Senior George Glass is a former undergraduate-at-large Student Association senator.
Another Student Association election season has come and gone, and I can feel the entirety of the student body collectively sigh, knowing that they won’t have to see another infographic on Instagram about building community for at least another year.
Yes, that’s right, if you haven’t heard – or are living under a rock – students have elected a new executive leadership team and senate. To those elected leaders, I bid you congratulations. Genuinely, as someone who has run three of my own SA campaigns, I know just how much time and effort is put into these campaigns, and I am genuinely happy for all of the newly elected students.
But speaking as someone who served in the SA for three years, newly elected officials must think outside of the box to create positive change. Otherwise, they risk the SA continuing on its current, sad trajectory: a glorified suggestion box for administrators with no real power to make change.
Outside of allocating money to student organizations through the finance committee, the SA doesn’t do much, if anything at all. The senate officially has the power to pass legislation that modifies SA bylaws, condemns distasteful acts on campus or recommends changes to administrators. Changing bylaws can make for a more efficient SA. Condemning distasteful acts on campus is good, but we don’t really need a whole body for that. Providing recommendations to officials to change things is great, but it’s absolutely useless in its current state because administrators can simply ignore recommendations they don’t like. And that happens all of the time.
In my two years in the senate, I saw countless pieces of legislation that called on officials to make certain changes. Take, for example, senators’ demand that the University take better care of resident advisers. Officials flat-out ignored them. In the senate, when asking to make changes, you are essentially at the mercy of administrators. You can have the greatest idea to help students, but if officials don’t like it, which they usually don’t, then your idea is dead. This is frustrating, yes, but also not surprising when you look more broadly at the SA’s governing documents.
The SA charter states, “The Student Association shall derive its authority to participate in the University governance from the Board of Trustees of The George Washington University.” The SA is literally only allowed to exist because the Board says it can, but do they have an incentive to give students any legitimate power to change things they don’t like? Of course not.
The SA does have representation on the Board, but even that is marginal at best because the seat has no voting power and is essentially a token to make it look like officials care about the student voice. Don’t take my word for it, take former SA President SJ Matthews’ word for it.
So if all the SA can officially do is allocate money to student orgs, condemn acts of hate on campus, modify its own bylaws and implore officials to make changes that can simply be ignored, then the SA is essentially a glorified suggestion box, right? Most of the time yes, it absolutely is. But I wouldn’t be writing this if that was completely the case.
On the whole, SA actions are mostly meaningless, but there are a select few who work hard researching and working on initiatives to foster genuine change.
For the most part, officials say no to our pleas and ideas. But there are some initiatives that are thoughtful, worked on diligently and discussed with administrators that eventually do come to fruition. Examples include increased laundry credits, a fall break and LGBTQ housing.
But these initiatives and changes should not be wholly credited to the SA. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to say that the SA deserves any credit for these initiatives because the common denominator between the passage of these initiatives was individual, hardworking students, not the SA. If the SA were to not exist, they still could easily have been accomplished because students have the drive to make change on campus regardless if there’s an organization to support their initiatives or not.
And this gets to one of my final points: The SA plays a very minuscule role in student life on campus. This might sound like the opinion of a student still bitter that he lost his race last year, but voter turnout statistics prove this sentiment holds true. 3,246 students voted in the past SA elections. That’s barely 13 percent of 26,000, which is abysmal when you consider how many students voted in the presidential election in November. We’re one of the most civically engaged campuses in the country but not when it comes to the SA.
There are many reasons for such low voter turnout, but the main one is that most students know deep down that the SA doesn’t operate in a way that meaningfully impacts campus life. When you really think about it, it’s easy to justify not voting.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom for the SA. The body has the people and energy necessary to be a positive, effective force for change. We have plenty of opportunities at hand for advocacy, but time and time again we’ve shown ourselves that the status quo and even the organization’s bylaws simply aren’t enough. Newly elected SA leaders must think outside of the box to positively impact the student experience at GW. History is doomed to repeat itself otherwise.