The experience offered by the Student Association is something like sitting through a bad movie. While the names and faces of the characters might be different, it feels like you’ve seen the same ending a dozen times before.
With a new semester upon us, it is difficult to measure just how much SA President John Richardson and Executive Vice President Ted Costigan have achieved during the first half of their terms as they have been working on bigger picture University-backed projects and programming. Costigan points to the removal of the $50 University Counseling Center fee as a major breakthrough for the community, and a success for the SA.
“People have come up to both John and I over the past months and said that they now seek help because the fee no longer exists,” he explained.
Richardson did not respond to requests for comment.
But that fee was removed at the start of this academic year, and since then, few reforms promised by our top student leaders have taken shape.
Sadly, this is politics as usual at GW. Since the foundation of the organization in 1967, the Student Association has been mostly locked in a routine of overwhelming promises and underwhelming action. The community saw great success from the SA last year when former president Jason Lifton and EVP Rob Maxim picked perennial student problems and lobbied for change. But that was the exception to the SA rule.
Rather than standing around and pointing fingers, the time has come to diagnose the problem itself. And with this new semester, the SA – and the GW community – must seize this opportunity to make improvements to the community in earnest.
The first and most obvious barrier to legislative success at GW involves the priorities of student senators.
The Student Association is modeled after the United States federal government for no logical reason. Senators are not only bound by an 11-article constitution, but must also be familiar with an array of official bylaws and senate rules. Richardson’s executive branch is composed of nearly two dozen separate cabinet members and directors, each of which boasts a job title more elaborate than the last.
In 2006 and 2009, the senate was so preoccupied with rewriting the Student Association constitution that little other legislation was even mentioned. Again, in 2010, senators spent nearly two whole meetings debating changes to the election system and to their own bylaws.
These unnecessary complexities serve only to create distractions. When the Senate enters office riding on promises of grand campus improvements, its efforts should not end up directed toward unimportant internal changes. It impedes progress they pledged to work on. Rather than becoming wrapped up in internal matters, senators must instead direct their full focus towards the actual demands of the community. Even though the Senate can only pass non-binding resolutions, these leaders should use their influence to work with the administration on student issues. Senate lobbying would reenforce the work done by the executive branch, or could bring smaller issues to light. When the administration sees collective effort by student’s elected leaders, they will be more apt to listen than if only visited by the executive branch.
Come election time each March, students momentarily rekindle their excitement for the SA. They help plaster posters to the walls of the Marvin Center. They attend rallies in University Yard. They line up in front of ballot boxes, eager to cast a vote for change. But as soon as the winners are announced, students are all too willing to curtail their own involvement in campus reforms.
Rather than entrusting elected leaders with the task of reforming GW, students should willingly offer their own support.
Junior Phil Gardner, who campaigned in 2011 to abolish the SA, says a unified, assertive student body is the only way to guarantee results on campus.
“Imagine if to protest the 9-cent printing fee, students started calling [University President] Steven Knapp’s office all day every day. It wouldn’t be able to function. You think they’d still be unable to plug that hole in their budget that would be created from the lost printing revenue? Highly doubtful.”
Costigan affirms that the Student Association’s successful campaign to eliminate the University Counseling Center fees stemmed from its ability to “coalition build with other students, house staff and administrators”.
If we hope to see progress on an even larger scale, we have to preserve that spirit of a community effort – if any shreds of it remain. While the SA itself must maintain a clear focus on student advocacy, contributions from the administration and student body are equally important to the success of future reforms.
We’re sick and tired of predictable endings. It’s time to rewrite the script on the Student Association.
Trent Hagan, a freshman majoring in political science, is a Hatchet columnist.
This article appeared in the January 17, 2012 issue of the Hatchet.