Monday, November 03, 2008


Thoughts on Student Government at CC's

Last week a reader from a college whose student government recently made a collective ass of itself wrote to ask what I thought was the point of student government at community colleges.

The fact that it took me a week to even attempt a response is probably telling.

In high school, student government tends to be in charge of the prom. In grad school, I've never heard of a student government. (I've heard of grad student associations within given departments, which are pretty narrow by definition, and I've heard of grad student labor unions, but those are different.) At colleges that have student governments – my alma mater didn't – they seem to veer between complete invisibility and a sort-of platform for a smallish group of students to talk about various issues and/or run charity drives. Charity drives are well and good, of course, and I'm all for students attempting to address the issues of the day, even if only to get practice in the skills of citizenship. But the gap between the ideal – something like 'the voice of the students' – and reality – 'toys for tots bins in the student center' – is hard not to notice. And just like real government, every so often a well-organized clique of wingnuts steps in and starts banning rain or some such.

At cc's, student governments labor under the additional handicaps of a more transient student body and a shorter time to graduation, so it's that much harder to gain anything resembling continuity. When the degree is only two years anyway, and you add both attrition and the lack of leisure time characteristic of commuter students working their way through school, there just isn't much attention left to pay to student government. So it tends to reflect the interest of a very small number of students.

From an evil-administrator point of view, the function of student government is to provide just enough of a safety valve to keep protests at bay. “Of course we listen to the students. The student government gives a standing report to the faculty senate!” If it didn't exist, there wouldn't be a preferred alternative to protest.

On a more constructive note, though, I'd like to think that student governments at their best could actually try in a serious way to represent the interests of students as students. For example, they could pressure colleges to release textbook information as early as possible, to allow students to comparison-shop online. If, say, Amazon or Powells or Chegg can undercut the college bookstore, then that's real money the students are saving. (Don't expect colleges to do this without pressure, since most colleges use the bookstore as a revenue source.) Or they could work with local public transit authorities to try to synchronize the local bus routes to class schedules (or vice versa), so students don't have to lose huge blocks of time just waiting for buses. Sustainable carpool arrangements could also help with both cost and parking, both of which are huge issues for many students.

Those are just off the top of my head; I'll grant upfront that there are many more possibilities, sometimes depending on local contingencies. That's sort of the point. But I haven't seen student governments function that way, which strikes me as a missed opportunity.

In my own college days, we didn't have a student government, and I don't recall anybody pining for one. Of course, that was back in the days when 'pirated music' referred to cassette tapes; we would have thought 'mp3' referred to a ska band. Ah, to be young again...

Wise and worldly readers – have you seen a student government really step up? If so, how?

On paper, my CC's student government should work to do this -- but, out of about 12,000 possible students voting, last year 90 or so actually did -- because the advisor likes it that way. He seems to choose the candidates for student senate that are gullible enough to think it will look good on their CV... and then they all have incentive not to change things -- especially since they get to spend (and increase) the student activity fee...

I just don't think there IS a good way to do this on a commuter campus where the average student works 40+ hours a week and needs to keep their kids from sticking their fingers in light sockets while studying for a calc exam.
I'm a graduate student at a public research institution, and we have a graduate student senate that runs parallel to the faculty senate. And, unlike the situation you describe where this is merely a formality, almost every faculty senate committee has a grad senator as a voting member of the committee. In some ways, Senate has been functioning in lieu of a union--we made arguments for how our health care should look, and the administration listened, though that may be because they don't want us to unionize.
Our CC SGA comes and goes with the President and his/her Council. Strong leadership = active SGA.
Not a CC - and hence possibly slightly tangential - but the UK has a large set of very effective and influential student governments. The one I helped run (Sheffield University), for example, had a budget of several million pounds back in the 90s (largely funded by truly staggering beer sales) and a bunch of paid staff; we were in charge of everything from, yes, charity events - also huge in scale - to entertainment schedules to negotiations with local governments and landlords.

I don't know why the US model is so different, but perhaps because of the lower level of responsibility *available*?
There was a grad student senate at my big-10 grad school. I had nothing to do with them and don't know much about what they did, but our campus was so massive, that's perhaps not surprising. I know at of at least one other big public research institution where this is the case - it may not happen at private institutions, but I suspect most public institutions have some kind of graduate student senate.

And law schools have student governments, too, but it's a lot more like high school in many ways. The big thing each class government has to do is fundraise, because each class pays for its own graduation ceremony. However, in the past the student government at my law school got it together enough to connect with the rest of campus to push for a student fee to be used to construct a new law building.

Actually, come to think of it, that happened at a past job (at a SLAC), too - the students got together and lobbied for funds to build a new (and much-needed) student center. (The lore is that they figured out a particular fee was levied on them but not used for student purposes and they insisted that it should be, but it was before I worked there so I'm hazy on the details.)
Our student government has been quite active, actually. For example, it has renegotiated library hours towards when students want to study (late) instead of when staff want to go home (early). It also helped prevent faculty pressure from abolishing our textbook rental system. And it distributes money to student groups, of course.
The student (undergraduate) government at the big public research U where I went to grad school seemed to have a lot of power because their job (as far as I could tell) involved distributing student fee money (a lot with 40,000-some students) to the various student organizations who would petition for them. I don't know how much more they did than that, though.
I was the advisor for student government at a previous CC. Much of what has been posted thus far has been true- from what itpf says about hand picking candidates (I only held a "real" election for one of five positions in three years- all other candidates ran unopposed and I had to beg those to put their names on the ballot) to the fact that "strong" SGA's can accomplish tangible benefits (one of my governments convinced the administration to build covered shelters at the bus stops).

