October 28, 2014

The powers that be

A look into how Student Government exerts its influence, and where they should have more.

Many students probably thanked the rain that washed away the chalk plastered around campus by first-year Student Government (SG) candidates. But inevitably, the whole cycle will begin anew next year with a new batch of even fresher-faced first-years eager to pad their college résumés. Despite the furor of campaigning, it rarely seems that many—if any of the promises made by candidates are kept. A quick glance at the statements of the Class of 2018 candidates reveals no fewer than four promises of more “Maroon Dollar Utility” (potential economics majors?), a few guarantees of student CTA passes, and an almost unanimous vow of greater SG transparency and feedback. All of the proposals are great, and personally, I would love to see each one of them implemented. But similar assurances were made my first year, and I still have to pay $2.75 every time I get on the #55.

What are the true powers of the University of Chicago’s student government? According to its constitution, the mission of SG is “to further the interests and promote the welfare of the students at the University of Chicago; to foster a University community; to represent the body more effectively before University authorities and the community at large.” Noble goals indeed, but what of more concrete responsibilities? Further reading of the constitution reveals that the main power of the SG is to allocate funds for registered student organizations (RSOs), and other funds “under the Assembly’s control.” There is no indication of the ability to change where Maroon Dollars are accepted or the ability to procure free CTA passes, or really any power outside of its main authority of fund allocation. So I decided to sit down with current third-year rep Mike Viola to hear straight from the source. What I learned surprised me.

SG actually sets up numerous events for students to interact directly with their representatives and the administration. Last year, after the dining hall health code violations, SG created a Campus Dining Advisory Board, where students were able to voice their questions and concerns directly to Richard Mason—the executive director of campus dining. According to Viola, a similar advisory board on campus dining is being planned for this year.

In addition, SG has a representative who sits on the Campus North Advisory Board—which directly influences the administration’s decisions on the logistics of building the new dorm. SG also held a highly attended event last year where students were able to meet University staff—the individuals in charge of dining, housing, and other facilities and services—and share ideas for improving life on campus. According to Viola, a similar meet and greet is also in the works for this year.

However, despite these events—all of which I enthusiastically support—two main issues still exist. First, even though the event to meet administrative staff was well attended, with apparently 600 students in attendance, many other students I asked had never even heard of it happening. Moreover, others I spoke with remembered the event but were unable to attend due to other obligations. Which begs the question of why an open forum for such ideas does not exist online for students to input feedback more flexibly? Meeting with University staff face-to-face is a great initiative, but to be more responsive to students, ideas need to be able to flow more freely and through means more accessible to students.

Second, while the Campus North Advisory Board is a great way for students to input their voice in the development of the new dormitory, the initial decision to build and the location of the new dorm were not discussed with the student body. While I have no problem with the construction of North Campus, it is a bit unsettling that drastic changes to our community are made without input from our elected representatives. A need exists for a new dormitory, but the University needs to relay the information and open an avenue for objections before proceeding full scale. This applies to many other construction and development projects in Hyde Park.

There are many students, myself included, who are concerned with the University’s efforts to gentrify our neighborhood. The decision to develop high-rise luxury apartments and the shuttering of many small businesses on East 53rd street were never really publicized to students until after the fact. There was no consultation with SG or any students for that matter, only a cursory advisory board established after plans were already set. Whether the onus to change this falls more on SG or administration is up for debate.

Overall, I tend to believe our elected representatives work hard for their fellow students. The SG member I spoke with says that most members dedicate up to 15 hours a week for the cause. However, as elected members, SG as an organization ought to be held to a very high standard of representation. Opening access for new ideas, and demanding a more concrete standing in the eyes of the administration are only two areas for improvement. A true representative democracy—as UChicago SG attempts to be—needs to be constantly reformed and altered to better reflect its students.

Lear Jiang is a fourth-year in the College majoring in political science.