current Senate to deal with the consequences of a decision they don’t even support keeping, which seems counterintuitive to a productive term. I spoke with Jeffrey He, the Presiding Officer of last year’s Senate, on this issue during a visit to Harvard in October. I reached out to him for an official comment and will update this article when it’s received.
There was widespread agreement that this two-thirds majority framework wasn’t ideal, so the Senate set out on finding a better way to vote on overturning previous decisions. A subcommittee comprising Ben Huang (12), Billy Duanmu (12), Stephen Marzo (12), Arielle Lee (12), Christopher Shim (11), Daniel Sheremeta (9), Adit Gorawara (9), and myself was formed to figure this out.
We decided that the Senate could follow a specific research methodology when discussing previous decisions. A task force would be formed to research the past Senate’s discussions and interview past Senators, after which findings could be presented to the current Senate and a debate could progress. After discussing, the Senate would vote with a 50% majority. The strength in this research framework was that it ensured the current Senate would always take steps to understand a previous Senate’s rationale before overturning their decisions, but still preserved the current Senate’s authority to make decisions for itself.
This research framework was brought back to the Senate and passed unanimously, and yet many senators refused to go back and use it on the shirt issue. As of now, there still exists an official decision by the HKIS Senate that represents less than 40% of its voting members.
And now we arrive to this article. I believe this problem is extraordinarily destructive to the fundamental purpose of the Senate, which is to officially represent student opinions. If 63% (more now that the freshmen class officers are elected, and they all want shirts) of democratically elected senators can’t voice their opinions through a Senate decision, then why have a Senate at all? Worse yet, we’ve unanimously agreed on a way that this inequity could be resolved: the research framework. This is not a necessary situation to be in, and yet the Senate still refuses to enact the procedure.
I’ve communicated this much to my peers on the Senate, but it doesn’t look like the research framework is going to be used for shirts. Most Senators are simply tired of discussing shirts, and many are probably fed up with me for bringing it up in every meeting since September. But I don’t think boredom with the topic is a good enough reason to let an illegitimate vote stand. To let this go would be to allow complacency to obstruct a senator’s responsibility – to see that student opinions are duly articulated.
In all honesty, it won’t make a huge difference whether or not we have class shirts for everyone. I believe there’s a better scenario, but student life at HKIS will continue to be vibrant regardless. What cannot be ignored is the Senate’s duty to represent students, a duty which clearly has gone overlooked.
Some senators have told me that they don’t think there’s a point to a revote because the administration would simply overturn our decision anyway. This is certainly a possibility, but it shouldn't stop our Senate from officially articulating the student body’s wishes. Our school is not a democracy, but our Senate definitely should be.
I’m not writing this to criticize my friends on the Senate. I have an enormous amount of personal and professional respect for all of them, but I think they’ve made a disappointing mistake. I don’t intend to rebuke or pressure the Senate with this article – even I have to admit after months of trying that the Senate won’t revive this topic – but I do think this is an important story that deserves some attention, conversation, and accountability.