The Absent Assembly
“They have the concert during Green Key, right?”
Wandering around Collis for half an hour and asking 10 passers-by their thoughts has convinced me that many at Dartmouth have very little idea what their elected representatives actually do.
Some said they did not remember if they voted last year for student body president. Others said they couldn’t remember who ran. Many even refused to talk to me because they claimed to know nothing about student government.
As stated on its website, Student Assembly aims “to coalesce and strengthen student participation in the College’s decision-making process.”
When he ran for student body president last spring, Adrian Ferrari ’14 said he tried to tackle a contradiction inherent to the Assembly: How do you get students to pay attention to student government if the Assembly has virtually no power and cannot actually create visible change within our community?
“I saw a dying institution,” he said. “I thought if I quit everything else I could nurture it back to life.”
Ferrari began his campaign because he believed previous presidents struggled due to a lack of managerial experience. As the co-chair of the Inter-Community Council, he felt he knew how to organize students and accomplish meaningful change on campus.
Ferrari blames the shadow government of the Undergraduate Finance Committee for part of the Assembly’s ineffectiveness. This body, he said, is not elected but has the power to finance Student Assembly, controlling what the elected government is able to accomplish. They tend to support funding for barbecues, tailgates and Pride Week events, Ferrari said.
“To me those seem like Programming Board activities, not the policy SA should be doing,” he said.
Representatives from the UFC could not be reached for comment.
At the start of his campaign, Ferrari said the Assembly president’s role should be that of a “work horse, not a show horse,” and has principally worked to re-organize the management of student government, placing more focus on the Assembly’s five committees. The Diversity and Community Affairs, for example, ran a focus group for the financial aid office about current administrative policies’ effect on low-income students. The Alcohol and Harm Reduction Committee helped formulate the proposal to the administration to expand and promote the Dartmouth Bystander Intervention program. The Student Services Committee focused on implementing cost-effective solutions to problems initially posted on the Improve Dartmouth website.
Despite being the type of individual inclined to participate in student government, Ferrari said he was originally uninterested in the Assembly because it does not create policy change or wield influence over the student body.
Emmanuel Kim ’15, the former 2015 Class Council president, explained that he thought the student body’s lack of interest in student government and elections may be a cultural phenomenon.
“The atmosphere of people that come here is self-aspiration,” he said. “Campus issues are happening, but unless it’s personal to us, people aren’t really going to pay attention.”
The “Freedom Budget” proposal, he said, shows that students care about change, but he said that they do not want to put in the time to make student government effective, choosing to make change in other ways.
Alison Flint ’15 noted a similar campus phenomenon.
“I think people are hesitant to run,” she said. “I think people are losing faith in the student government and finding other outlets to change campus.”
Kim stepped down as class president after sophomore summer because he felt he could do more on campus by becoming involved in entrepreneurship activities. He founded Dartmouth Advisors, a group which provides freshmen with advising resources, including advice for organizing D-Plans.
“I saw myself being more attracted to the entrepreneurial side of things,” he said. “I thought my vice president could do the same job I did. I wanted to make a bigger impact.”
Class Council must organize programs, merchandise and events over Homecoming, Winter Carnival and Parents’ Weekend, Kim said. However, he said the council had to use most of its budget for events that did not actually attract much attention or interest from the student body.
Both Kim and Ferrari said that the higher level of interest in student elections seen at other institutions probably results from their student governments’ greater power to enact change.
If our scientific survey of Facebook newsfeed scanning is any indication, student government commands a far more significant presence on other campuses. Alicia Kaneb, a current Georgetown University freshman, worked on the campaigns of two Georgetown juniors with the slogan “Building Your Georgetown” as they ran for student body president and vice president. She noted the importance of bombarding social media to determine the outcome of elections.
Georgetown’s candidates, however, do not limit their campaigning to online initiatives. Kaneb, for example, spread the word about the campaign the old-fashioned way, knocking on dorm room doors to persuade voters to support her candidates.
At Stanford University, elections for student government, called Associated Students of Stanford University, are typically competitive and involve heavy campaigning. Amartya Das, a current Stanford freshman and ASSU member, explained how popular campaign methods often include distributing freebies.
“Elections are super competitive for class presidents, senate and executive positions,” Das said. “Candidates for class president run in a group of four, and they do all kinds of events like giveaways with free food and T-shirts. We have to pay out of pocket for election campaigning, but there is a spending limit.”
