It is hard to overlook the apathetic stance that most students take towards Student Government (SG). The Maroon Editorial Board (MEB), in last Friday’s editorial, correctly puts into words the feelings of many students when it writes “…the popular view is that SG is ineffective and lacks meaningful power. Every year, new candidates run on the promise of making SG more effectual and responsive to student opinion, and still the problems persist.” They go a step further when they note that “Too many students see SG as mere résumé fodder for future politicians.”
However, the solution proposed by the MEB is a peculiar one. Their proposal can be summarized succinctly as follows: Get involved! For the MEB, the problem with SG is that it lacks student participation. It then follows logically that the solution is simply a case of improving the morale of the student body, of helping it overcome its negative attitude towards SG. The MEB is framing this as a psychological issue which can be overcome with an impassioned plea for participation and student activism. It is my view that this is a gross oversimplification of the problem.
This interpretation of events only serves to beg the question. Yes—students are apathetic towards SG, they do have a largely negative perception of the organization, and their level of participation is alarmingly low. This much is true in the assessment the MEB provides. However, to go further and suggest that this low morale is precisely the source of the problem is a fallacious proposition. Rather than seeing this collective apathy as the result of some unidentified process, the MEB incorrectly sees it as the source and solution to the problem(s) plaguing SG.
The state of apathy that exists towards SG—as exemplified by the low student turnout in elections, open forums, candidate debates, and, perhaps most importantly, by the overall negative image of SG—is certainly troubling; but it is not the problem per se. The issue is not that students don’t utilize SG; but rather why they don’t utilize SG and in particular why they fail to engage in campus issues. I believe that the apathy expressed towards SG is an indicator of much broader systemic and structural problems within the University community at large.
A successful SG is entirely dependent upon an informed student body armed with knowledge of campus developments, University policy proposals, and initiatives. A knowledgeable collegiate community is a prerequisite for healthy debates, elections, and community forums. As an institution, SG ought to be a vehicle to express the concerns, grievances, and opinions of this informed student body. Such a group has always been assumed to exist; we must ask ourselves if this assumption holds true for the University today.
If asked, I would have to respond with a qualified no. Every day, I hear complaints about the quality of the dining hall service. Yet it strikes me how few students are aware that Aramark’s contract with the University is due to expire soon; and this creates an opportunity for students to either rally around a new provider or to demand changes from Aramark. Last week, I took out a bike at the Reg. Under the University’s year-old Bike Share program, I was equally struck when a friend announced to me that he had never heard of the program. Yesterday, my T.A. gave me a puzzled look when I told her that the University planned to eliminate cMail. “It’s okay,” I responded, “I didn’t find out until two days ago.”
It would be a mistake to generalize and claim that the University lacks informed students. This is most certainly not the case. However, I would suggest that there exists a significant number of students that, for whatever reason, are finding it difficult to keep up to date about campus developments. As a result, not only are these students unable to participate meaningfully in SG, but their concerns and viewpoints are being marginalized.
SG depends on an informed student body. Students must be kept informed about major University decisions, policy proposals, and initiatives. As it stands right now, the University’s method of providing information to students has failed a significant portion of the student body. SG cannot be improved in any substantive manner until the underlying causes of its own “failing” have been addressed; this is to say, not until the University reforms its means of providing information to students.
Class of 2012