Last week, I outlined some of the familiar problems with our student government. Since these problems are quite long-standing, I think it is clear that there are flaws of organization and culture which drive the Undergraduate Student Government Association to perform poorly, even beyond the personal deficiencies of certain members.
Let us start at the top. The student government is led by a strong executive branch — the president is not only the chief representative of USGA to other bodies, but together with the other officers, the origin of most of its policies. This leaves little role for the assembly, by which I mean those members elected to represent the students and who act as a parliamentary body.
USGA’s organization turns the traditional democratic model on its head, where the assembly provides neither policy nor oversight for its executive branch.
How has this come about? My observation is that the desire for a strong executive typically comes from the example of our federal executive branch. In America, we are often led astray by the example of our Constitution, which is very well-designed, but only for its particular purpose: The role of the executive branch is to implement policy. Because at the federal level there are great politics involved with that implementation, the chief executive must be elected by the people to maintain the government’s republican character.
In our student government, on the other hand, we have very little to implement. Unlike at some other universities, our government does not operate a student union center and has no binding role in determining policy on academic honesty or other student conduct. It does not even spend a great deal of money on campus activities, since the Student Activity Fee Allocation Committee currently has that charge. The role of officers in USGA that is left, then, is primarily to serve the representative assembly by carrying out its will.
A natural place to start reform is by gelding the president and returning his power to the student government at large. Since the executive burden is very small, we do not risk having an indecisive executive — instead, we strengthen the policy-making power when we disperse it, because it becomes more democratic. Thus I foresee a USGA where the president and other officers do their best to implement policy proposed and approved by the assembly.
In this organization, it is no longer even necessary to elect the officers or to give them a vote in the assembly. The students are best represented by an assembly that reflects their diversity of opinion, and it is impossible for any individual to do the same. If instead the officers are nominated and elected by the representatives, it becomes obvious that the officers must serve the assembly, and not vice versa.
In fact, this arrangement would strengthen what is left of the executive role. In the current scheme, each officer is elected individually, so the students have empowered them to act on whatever platform they ran. When their platforms conflict, a problem arises — if you elect me as archivist I will sometimes need the services of the communications director, but what if that person disagrees with me on policy? Both our positions are equally valid, since we were both elected. This indecision is removed when the sole source of policy is the majority vote of the assembly.
By changing the legal structure to reflect that officers should serve representatives, a cultural change will follow as a matter of course. The representatives will be empowered to act, while the officers will have their policy clearly laid out for them. Our student government will be both more representative and effective, a step closer to the American ideal of self-governance we strive for.
Kim Post is the Staff Manager at The Triangle. He can be contacted at [email protected].