Monday, November 03, 2008
Thoughts on Student Government at CC's
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?
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 don't know why the US model is so different, but perhaps because of the lower level of responsibility *available*?
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.