Tuesday, February 25, 2014

An Early Thirsty about the only group on campus with less influence than faculty

Take a brief break from the this week's smackdown theme to answer this question, sent in by a polite undergrad who is a fan going back to the RYS days.  Wait, how long has this kid been in school, anyway?

I’m a junior at my university and a regular reader of RYS/CM/AWC.  I’m also a part of my university’s student government.  I’m pretty curious.  How pervasive is the impact of student government throughout your university?  Also, as professors, how do you feel about having students from student government on various university committees--scholarship committees, faculty awards committees, etc?




  1. Personally, I feel that although it's fine, it's usually a waste of time for the students. Much of the governance happens outside of the meeting... in fact, MOST of it. Meetings are useful, but it's not where people really hash things out. So, most of the students I've seen on committees, through no fault of their own, are simply clueless as to what decisions are being made, what they mean, or what the impact will be.

    Ok, to contradict my first statement: that isn't a waste of time. The student starts to get a feel for how these things are happening, and get to peek behind the curtain at the machinery of a university. That's all valuable.. but I've yet to see a student provide useful or insightful commentary in a meeting.

  2. I have seen students on committees offer useful insight, but like most useful insight, it is ignored by the administration. I agree with Three Sigma that, in most instances, student representatives on faculty governance committees are a waste of the students' time. I for one don't mind that they're there, because in general it is not the students whom I loathe but the administration as a whole.

  3. The answer about student government's impact varies greatly depending on the institute in question. At my grad school and the state schools I've worked thereafter, student government is mostly an afterthought; it doesn't much matter to the administration what the students think or want, although they'll listen if a groundswell of support arises on an issue.

    At my undergrad school, though, the case is a slightly different because it's a private SLAC. The official student government is still generally irrelevant in terms of actually running the joint, but almost all the student gov't members are also members of the local fraternities and sororities, which means that student government is directly connected to the people who donate the most money to the school. Thus, student government's input matters more when major issues are at stake.

  4. Our student government (Student Association and Student Senate) is actually powerful on our campus by virtue of having more funds than any other group on our campus because they are given student fees to work with. When we need something for our department that has to do with students (i.e. new equipment or money for a field trip, for example), we appeal to our student government groups to approve such funding (that's how we got new desks/chairs in one of our classrooms when our equipment budget was tapped out; students complained about the desks/chairs).

    Outside of that structure, however, when it comes to Faculty and Staff committees, student reps on certain committees seems like a waste of the students' time. They often don't understand how the governance system works above their level, so often don't show up for committee meetings and if they do, they don't really understand how to contribute to meetings because they're not often privy to information that faculty/staff have.

    I'm a a SLAC, too, but we don't have sororities or fraternities (thankfully!). This is the first school I've worked at that didn't have those, but since it's a religiously-affiliated SLAC, there's a whole lot else to contend with that I didn't deal with at the state level (such as worships and religious meetings).

  5. As a former Student Government Advisor, I will reiterate that the "peek behind the curtain" is the most useful thing a student participant can get out of the process at most institutions.

    I've seen students elected to office bright-eyed, fired up, and ready to change the world only to see them worn down by the end of the school year by the process of merely getting a "knowing nod" when they bring up a an issue near and dear to their heart. Little do they realize change happens at a pre-global warming glacial pace.

  6. I guess I had the rarefied experience.

    My undergraduate (state college) student senate actually decided how the collected student activity fee was to be disbursed. Student representatives played key roles in choosing food service vendors, establishing residence hall policy, adding a voice to current administration, and even long-term planning. (In fact, during my tenure, a performance and lecture series was started with student input/collaboration and recently celebrated a milestone anniversary.)

    However, my experience with college governance was rather paradoxical for the reason that many others' offer only tepid endorsement of their student governance systems -- it failed to prepare me for the inanity inherent in most workplace committees/collaborations.

    I began my first post-graduate job eager to get involved with the company's evaluation and planning structure utterly clueless that no one would give a whit what the fresh-from-college kid thought about what was going on. Worse, I was oblivious to how much of a threat my eager participation.would be to my direct supervisor.

