“That Fierce Light Which Beats Upon a Throne”: Why Is the Political Culture at AUP Atrophying?
Young people have a reputation for not voting. In 2014 only 17% of all college aged students voted in the general elections. In our recent round of executive board elections for the Student Government Association, only 15% of undergraduates voted. There is a concerning trend of apathy among AUP students regarding our training ground of political literacy, the SGA. Why aren’t we, as a community, more engaged?
Alfio Lococo and Margarita Valldejuly have been elected President and Vice President, replacing, respectively, Quinn Chesser and Chiara Amor. Chesser and Amor have headed the Undergrad Student Government for a year. Lococo and Valldejuly seem prepared to take over the helm at the SGA, as both have been involved in AUP’s student leadership programs in various positions and are well-known to most students. Now that the club is transitioning to new leadership, this is a good moment to consider how we as a community hope to use them as a resource—and, more deeply, how to think of them as a political entity. We may not think of them as such, but the SGA is a valuable tool that to which we theoretically all have access. Senators are a liaison between students and the administration: they voice our opinions and decide where our money goes. I fear that we at AUP are allowing our political institutions to wither from lack of use and engagement, the lifeblood of local politics.
Certain individuals in the SGA recognize that it is not functioning at its highest level and have attempted to diagnose its problems. I spoke to Christopher Turner, the current Freshman Representative and member of the Activity and Clubs Committee. Turner sees systemic problems with the SGA that he hopes to solve while at AUP. He says that the SGA’s main responsibilities involve “allocating the student budget and by advertising and/or hosting student events and activities throughout the year.” He observes that “SGA currently operates with minimal documentation and written regulation,” and as a result, “what SGA representatives do with their position is largely left up to the discretion of the representative themselves; this lack of expectation creates issues with the continuity, accountability, and autonomy of our Student Representatives.”
Overseeing the budget and hosting student events are, of course, deeply important responsibilities. The SGA and the Senate fulfill them efficiently on a weekly basis. I have had personal experience with the organized and professional way the ACC holds their meetings. I met with them for the first time to discuss the Hibou printing budget and they advised me on my numbers and prepared me for the Senate meeting in just ten minutes. As a result, I was ready for my presentation at Senate the next week. AUP has fourteen official clubs as well as a significant amount of student-led initiatives, trips, and charitable events; the ACC has to organize and budget for all of them, which is no small task. Student life is all the richer for this administrative work, and it is admirable that student representatives decide what deserves our financial support around campus. Turner agrees, but he also says that “we, in SGA, can be and should be doing much more to truly effectively and efficiently represent the students of AUP.”
What does “doing more” mean? There are many examples of student government that we can aspire to emulate. Another private liberal arts school, Williams College in Massachusetts, has an extraordinarily engaged Student Council. Considering its size—it has only 2,000 undergraduate students—it graduates a surprising number of politicians and civic leaders. They take on major campus initiatives and projects that confront difficult and controversial topics on campus. They publicize student-led petitions and support students in holding the administration accountable for budgetary and staffing decisions. Last October the Council wrote and passed a resolution in Support of the Establishment of Asian American Studies after a sustained campaign that drew attention to the issue. They co-sponsored “Teach-Ins” and worked closely with other student activists. Another example of good governance is the Associated Students of the University of California, or the ASUC. According to their website, they are a totally independent non-profit that “oversees programs that serve students... [and] assists students with grievances against the university.” They have several subordinate offices that concentrate on specific issues such as the Student Advocate’s Office and the Helios Solar Program which helps students reduce their fossil fuel consumption. Their senators regularly update their constituents on initiatives and progress they have made throughout the semester on areas like implementing fee waivers to allow low-income students to participate in community events, advocating for more student housing, and organizing environmental clean-up events. The SGA will never be the ASUC, but it is useful to know that there are models of governance that prove students can lead themselves independently of the administration.
This year AUPGreen President Avani Gallo is attempting to confront the environmental crises by making the AUP campus more eco-friendly. She is working toward instituting common sense changes such as an improved recycling and sustainability program. At the moment recycling bins are scarce and composting is non-existent. We only have trash bins in the AMEX, one of the main loci of student activity and food consumption. So far she is struggling against the torpor of the AUP administration alone, but this would be an excellent opportunity for the student government to engage with a meaningful student-led initiative. She has not contacted her Senator because, she explains, she does not have a positive impression of the Student Council’s usefulness, but this is the perfect opportunity to change that. If this generation of AUP students manages to make the campus a more environmentally friendly place, we could begin to address one of the most pressing problems of our time in our own community.
