Does Student Government Matter?

This Thursday, the Tea Talks conversation series will be hosting a conversation on the topic, “What Can Student Government Do?” As an inside-the-beltway, student government insider, I feel uniquely qualified to pontificate on this topic, so I will. I’m also intrigued by the topic, because it sounds so much like something out of a Parks and Rec episode.

What can student government do and does student government matter? These are serious questions, especially for the self-anointed elites (myself included) who run student government and who, unlike normal people, care about what student government does.

We’ll start with Student Congress, where I have the privilege of running the Oversight Committee. Student Congress mostly acts like one great big sugar-daddy. Every student pays a $39.00 Student Organizations Fee. About half of that fee is automatically distributed to the Student Union, STV, WXYC, and the Honor Court. The distribution of the rest of the fee is left up to Congress’ discretion. So, every week, student groups come crawling to Congress begging for funding for publications, speakers, programs, trips, etc. Congress then sets about cutting the requests down, checking the excesses, and ensuring that the money is spent responsibly. There are occasional hiccups, but the system works pretty well.

However, Congress’ work does not stop there. We currently operate under a lengthy and cumbersome Student Code. Weighing in at about nearly 100 pages (it used to be much longer), the Code governs the more arcane aspects of student government (legislative, executive, and judicial), things like committee appointments, elections, operating procedures, etc. Most people probably don’t care about these sorts of things and are largely unaffected by them (until they become involved in student government). From my experience, most of student government exists for itself, e.g. there is no ostensible reason why the Executive Branch needs an Arts Advocacy Committee, except that somewhere along the line, some student government bureaucrat thought that this was important, so he created the committee. Likewise, entities like the Student Supreme Court, if you look at past cases, adjudicate legal disputes arising between different student government entities. Occasionally, there’s a case involving a dispute over a fee or something similar, but most of the disputes are procedural and have very narrow application.

"Why Does Student Government Matter? It doesn't."

Not to beat a dead horse, but I think ASG is an example of this in extremis. You have an organization that ostensibly exists to represent student interests to the real decision makers in the UNC System. But what do they do? Precious little. Especially lately, the organization has become so obsessed with its internal procedures and operations, it doesn’t have time for anything else. Its efforts at advocacy are half-hearted. Somehow they managed to endorse the BOG’s plan to increase tuition 13.5% next year, but they also managed to do that without actually asking anyone outside of their organization what they think about the tuition hikes. They had lots of really important meetings to determine the organization’s stance on the issue, but in the end, they accomplished nothing.

So, back to the original question, “What can student government do and does it matter?” I think the answer is that student government can do a lot… about its own internal procedures, but not much else. Student government can do a lot of things that don’t matter, but very few things that do.

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