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Press Clipping: How much power does your student government have? This article from the Fox News FNCU Blog sitementions the American Student Government Association.
How much power does your student government have? By Kara Hackett on May 8th, 2013
The plan last year by Ohio University’s student government to introduce energy-saving light switches didn’t seem like such a bright idea to student Thomas Pinney.
Pinney, a senior political science major, decided to research the cost of changing light switches, and he learned that making the change in just one building was more than the student government’s budget for the next three years combined.
“The fact that they were trying to do this shows they have no idea what power they actually have,” Pinney said, admitting that the research was fueled by his unsuccessful 2010 bid for the student senate.
After a season of student government elections won with lofty campaign promises, Pinney’s observation begs a serious question: How much power do student representatives actually have to influence change on campus, and how do they use the power they do have?
Butch Oxendine, executive director of the American Student Government Association (ASGA), said student power varies from campus to campus. While some governments are guided by their administration’s invisible hand, others have their own hands in the decision-making process.
But across the board, Oxendine thinks the primary purpose of student government is to voice student ideas to administrators rather than actually govern.
“We try to teach student leaders they should be the voice of students in sharing concerns, so administrators can fix those concerns,” Oxendine said.
The problem is, he said most students don’t expect their representatives to have much sway, evident in staggeringly low voter turnouts (about 4 percent nationally) for student government elections, according to ASGA.
Although Oxendine admits that average is weighed down by community colleges, the outlook isn’t much better for public state schools at 10-15 percent, or for private schools at 15-20 percent.
To help improve opinions about student government, ASGA encourages representatives to focus on what Oxendine calls “bread and butter issues,” or the wants and needs of students that are relevant in their lives.
When five or six students committed suicide during senior Kyle Straub’s first semester in office as president of Indiana University Student Association (IUSA), he learned the effectiveness of student-centered initiatives very quickly.
His administration responded to the deaths in a mental health awareness video, in which Straub himself spoke out about a former eating disorder. He said the video became a seed that eventually sprouted into a yearlong effort to educate students about sexual well-being, mental health, alcohol and drug abuse and respect.
“If you want to create a cultural shift, it comes from the cultural leaders,” Straub said. “Student leaders set the tone for campus.”
As his reign draws to an end, he credits much of his success to an extended time in office (he was executive treasurer during junior year) and a healthy relationship with the campus administration.
After two years of establishing trust and continuity with the school’s governing bodies, he’s one of ten people on a committee to decide the school’s privatized parking, and he’s a student member of the Board of Trustees across Indiana’s eight campuses.
Having seats on decision-making boards is one of the primary ways students can influence campus, said Annemarie Seifert, associate vice chancellor for student development at the University of Massachusetts.
As someone whose prefers building relationships with students rather than dictating what they do, Seifert encourages students to connect with administrators before they try to implement changes on campus. She’s seen too many students confuse influence with power, and then attempt to control the school, rather than impact it alongside administrators. In the long run, she says an attitude to “influence” rather than “have power” will help students accomplish their goals.
“Taking the time to get to know administrators as people and have an understanding of what they’re trying to accomplish on campus is one way to create that connection,” Seifert said. “Students would be surprised we have a lot of the same goals our student leaders do.”
But Seifert said the continuum of influence students have ranges based on campus culture. Some student governments merely advise administrators to make decisions, while others, such as those under the University of Wisconsin system, have what’s called “shared governance” with their administration.
This means that, by order of state statute 36.09(5), students have the primary responsibility for creating and reviewing “policies concerning student life, services and interests.” Their decisions are still subject to final confirmation from the board. But Kevin Helmkamp, an associate dean at the University of Wisconsin, said students truly have a shared role in university decisions.
Still, this is not the norm for relationships between student governments and their administrations, said Vice President of the United States Student Association Sophia Zaman.
Instead of offering equal representation, Zaman sees administrators droning out student voices in campus affairs or even forcing student government officers to defend administrative interests.
When this happens, she said student leaders feel less empowered and lose a sense of value in their work.
“They’re putting up stances, but not putting forth effort to make real change on campus,” Zaman said.
Pinney likens student governments to the early American colonists’ Albany Plan of Union—a pseudo-government that unified colonists but had no real say in British affairs.
“That’s what I feel like these students have,” Pinney said. “The administration just gives students a feel that they have a say in what’s going on...so students think they have all this power and all this influence, but they have none of it. In all reality, they’re just a puppet.”
While working as a freshman intern for his student senate in 2009, he saw the senate pass a resolution saying safety measures needed to be taken during Halloween weekend to reduce the number of alcohol-related arrests and fights near campus.
Ohio University student senate did not comment. But Pinney said the resolution has been heard and passed by every student senate for about 10 years, and he still hasn’t seen any change because the resolution only recognizes something needs to be done. It doesn’t form a committee to address the problem. It doesn’t actually do anything, Pinney said.
He thinks students at all campuses deserve more say in the use of student-generated funds, residential planning and programming, the running of the student center (which is where most student government offices are) and the shows and events the university brings to campus.
“If students had that kind of power, I think student senate would be more vigilant in assessing goals and what they can do when it comes to elections,” Pinney said. “If they had that kind of power, students would be more compelled to vote.”
ASGA's MISSION STATEMENT:
The American Student Government Association will provide all Student Government leaders and advisors nationwide with networking, research, and information resources and will teach them how to become more effective, ethical, and influential leaders on their campuses. ASGA also will promote the advancement of SGs, conduct research as the nation’s only “SG Think Tank,” and advocate the importance of having a vibrant, autonomous Student Government organization at every institution in America.