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November 15, 2012

A student government of the people

Better representation in SG starts with a better voting public.

In his personal journal, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.” However, Jefferson did not write anything about what arises when people ignore the government, so we unfortunately cannot draw any conclusions about his feelings on the U of C’s Student Government (SG).

It is a harsh reality, but the fact is that many students and administrators do not much consider SG’s role in their daily deliberations on University affairs. It’s a shame, given SG’s integral role in them. SG is responsible for funding RSOs and, by association, many major events and programs that add value to student life. But aside from a flurry of media coverage and campaigning during election season, few people give much thought to their elected officials and those who they appoint.

Don’t believe me? Go ahead name your class representatives. Don’t know them? What about your student body president and his two VPs? Do you even know why we have two VPs and what each is responsible for? If the answer to any one of these questions was “I don’t know,” you’re in for some bad luck: Even if you go to the SG Web site, you may have difficulty finding a list of representatives. At the time of writing, the list is incomplete.

This is deeply troubling. As it stands, if a student has a pressing concern, she likely will have great difficulty communicating that concern to her representative. Though ultimately a quibble, not listing SG officials on the Web site creates a barrier impeding elected representatives from doing what they are meant to: representing their constituents.

This is doubly a shame because instead of having to deal with millions or thousands of constituents, the four representatives collectively only represent about 1,500 students.  Yet, it seems like SG reps are less visible and less responsive to constituent concerns than even federal representatives.

Let me be clear in saying that the fault does not lie entirely with the representatives themselves. Machiavelli wrote that a ruler often benefits because most people care more for their immediate needs than for politics. To an extent, we can blame students for not demanding more accountability. Really, we should ask ourselves: If more students cared about SG, would they not demand more access to their representatives? The answer is probably yes, though we risk running into an Ouroboros, wherein we endlessly cycle from blaming elected officials for being inaccessible to blaming the electorate for failing to provide them a reason not to be.

I believe there is another major factor that contributes to students’ lack of interest in governing themselves—namely, the lack of true influence student government has over campus life. The basis for this claim may seem somewhat contrary to what I’ve already said. However, while SG does have control of RSO funding and thus influences major programming, I believe it is a crucial mistake to conflate this authority with control over more substantive aspects of student life.

As I often urge, let us look to peer institutions to establish a benchmark. At Yale, the college council created a detailed proposal for the creation of a foreign language certificate program. Princeton’s student government lobbied to reform course evaluations. And though not directly applicable, I believe there are even better examples of truly involved student governments at some larger public schools. In my home state of Florida, schools like the University of Florida (UF) have extremely active and expansive student governments that are ubiquitous in and inseparable from student life. For example, UF’s student body president is a major player in university-vendor negotiations. There, a student government position is truly an office of action and responsibility.

Meanwhile, our own SG is repeatedly ignored on issues similar to these, a prime example being the University’s continued resistance to a Socially Responsible Investment Committee. Despite students voting to pass a referendum in favor of such a body, continued activist efforts, and regular media attention, University administrators have done little to officially address even the most basic concerns of the student body. The same situation exists in regard to a number of other concerns: for instance, the condition of Pierce until recent national media attention, and campus bus and shuttle routes.

The latter issue is one in which student’s input is allegedly welcomed by administrators, though at a recent joint SG meeting I attended, Director of Transportation and Parking Theresa Fletcher-Brown suggested otherwise. She openly admitted that the University decided to run reverse bus routes at the insistence of students, but added that they later decided against them without student input. If this kind of underhandedness arises in regard even to a comparatively small issue like campus transit, it is difficult to imagine SG receiving farther-reaching abilities.

In order for SG to become a meaningful force on campus, several things must change. First, the administration has to concede its monopoly on deciding what is good for students. It must earnestly attempt not only to engage students, but also to heed what they say about larger, more impactful issues more than they do now. Second, SG representatives must be truly available and responsive to their constituents, being sure to always put student sentiment first. Finally, and most importantly, the student body must care. Everyone already has an opinion about some aspect of student life. Students must start to voice those opinions constructively, no matter how futile it may seem. Only by having an active, vocal student body will SG be able to assume the powers it rightfully should have.

 Taylor Schwimmer is a third-year in the College majoring in public policy studies.

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