It’s recently come to my attention that Student Commission is considering dissolution with the stated goal of restructuring student government during Spring Quarter. While I hold no nostalgia for Student Commission’s current format, I fear that dissolution risks creating a body less representative of student voices than the current format.
Student governments at all schools occupy a tenuous position between the wants of the student body and the limits placed on it by the administration. It is not government itself really, insomuch as a representative (of students) to the government that is the school administration. Advocating on behalf of students but representing only one voice on the vast and lethargic committee that is the academic bureaucracy.
That can be rightfully frustrating, as it can seem impartial and unresponsive, and that’s where much of the push for a new format to student government is coming from at Kalamazoo; but that’s not what the policies currently being debated would actually address. What we’re talking about, with disbandment of Student Commission, is merely an overhaul of the format –how that student government would conduct business, how the makeup of that government is decided, and how that government interacts with the student body– that would still exist inside those larger power structures of the academic bureaucracy.
Instead, we’re considering changes to the format of student government that, ironically, would make student government less representative of the wants of the student body. Dissolution is portrayed as the beginning of an open dialogue about student government, but with obvious overtures towards turning it into a forum. Any disbandment couched in these terms would invariably lead to a forum format, as the students who participate in forums are the students that will attend forums to decide the new format.
The problem is that a forum format favors strong and opinions and ideas over less impassioned but equally valid ideas. While most students hold opinions on many initiatives, they do not hold these opinions strongly enough to show put to a forum or collaborative each and every week. What will happen instead, is that students with very strong opinions will show up and voice those opinions while their quieter/less impassioned peers will lose their voice. To use an example, my inbox seems to indicated that Elizabeth Warren or Ted Cruz is the peoples’ choice for President, yet polling data shows most Americans would prefer Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, or Scott Walker. Any sort of self-sampling will favor those who select themselves as “voices of the people” instead of recognizing the actual (generally quiet) voice of the people.
I think Student Commission, despite its bureaucracy, is actually a good representative voice for the student body. Despite low-election turnouts, I believe the counter-intuitive result is a fairly good random sampling of the student body. If elections were high-turnout affairs, or students ran serious, adept campaigns, there would probably be bias towards students who are either “popular” (winning through name recognition) or good at political machinations (winning through vote capture). As it stands, though, the vote threshold is low enough that any moderately concentrated social group on campus is capable of electing a commissioner simply through the similar preferences of that group.
To dip into slightly technical territory, this result in a surprisingly even cluster-sample of the student body that creates relatively balanced representation across the board. While we may hope to get 100% voter turnout and engagement, this cluster sampling is a viable second-best option that pulls randomly from the student body, thus electing a convincing representation of that student body.
Disbanding the commission in favor of a forum format that is inherently biased towards vocal pluralities (as opposed to quiet majorities) is the most surefire way to silence actual student representation. What is being discussed is not a change to the power structures of administration, but merely the format of student government that exists within those structures. I have no particular love for the current committee format and I think Student Commission should be open to any ideas that can improve meeting efficiency and effectiveness. But disbanding the commission risks misrepresenting, ironically, silencing the community’s voice. I actually favor many of Elizabeth Warren’s policies, but appointing her President through a community forum (since she couldn’t win a national election) would be doing a great disservice to the American people.
Martin Bergstrom ’13 served as a Student Commissioner from 2009-2013. He currently works in Political Polling and Consulting at Anzalone Liszt Grove Research in Washington, DC.