This month, Basia Diagne wrote a powerful piece in Hibou exposing the disquieting lack of black professors and African and African-American studies at our school. She worked on this question tirelessly last semester, researching our lack of faculty diversity, interviewing administrators and faculty, and describing student reactions. So far, the administration has not released any policy or statement on how it will confront this problem. According to Diagne’s article, “research has continuously shown that cultural and ethnic diversity in faculty and staff introduces diversity of thought and experience -- boons to any intellectual enterprise -- and both minority and white students benefit from learning from professors who look like them, and those who don’t.” It is worth asking: why hasn’t the SGA tackled the issue of faculty diversity and diversity of curriculum, an issue that has certainly touched many American liberal arts colleges? And why don’t students consider the SGA a resource in these major battles? What can they do to address the issue now that it’s been exposed? Diagne says a first step could be instituting a student advising body that can encourage a hiring process that is more targeted toward finding diverse faculty candidates. It may be time for the SGA to finally get involved in the serious issues swirling through the school.
Perhaps the most contentious debate last year surrounded the formation of the Student Union and its demands for a student wage. The founding members of the Union, Dhouha Djerbi and Maria Sarmiento, chose to create a new institution instead of working within the current system. I reached out to them for comment on the reasons behind this decision but I did not receive a response. The newly formed Student Union experienced a significant amount of backlash toward some of the causes they chose to tackle, particularly regarding the issue of student wages. They discovered that the administration had been consistently underpaying student workers under the rationale that they are recipients of a grant rather than employees. Djerbi and Sarmiento hoped to raise the student wage to be consistent with French law. Numerous students privately messaged members of the Union or approached them in person to try to convince them not to move forward; they were concerned it might mean the end of the student grant program.
Malik Rupert publicly expressed this sentiment when he emailed a Facebook survey to as many students as possible asking if they felt the Union represented their interests. His poll didn’t collect much useful data considering the fact that unions represent their workers, not the whole population of an institution, but his intentions were understandable. We need to know what the student body thinks about controversial issues. The Student Union was incapable of reaching the entire student body because they didn’t have the resources that the SGA and the Associated Student Media regularly use to publicize issues. They also didn’t spend enough time targeting the student grant recipients to glean their opinions, which meant they lacked a plurality of support. That our AUP student body was not engaged, or even aware, that essential questions such as a student wage were being debated is not merely a failure on the part of the Student Union, but a collective failure.
The SGA was wholly unprepared to lead in this time of crisis because, as Turner succinctly pointed out, “the main factor is the lack of a truly streamlined method of communication to the student body. Important messages for students are lost in overcrowded email inboxes and non-comprehensive social media groups.” They don’t have a strategy to gauge the opinions of their constituents in a timely manner. No sitting senator has created an initiative addressing economic inequality or activism of any kind. Whereas the ASUC regularly seeks out news and updates the student body through Facebook on the financially predatory practices of the university administration, as well as how to fight back, the SGA marinated in debate for a whole semester over whether they even wanted to begin to discuss the wage issue. Eventually the executive team limply extended a gesture of support to the Union just a week before their meeting with President Schenck; meanwhile the Senators never officially chose one side or the other. Senators and other members of the SGA were just as unprepared as the rest of the student body. However, their actions and non-actions come under greater scrutiny, because, as the poet Tennyson has written, they are illuminated by “that fierce light which beats upon a throne.”
Every successful student government depends on consistent and widespread student engagement. It is impossible to effectively advocate for one’s constituents if there is no communication about what their needs and preferences are. As the Student Union began to enter into talks with the administration, at least three student workers contacted them to lodge complaints about their methods. They complained that many students weren’t made aware of the actions the Union was about to take and that student workers were never given a chance to voice their opinion. There is a dangerous implication in this statement that those who create change are obliged to seek out and inform those affected. This is not true. They are obliged to make information about their plans publically available, but there is no obligation to spoon-feed information to those who prefer to disengage. When I spoke to representative Kevin Shen about student engagement with the SGA, he said, “I think we have appropriate channels for students to voice their concerns (ie the Student Union, faculty, SGA senators) but [...] we don’t want to force people to participate in ways that they don’t want to.” The main problem surrounding participation is that there is no central location where students can go to inform themselves of every movement and change growing within the community. The SGA should seek out all the students who are working on valuable social and political issues, like Diagne or Gallo, and feature a rundown of their initiatives on Facebook. They should encourage the student body to comment and gauge the public’s interest, and then use their weekly meetings to discuss creative solutions to proposed problems. At this point it is useless to expect students to approach them because we lack confidence in their abilities to lead and problem solve. Many students never bother to learn who their Senators are because we expect them to have very little real impact on our lives. I hope they can prove us wrong.