    Apparently my salad days were over before I even sat down at the table.

  7. Hey, you're Jean Valjean! (In the movie at least). I knew that number 24601 sounded familiar...

    I haven't had any contact with student government, whether as a student or a faculty member. On two occasions when I've had SG types in my classes, my impression wasn't that good. First, they made sure I knew "who they were", the "very important students" who could maybe pull strings and cause some unpleasantness to happen. And as a result expected special treatment of some sort, in one case in spite of showing up for class only sporadically. Bad luck for them. But I suppose most are OK, and it's a good thing if I'm not even aware of who they are.

  8. The students union at my alma mater might have had some influence in the years before I was there as an undergrad, but it didn't--or couldn't--do much since then. While I worked on my last 2 graduate degrees during the 1990s, the only purpose the student council seemed to serve was as a training ground for the youth wing of the national robber baron party.

    At the same time, the grad student association was next to useless, extracting fees from us but delivering very little.

  9. Well, since I don't serve on committees myself (non-tenure-track faculty, who make up 70% of the total faculty, generally don't), I'm not quite sure what role, if any, student government reps play on committees at my institution. I think they do have the same sort of power of the purse (the real power, in many cases) over at least some part of the student fees that others have described above. They also take public positions on things, usually food services, the academic schedule, rises in tuition, and parking (always parking). At least in my observation, sometimes those opinions are more informed than others.

    I've also observed that the most common configuration of pairs running for president and vice-president of the student government is male president, female vice president (ethnicities vary more widely, both within and among pairs). I find that a bit disturbing. I don't think I've ever had a student government member, at least that I knew of, in one of my classes. I suspect that one of the problems with making the student government truly representative at my school is that serving takes time, and many of our students have too little time for classes and homework, let alone anything else.

    That's about it. I admire the civic-mindedness of those willing to serve, but I'm not sure how much impact they have. Then again, I'm not sure I'd have much impact I'd have even if I had tenure and decided to make committee service a priority.

    It might also be interesting to compare the impact of members of the student government and student journalists (either those on the official school newspaper/news outlet, and those who start/maintain underground papers, blogs, etc.) My guess is that, aside from the powers of the purse mentioned above, journalism is at least as effective an outlet for student activism as student government, and perhaps more so. And of course nothing stops you from serving on student government *and* writing a column, or op-eds, or whatever for the student newspaper, or starting a blog. Especially if you can get into the first page of google hits when someone searches a key topic plus the name of your school, administrators are likely to start paying attention. Even tweeting a lot, with hashtags that get their attention, might work. Just remember (as so many students seem not to) that stuff you post on the internet tends to survive, even if you later try to delete it.

    Finally, if you're at a state school, there's always a possibility that the most effective way to effect change is to lobby your state representatives, rather than anyone within the school itself. The higher-ups on my campus spend a lot of time in the state capital.

  10. Thank you for your interesting insight. Since I serve as the student government representative on the Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Awards Selection Committee (Seriously, can't they think of a shorter name?), as well as my university's study abroad scholarship committee, I was sort of curious about how professors felt about seeing students on those committees.

    I think my experience with my university's student government most closely mirrors that of Aware and Scared. I'm an associate justice on the judicial branch, so I don't get to actually vote on anything. But our student government has gotten various food vendors added to campus lately, including Chic Fil A and Papa Johns. They also successfully lobbied for a new parking garage. We also have our own lobbyist to deal with the folks in the state capitol. Our SG deals with the Activity fee, a roughly $4.5 million budget. Not only is student government in charge of dispersing the fee, but also setting it.

    As to how long I've been in school, I discovered RYS in high school. I think it was like, the week before it was shut down and everything transferred over to CM. It took approximately no time for me to become hooked.

    1. If you change 'committee' to 'synod' you lose a syllable while invoking secret ceremonies of darkly hooded figures; this is good. Then you could take on research as well. You could be the 'Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Outstanding Undergraduate Research Awards Selection Synod', and you'd have a ready-made exhibit to explain your selection process.

      Towards ameliorating your eridition, I proffer these resources: [1], [2].

      Your thirsty was thought-provoking. Thank you for it.