Tulane University caps campaign expenditures at $100, while Georgetown’s is $300 per campaign. Stanford lists its spending limit of $1,000 for executive positions as the second-highest in the nation, behind the University of Southern California at $1,500. The University of Texas at Austin caps expenditures for executive positions at $1,020 and for first-year representatives at $612.
On the other hand, campaigning at Harvard University seems to take on a more light-hearted tone. According to Bennett Capozzi, a Harvard freshman, the Harvard Undergraduate Council does not possess much power.
“This past election, two guys ran as a joke and they ended up winning,” Capozzi said. “Then one of them stepped down because he didn’t actually want to do it.”
According to the Harvard Crimson, juniors Samuel Clark and Gus Mayopoulos boasted the slogan “You Could Do Worse.”
“Centered on the promises of tomato basil ravioli soup served daily in the dining halls, thicker toilet paper for all and ‘divesting from gender neutral weekend shuttles,’ the campaign seeks to usher in a new approach to UC leadership,” the Crimson reported.
Harvard’s campaign spending limit ranges from $150 to $250, depending on the number of candidates. Up to $900 is offered for spending reimbursements.
Spending limits at Dartmouth for student body president and vice president elections are capped at $200, while Class Council president candidates can spend up to $60.
Ferrari said he spent $50 at most for chalk and posters, which Collis reimbursed. The rest of his campaign, which included a campaign video and a website by Heidi Meyers ‘14, was designed for free.
Voter turnout for last year’s Student Assembly elections at Dartmouth was 44 percent, while Stanford’s was 62 percent. At Harvard, 47 percent of eligible voters participated in the most recent election, and 59 percent of Georgetown’s undergraduate student body voted in the 2013 elections.
Though campaigning and election turnout may look different at other schools, difficulties with bureaucracy do not seem to be unique to Dartmouth’s student government.
Sam Karnes, a freshman member of the University of Texas at Austin’s student government, expressed concern that the UT government cannot always live up to its potential.
“I think the government does have the potential [to enact significant change on campus],” Karnes said. “The administration works very closely with student government, and it does value our opinion. Sometimes the bureaucracy gets in the way, and it gets kind of frustrating. Obviously, student government doesn’t have as much impact as it could, but overall, it does have the potential, I think, to make a difference on campus.”
Sarah Bierbrier, a freshman and member of the undergraduate student government at Tulane, expressed a similar sense of frustration. She said it is sometimes difficult to enact long-lasting legislation.
“Administrators at Tulane are very willing to meet students on USG, but making lasting changes is sometimes a struggle,” Bierbrier said. “Despite this, USG has worked on projects in the past few years that I think will make a lasting impact on the university.”
Das, on the other hand, cited lack of communication as a main struggle of Stanford’s student government, potentially leading to a lack of interest in ASSU affairs.
Karnes said notable recent initiatives of UT government include opening the library all-day on weekdays during finals and instituting a “uRide” system, which offers students rides, including to areas off campus, through 3:00 a.m.
Members also push for agenda items that will excite students, Karnes said.
“They are also trying to do some student-oriented things, like getting tailgating on campus and beer at basketball games,” Karnes said.
Tulane’s student government has also demonstrated its ability to respond to student needs, Bierbrier said, promptly responding to anti-smoking sentiment on campus.
“After a referendum that was sent out last year showed that a large percent of the student body wanted a smoke-free campus, USG drafted legislation to urge the administration to make our campus smoke-free,” Bierbrier said. “This past academic year there have been designated smoking areas on campus, but the fall semester will be the first semester where Tulane is smoke-free.”
This academic year, GUSA launched the “What’s a Hoya?” program, which organizes sessions about issues of diversity, sexual assault and community, based on monthly themes, for first-year students. Participating students receive a boost in the housing selection process.
Though many students opt out of Dartmouth’s student government and instead pursue other outlets to express their opinions, apathy about elections can only fuel the sense of an absent Assembly on campus. Indifference to student elections seems to be prevalent on campuses across the nation, but many of these student governments still continue to propose creative initiatives that will improve student life and campus climate. In order to avoid a downward spiral of ineffective student democracy, students governments must maximize their potential to enact change, and students must engage with these campus leaders.