Although it is unique this year at Exeter, Phillips Andover has had co-presidents of the student body for the past five years. In politics, diarchies like these are rare, but a joint leadership of Student Council has several advantages. Allowing for two presidents is beneficial to all voters, both those who agree with pieces of each candidate’s platform and those who feel very strongly about one particular candidate. A collaborative governance also shows that the abilities of Exeter students to discuss issues civilly and compromise extend beyond the classroom.
Being able to elect Student Council presidents ensures a more just and accurate representation of the student body. Unlike most country elections, where sometimes half the population is left disappointed, a joint leadership allows for the representation of two different views or personalities. Students no longer need to feel defeated or downtrodden when their choice isn’t elected. Instead, they can be sure that a larger number of voices in the leadership will increase diversity of thought. Compromises reached when two conflicting viewpoints are tasked with finding common ground serve the student body better than a decision made based on the will of a slight majority when there is only one president.
A two-president system is also beneficial for students who have trouble choosing one candidate over the other. They no longer have to choose one president that fulfills some of their wishes while other needs or beliefs remain unrepresented. Instead, these students would now have the ability to choose more people that best suit their values.
Another benefit of a two-president system is the skills it nurtures. At Exeter, we put a very high premium on Harkness skills, like communicating effectively, valuing the contributions of others and above all, working together towards a common goal. A system, then, with multiple presidents, vice presidents, secretaries, committee heads and representatives requires that students practice those skills outside of the classroom as well, laying the “surest foundation of usefulness to mankind.” Using these skills when making choices that affect the entire student body (as well as future students) helps to ensure that they are rational and representative of the needs of everyone in the Exeter community.
Some proponents of a single-leader system may argue that the chance of stalemate between two leaders would hinder the ability of the Student Council to make decisions effectively. However, there are a number of other people tasked with making decisions. Vice presidents, secretaries, committees, and class and dorm representatives (among others) all have a voice in the decision-making process. Furthermore, if there is enough dispute on an issue to bring it to a stalemate, it is clear that one of the proposed solutions wouldn’t serve the entire student body effectively. Only a compromise between the two positions that accurately reflects the values of all students truly does a service. This chance of collaborative effort is increased when two presidents, especially with opposing views or differing values, must learn to work together.
Electing two presidents is a good balance between a school where every student has a voice and a student government that leaves half the community underrepresented. Allowing every student to weigh in on every matter would inevitably slow the decision-making process unbearably and the dozens of small differences would stand in the way of progress. Conversely, a single-leaders system only represents the majority of students that voted for that leader, which could be a matter of tens of votes determining the representation of hundreds of students. A system that has multiple leaders and diverse opinions creates an environment where progress is made with everyone’s interests in mind and all students are represented, at least in part, by their elected presidents.
Paul James is an Upper at Phillips Exeter Academy.