Everybody knows student government exists on college campuses, but does everyone know what they really do? Some students are deeply involved in these organizations while others hardly respond to emails from them.
Across the United States, student government has been criticized for being nothing more than a popularity contest, for perpetuating a culture that is ultra-sensitive to political correctness and for not having any “real” authority. They are responsible for hosting events, assigning certain rooming policies on some campuses and organizing intramural sports in some cases. Regardless of endowment, structure or how effective student government is at any given school, what ties them all together is that they are the only bridge between the student body and the administration of the college. Student government is what the students make of it.
At my school, Rice University, there are 11 different dorming areas referred to as residential colleges. Each has its own government that meets weekly with the senators and office holders from the other colleges and collectively they make up the Student Association, or SA.
From my experience, much of what is discussed in my college’s student government are things that seem irrelevant and are almost just glorified housekeeping tasks. For example, to hype up the college for an upcoming event, there was a debate over whether to play music during lunch or during both lunch and dinner. Not over what music to play, just when to play it. It’s important to some people, but a lot of students could really care less in the grand scheme of things.
Other questionable topics I have heard recently in meetings include requesting funding for longer salad tongs (apparently an accessibility issue), fixing a handicap ramp that isn’t broken and designing a t-shirt that appeals to both students and alumni for a dance that both undergraduates and alumni will be attending. Despite our college’s ungodly large endowment, my college’s president said the administration is banking on the shirts raising a lot of money. Go figure. The SA does give students a voice, but it also spends a lot of time on small luxuries that often also cost a lot.
There are a couple of things to be said about this.
For one, even though the tasks the student government takes on are often small, there are a lot of them and the coordination of budgeting for everything is complex. Students on Rice’s SA are justified in putting their positions on their resumes, and I expect students holding positions on other campuses are just as entitled to that.
Secondly, the argument that student governments fuel a culture of too much political correctness and focus on social justice could not be truer on Rice’s campus. In the same meeting I heard the complaint about the salad tongs being too short, there was a concern raised over students’ backpacks blocking certain walkways within study areas, which was also framed as an accessibility issue. People seemed to be grasping for straws, throwing things on the table for the sake of being recognized as someone who is concerned rather than for the sake of raising authentic concerns.
That being said, Rice’s SA also has gained some ground on heavier issues, such as how sexual assault is addressed on campus. Earlier this week, I watched as one of our seniors announced her and a friend’s proposal for a 12-person working committee to voice student concerns over the resources available to sexual assault survivors. She also identified herself as a survivor.
It was great to see the SA used as a platform for issues that people have strong personal convictions about, but the meeting that announcement was made in began with a five-chair panel on a totally different concern: bike and motor safety.
It would seem more fitting if sexual assault was left out altogether and given its own meeting, or if the topics were switched and the meeting started with the subject that’s difficult to talk about. Instead, it was slipped in at the end. The administration had five officials present to discuss safety and it’s safe to assume that they are basically already on it — it’s their job. Sexual assault, on the other hand, remains an issue across campuses in the U.S., in no small part because it has been students leading the change on that front, not the administrations.
As critical as I sound toward student government, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Without the Student Association at my school, there would be no one to hype up the college for upcoming events and the events we have wouldn’t even exist. We need people to organize logistics and balance budgets just as any university does, and that’s not an easy job at all. I just think that student governments struggle with dividing their attention between a number of more menial tasks and a few issues that will always stare them in the face — sexual assault for one, but also others like inclusion and diversity.
The job of student governments is also complicated because most administrations already address these types of issues. For example, Clemson’s student government recently passed a resolution against “publicly displayed Confederate flags on and/or around campus.” The thing is, The Clemson Board of Trustees made a similar statement in 2015, to remove the Confederate flag from the campus’ State House. It’s hard to imagine the student’s resolution having any more impact than their administration’s.
The beauty of the student government, at the end of the day, is that it is flexible. They’re unlike clubs that are defined by one cause or interest. They have the potential to make a difference in a number of areas, just not all at the same time. There’s no need for student government to continue to be criticized the way they have been, but I suspect on many campuses, not just Rice’s, they need the right students to transform and optimize the way they work and impact campus.