The state of the union
In truly democratic nations, Election Day can legitimately be described as one of the most important days of the year. On a regular schedule, a nation’s citizens convene to set the course of the nation for the next couple of years. In the best case scenario, when we vote for executives, we vote not only for individuals, but for the policies and proposals they represent. Ideally, in the United States, we have a four-year referendum on questions of war and peace, jobs and unemployment, health care and government spending, education and taxation.
On the Washington University campus, our process is arguably even more democratic: once a year, we elect a new core of Student Union executives to represent our interests to the University. In any student’s four-year experience here, he or she can reasonably expect to be served by four different “administrations,” each carrying the potential ability to redirect the course of the University. Today, on our own Election Day, it is only appropriate to evaluate not only the individual candidates running, but also the very State of the (Student) Union itself.
In my four years here, the voracity with which students and slates of students have campaigned for Student Union executive positions suggest that those wishing to fill the posts take these elections very seriously. Unless it is raining today (every potential SU exec’s greatest campaign nightmare), every speck of open sidewalk is undoubtedly covered with a sea of colors advertising this slate over that, this president over that, and, in all likelihood, this sexual innuendo suggesting a candidate over that. Throngs of students will fill American Politics 101 and Chemistry 112 with iron-on transfers of their friends and floormates on their backs. In the technological revolution of the past four years, we now have slates with their very own Web sites. Regardless, it is unlikely that the timeless table tents will be forsaken.
But for what purpose? With all the time, money, and energy that candidates pour into their campaigns, we would only reasonably expect that the Student Union, and the individuals who fill it, have something substantive to offer the University. In my four years of experience taking in the t-shirts, table tents, and covered sidewalks, I can recall neither the name of one successful campaign slate nor one Student Union resolution that significantly impacted my experience here.
On Nov. 11 of last year, the student government of Suffolk University in Mass. became the tenth in the nation to pass a resolution against the PATRIOT ACT. In the past year, student governments as diverse as the University of Michigan, Macalaster College, Yale University, and the University of Texas passed resolutions against the invasion of Iraq. Here at Washington University, where current SU President Michelle Miller has stated that “the Student Union Constitution only allows the Senate to legislate on student welfare,” we are left deciding among executive candidates offering-above all, it seems-more accessible functioning of the SU Web site. Incidentally, as I write this column, su.wustl.edu is down. So perhaps this campaign proposal is more important than it may at first seem.
Every opportunity for students at a university should serve a greater purpose than a way to fill time outside of class and a way to fill vacancies on one’s first post-graduation resume. Rather, an experience such as serving on a student government should prepare a student for future representative leadership, whether it be in an employment setting or within the national government. Candidates seeking our votes today cite as some of their greatest accomplishments putting together forums on Direct Connect and the Alcohol Policy. Americans would not respond well to a candidate who suggests that his greatest achievement as a Senator was allowing his constituents to discuss an issue, but stopping well short of forcing the issue to come to a vote on the Senate floor that could actually change the course of the policy.
The time is past due for an individual running for the Student Union executive board to campaign on her record of rallying enough votes in the Senate to pressure the University to refuse to comply with RIAA requests for personal information, as Penn State University does. Or for a candidate for treasurer to suggest not the establishment of her own self-indulgent executive compensation, but the provision of full benefits for all campus workers. Only then-when their proposals and accomplishments would actually serve to impact our lives-should Student Union be allowed its infamous tagline: YOUR Student Government.
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