Student governments on all campuses are placed in a helpless position. A group of ambitious, motivated and smart students are ultimately never able to enact real change on their campuses. There are a few major reasons, and the role the university plays in our lives has a great deal to do with it.
The first barrier is understanding that VCU, along with all universities – public or private – are, in essence, corporations. Cynicism aside, allowing students to influence university policy run in a setting administered like an oligarchy is not compatible with a student body formed on non-partisan democratic ideals, much less one that does not have a large following. Of course, the main purpose of student governments is for academic and extracurricular purposes. Empty rhetoric that goes something like, giving students the opportunity to take on leadership roles and experience the functions of government.
Student governments do not govern; they organize events, directly and indirectly. The nearly $2 million the VCU Student Government Association receives through the Student Activity Fee is mostly allocated in two major categories: funding student organizations and holding events for students.
The university giving students this artificial sort of power is much like a father giving his daughter an Easy Bake Oven. The toy is sort of like the real thing, but in actuality is just a toy replica that still keeps the child amused and distracted while dad goes about doing the real work. There are members of the student government who know the vague limits of what it can do, but there are some who have not caught on. They have yet to discover that there is no heating element, just a 100-watt lightbulb.
Student governments also suffer from being entirely non-partisan. As much as we do complain about gridlock in Washington, creating competition does breed ideas. Because nobody is really in power in student government, and nobody sets the agenda, not even the president. The president absorbs votes over Facebook and receives a nice addition to their resume, but without proposing any genuinely detailed policy.
Then there is gaining a following, so that students care and are engaged. This must be earned over time as the student government shows the influence it possesses. Proof of power attracts people. But this is a particularly difficult thing to do on VCU’s campus considering the university’s notoriously low level of student involvement, having to do with its reputation as a “commuter school” and a school within a city that has plenty more going on.
I don’t write this to purposefully disparage the VCU SGA. There are students aware of its limits, but are still involved because they care about their university and because even the smallest changes like lobbying to keep Cabell Library open twenty-four hours during exam week, or creating an online textbook-trading website matter to them. All students want to see their student government succeed and leave a large footprint, even if they do not know it exists.
But it is far larger issues than this where student input is scoffed.
Issues like rollover “swipes” at campus dining centers, or further regulation on the assignment of textbooks. These are issues that generate large profits for VCU, and are thus untouchable by students. In fairness, all universities have been attempting to navigate through tough economic times as of late; higher education is typically the first to endure cuts.
Regardless of the economy’s strength, however, many families are still stuck with paying for so-called “flexible” meal plans and overpriced textbooks professors require students to purchase, but in many cases seldom or never use.
This is where the student government will have to break out of its cradle and crawl downtown to the State Capitol every General Assembly session. If the university is unwilling to cooperate in enacting reform on its own, the student government ought to lobby a body reflective of its own democratic ideals.
This certainly cannot be done during the SGA’s “Lobby Day.” Making great things happen take time. If student senators want to institute change with a state-sized bullhorn, it will take greater ambition, perseverance and knowledge to do so, not to mention lawyers.