The best benefit I saw from the whole process, though, was at the state convention. When we got there my group quickly realized that although many schools were running for "state office," the decisions about who would win had already been made before the convention began through regional (it's a large state) "Survivor"-style alliances and smoke-filled "backroom" agreements. My guys even bought cigars and took them out (but couldn't light them up) during the final vote.

For a "fun" read on SGA, albeit at a university, check out the online novella "Undergrads" by James Norton.

I've experienced a variety of student governments. At my undergrad institution, it was a waste of time. At my graduate institution, both the undergrad and grad student governments did a lot of good work. For example, the only services for women concerned about a serial rapist in the area and rape victims were provided by student-government-funded organizations; at the graduate level, we worked actively for a TA/GA union (which finally came to pass towards the end of my graduate career). At my current institution, student government can be waste of time, though they can also do some very good work; at the very least, they have an enormous budget (from student fees) the distribution of which has a major impact on student life.
University of Colorado (Boulder) student government has an operating budget of more than $32 million, which is far more than the total budget at the college I teach at.
Carnegie Mellon has a Graduate Student Assembly, which is actually quite well-funded and active, but pretty narrowly restricts its activities to frat-type activities (pub night, beer night, trivia night, etc.)
The graduate student government at my top-20-public-university is pretty active, actually. They organize social events, like 'grad student trivia night', get-togethers, movie nights, cooking classes - and they also offer small travel grants every semester to help us cover the cost of traveling to conferences. Sure, nothing ground-breaking (we don't have a union, for example) but useful and people actually participate in it.
The graduate student association back when Eli was one, ran the bar. Eli greatly valued this service which paid some of his friends way through school
My medium-sized R1 public university where I am faculty, as well as the small private R1 where I got my PhD, both had active undergraduate and graduate student senates. Both put a grad student and undergraduate student on almost every standing committee of the faculty senate (I think all but those involving promotion/tenure issues and faculty grievances).

Having been involved on all sides (as a graduate student, faculty, and part-time administrator), I've seen them as very effective at doing what they are supposed to be doing: representing the interests of the students to the faculty and university. My just-left university president was always on a first name basis with the graduate and undergraduate student body presidents.
Cal's Graduate Assembly is pretty huge, and does what others have mentioned - they advocate for students' interests on campus (and off). They have seats on university committees, including hiring I believe.

They sponsor events (on mental health, preparing for exams, financial management, the job search), advocate for disadvantaged students, for sustainability & environmental issues on campus, etc etc.
I'm the advisor to the student government at a large CC on the west coast. While we face many challenges with regard to student turnover and marking the transition from high school to college, our students effectively participate in the governance of the college. They administer a very large budget and support, not just clubs and orgs, but major college-wide programs and events. Also significant is the student governemnt support to the student clubs. This financial support provides the foundation for a vibrant and active campus community. Furthermore, the leadership development opportunities that come with serving on student government or from within a club provide the students with some essential building blocks, regardless of their life paths. Our students involved with technical education often get more out of clubs and those interested in transfer to a four-year tend to become quite active in student government. I love participating in the process that helps students to discover the power of their agency and voice. Even if the SGA (or whatever the entity is)doesn't appear to be incredibly active, or is simply engaged in charitable work, I don't know that we should diminish the value of the students' growth and attempts to engage the world (their peers, the administration, whatever it may be). As long as there's a concerted effort on the part of the advisory team to really work with and counsel the students as they start to discover the value of co-curricular programs, then usually the outcomes are very good and often measurable as well. The most difficult aspect at CCs are often the local politics.
Provincial governments in Western Canada provide basic medical insurance but dental, vision and prescription coverage is provided by private insurance companies.

Around 1999, student governments (lead by the AMS at UBC?) began providing expanded health insurance to students. As a result of those campaigns, students frequently have better health coverage than their workforce peers (especially if their peers are Americans).

Also around 1999, student governments around Vancouver BC banded together and collectively negotiated a deal with public transit authorities to provide monthly passes for all students.

IIRC, both referendums involved raising student fees and resulted in a spike in voter turnout.
I would say the student governments I've seen be effective are the ones with budgets and endowments. At my top 10 university there is a grad and undergrad government that are hugely concerned with campus life, but which also have the funding (and endowment) to do something about it. Because there is actual money beyond the $24-30 per quarter student fee, representation matters a lot at the undergrad level (because of the fight over who gets what), but not so much at the grad level. The grads and undergrads have differing agendas, so they split about 8-10 years ago (the grad government tends to focus on advocacy, like health care and standard of living, along with trying desperately to promote a grad campus life). Also voting tends to be pretty heated at the undergrad level because if groups or programs want a certain level of funding it goes to the ballot, so you get heated debates over "student taxes" going to [whatever group/program a significant portion of the student body doesn't use] and representative and presidential platforms run on spending agendas.

The student treasurer is also crucial as the student government is incorporated as a not-for-profit and oversees all group spending since student groups are also not-for profits under the umbrella of the student government (except for religious groups). Groups who receive funding from the student government are actually approved for line item budgets from the senate. As a result the student government run their own bank that student groups must use and have a rigorous tracking process for group spending oversight (and some groups have their own endowments to further complicate matters).

I'm not sure you would see this kind of standing endowment or student fee "taxation" for student groups or programs at the CC level or even at less well-funded universities.
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