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?