Sthabile Kolwa was accepted to the U of C in January of 2008, but financial troubles forced the South African woman to apply for a deferral—she anticipated matriculating in 2009. Two years and two rejections later, Kolwa reached out to Student Government (SG) for help in overturning the Admission department’s Office’s decisions, which she describes as unfair.
But there is little SG can do for her, due to its current policy not to intervene in the cases of individual students, an issue raised by Kolwa’s story and the February arrest of fourth-year Mauriece Dawson in the Regenstein Library.
The role of SG is limited to protecting and advocating for existing University policies, fourth-year and outgoing SG president Jarrod Wolf said. “There isn’t much that Student Government can do in the way of protecting the student. All we can do is make sure that the appropriate policies and procedures were followed,” Wolf said.
Currently, students seeking protection against unjust rulings are asked to contact the Office of the Student Ombudsperson, who hears student complaints and reports directly to the Office of the President. Yet according to Student Ombudsperson and political science graduate student Anne Harrington de Santana, her role is not to act as a student advocate.
“What the student ombudsperson is doing is protecting fair process and procedure in policy implementation,” she said. She added that the ombudsperson hears student complaints, then “makes a judgment on whether or not the complaint has merit.”
Because Kolwa is protesting a current policy, the Student Ombudsperson would not regulate the Admissions decision.
But a few important cases in the last year, including Kolwa’s, have introduced a new dialogue regarding SG’s involvement in the affairs of individual students and the effectiveness of SG on campus.
Some SG members feel that individual cases should be heard. “Student Government stands up for what’s right, and if a student has been wronged by the administration, it is our duty to get involved,” said first-year Frank Alarcon, the newly-elected undergraduate liaison to the Board of Trustees.
Alarcon supports a change in the current policy, suggesting SG should become involved on a more individual level. “In general, however, I believe Student Government should advocate for students, and sometimes that means intervening on behalf of an individual student,” Alarcon said. “I disagree with those who say that Student Government should never advocate on behalf of an individual student.”
Members of the Alliance for Student and Community Rights, a group that formed in the wake of the arrest of fourth-year Mauriece Dawson in February, have suggested that SG should have been more proactive about Dawson’s individual case—he spent the night in jail, and it took weeks to sort out his charges. SG was most visibly involved in the Dawson case in organizing the March 2 open forum on the arrest.
“The members that would become the Alliance would have liked Student Government to act as a wedge between the individual and the administration, protecting and standing up for the individual involved,” Wolf said.
Though SG requested that Dawson’s legal fees be covered, the role SG could play in the individual case was limited, Wolf said.
Kolwa sought support from SG through a petition, asking students to e-mail Dean of Admissions Jim Nondorf in support of her enrollment at the University. “I felt that students themselves, and not those in authority, will be better able to comprehend the situation that had been handed to me,” Kolwa said.
However, Alarcon noted that Kolwa’s case is more complicated. “The individual at the heart of it is not a University of Chicago student,” he said.
Neither the ombudsperson nor SG consider themselves advocates for students reacting against unfair policies, leaving students like Kolwa and Dawson without representation from student groups at the University, pointing to a possible gap in options for students looking for support on individual issues. The college application process Kolwa termed a “roller coaster ride” has now led her to enroll elsewhere.
“As with every heartbreak, you eventually get over it,” she said. Kolwa was admitted to the Illinois Institute of Technology earlier this year—two years after her acceptance to the U of C, and she is now considering her options.
But the policy does not mean problems individuals face can’t be helpful for the larger campus dialogue, fourth-year and outgoing Vice President for Student Affairs Christopher Williams said. “Individual plights are great opportunities to recognize system problems,” he said.
Wolf also noted that there is a possibility for change in SG’s stance on the individual—through electing representatives interested in acting on behalf of the individual.