Serving as executive vice president of the Student Association this year taught me a lot about GW. However, the three most important things I learned are the three rules of government characteristic of my generation. Because the leaders of student government today are the leaders of real governmental institutions in the future, these rules will shape the organization, outlook and events of government for years to come.
1) Don’t expect anyone to follow the rules unless coerced.
Most everyone fortunate enough to attend GW (and all four-year private institutions) are kids who were never ever told no. Their parents encouraged them to “do what makes you happy.” This is generally a healthy outlook.
However, most student leaders believe that when a rule makes them unhappy, they don’t need to follow it. Rules become relative, and if they don’t conform to how a leader feels on any particular day, rules are circumvented or ignored. This is extremely dangerous to our democratic institutions.
One only needs to examine the mess of this year’s Student Association elections and last year’s national impeachment saga for evidence that leaders don’t know how to follow rules anymore. In order to combat this trend, future governments must be more coercive in enforcing their rules.
2) Identity politics is big.
In student government elections all over the country, the most energized and mobile part of the electorate comes from ethnic and cultural clubs. These groups expect candidates for school office to pander not to their academic needs, but rather to their needs as community.
Evidence of this abounds at GW. Despite the fact that the student Senate is apportioned by school, each year it is more and more difficult to find senators who actually represent their schools rather then a particular student group or ethnic club. There is a greater polarization of groups on campus with people becoming more seriously affiliated with their ethnic identity rather than assimilated into the greater GW community.
This is not negative, but simply an important trend that merits discussion and will shape voting trends in the future.
3) Welcome to the brave new world.
Student activism in the past has always been geared to fighting the Orwellian vision of the university as “Big Brother,” an out-of-touch institution imposing its will on defenseless students.
However, the information age has made this view archaic. With all the means of communication students now possess and all the information available to students, student government and the University are just two more voices in a loud room. Many theorists have said the new paradigm governments must deal with is that of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
In this new paradigm there is so much information that none is discernible. Student government thus struggles to get its message out to students who are cynical and apathetic because of their technical ability (which is 100 percent greater than past generations, even if you don’t know how to turn on a computer).
In short, students don’t need government to give them information and offer them guidance. In international relations theory classes this phenomena is taught as an element of “turbulence theory.” More appropriate than that, it is the impact on government of a generation raised on post-modernist ideals that say “there is no there, there.”
Everything is relative (see rule one) and nothing is necessarily real, completely believable or permanent in the minds of most students. The Student Association ran into this new barrier in attempts to deal with the student fee and tuition this year. Students saw our rallies as just another public relations sideshow and approached it with an unexpected amount of cynicism and apathy. In the future governments need to find new ways to motivate and communicate to students that rise above din.
I really loved my job as EVP this year and thank the students of GW and all my supporters for giving me this opportunity. If you are interested in the numerous accomplishments of this 1998-1999 Student Association, we would be more then happy to give you a copy of our annual report. I hope that my service also has left a mark on student government at GW.
-The writer is executive vice president of the Student Association.