Student Government (SG) elections and SG itself is a sham, but not in the way you’d expect. In October, I ran for College Council and promised to “obstruct every SG meeting and SG vote as much as possible until SG is either abolished or significantly reformed to stop the scandals and toxic careerists that have plagued SG year after year.” I thought SG was an insular, elitist body that didn’t truly reflect the opinions of the whole student body, and I was determined to bring it down from the inside. Given that SG still exists and that I haven’t yet been impeached and removed from my seat, that promise didn’t exactly go as planned.
When I entered SG, I wanted to give it a chance before I drove up with a metaphorical wrecking ball and ripped it from its foundations. I reached out to every member of the College Council individually to gauge their support for SG abolition, and, to my surprise, I found many members who were sympathetic and who deeply cared about my concerns and me personally. I think there’s a perception from the student body that SG doesn’t care about them or their concerns or that it is unwilling to advocate for or support them when it matters. I don’t think that’s true. The SG members with whom I have become personally acquainted are some of the most dedicated, passionate people I have ever met, and I am confident that they are doing their utmost to improve student life at this university and to influence the administration to address student concerns. This year, I think SG has done a lot to more effectively hear and represent student voices and to use its unique access to the administration to advocate for change. I’ve realized both that SG has good, caring people, and that none of this actually matters. Deceived by the smokescreen of spearheading policy change and uplifting student voices, elected members of SG simply become generic, unpaid interns working for the administration. For that reason, I am resigning from College Council, effective immediately.
The recent controversy over fraternities and COVID-19 illustrates the above perfectly. On April 7, within an hour of restrictions being announced in response to clusters of COVID cases, College Council began discussing fraternities, large gatherings, and punitive measures. SG issued a statement on the issue within 12 hours, and more than 200 students came to a College Council meeting to discuss the issue within 24 hours of the enforcement of the restrictions. Over the next week, dozens of hours were spent meeting with students, negotiating with representatives of Greek life, and communicating with University officials. SG members were so passionate about getting this issue resolved in the right way that many even became highly emotional or defensive on camera. What will all of this accomplish? Nothing.
Student Government is not meant to represent students, and it doesn’t need to do so. SG cannot accomplish anything because its voice does not matter unless it advocates for something consistent with the administration’s preexisting priorities and objectives. SG’s role in policy change is essentially spellcheck’s role in revising essays—it may help identify obvious errors, but it will never change content. You can observe this yourself by asking this rhetorical question: What meaningful, ideological change has SG ever accomplished? Rather, the real function of SG is non-ideological—the staffing of committees and the disbursement of funds to RSOs and other student organizations. SG elections, then, serve as a filter to recruit students who are motivated enough to show up and who will not abuse their position as unpaid administrative interns. SG elections save the administration labor in determining which students have a genuine familiarity with student activities and life on campus, and they serve to keep students motivated in fulfilling menial bureaucratic work with the illusion that they might accomplish policy change somewhere along the way. To this end, the fact of running for election already selects the students that are ideal to be worker drones; who wins SG elections is irrelevant because candidates’ naively hopeful platforms have no relation to the bureaucratic job they will actually be performing.
For the rest of the student body—fear not! SG will continue to be an entertaining source of drama and controversy, year after year! Just this year, several months of SG work were spent on the topic of impeaching our own executive slate, and SG members frequently subtweet each other and exchange pot shots through UChicago Secrets. SG has no real power over policy, and because there’s no avenue to actually accomplish anything, getting distracted by infighting and pettiness is almost inevitable. The lack of material accomplishments can lead to SG members inflating their own rhetorical and symbolic importance. Being relegated to spending dozens of hours debating and releasing meaningless statements and resolutions, SG members can be deceived into believing that their opinions and statements have heightened value despite producing no tangible results. With this inflated sense of importance, it’s no wonder that in 2018, SG overwhelmingly voted to pay itself $9000 per year, a move so despised by the student body that more than 1,000 students signed a petition to overturn it in less than six days. That almost 80 percent of voting SG members supported something more than 68 percent of students opposed is a clear indication of how SG members can quickly become out of touch with the student body once delusions of self-importance take hold. Luckily, unless SG decides to pay itself again in the future, we can rest easy knowing that SG members are diligently performing their duties as unpaid administrative interns.
As evidenced by the public and private responses to the College Council’s open forum on “Greek Life & the Campus Closure,” many students are currently frustrated with how SG has handled fraternities and the recent spike in COVID cases. Some believe that SG has been too lenient on frats, too reluctant to advocate for sanctions like suspension and expulsion, and too deferential to Greek life and University administrators in a matter of life and death. Others believe that SG has become an activist mob, hell-bent on using an isolated incident as an excuse to push their anti–Greek life agenda and punish fraternities wholesale. It doesn’t matter who’s right, and because Student Government will never accomplish meaningful policy change, students will always be frustrated with how it is operating. Students from both sides will be motivated to run for SG to make it more representative of the student body, to improve its advocacy on important issues, and to better life at this university. Such students will be passionate, reliable, and detail-oriented—ideal drones to be entrusted with administrative duties and some monetary funds. Under the intention of reforming SG and advocating for students, SG members will, year after year, provide our University administration with free labor. Student Government is working as intended.
Kevin Yan is a fourth-year in the College who served on College Council for the 2020–21 term.