Op-ed: The Student Association isn’t perfect, but it’s here to support students

Andrew Harding, a rising senior majoring in Asian studies, international affairs and political science, is a senior policy advisor in the Student Association.

When a crisis occurs, it can easily overshadow the mission and success of an organization. Despite its flaws, the Student Association advocates for student interests with officials and contributes to influential policies for the necessary purpose of improving students’ experiences at GW.

On July 1, the SA’s executive cabinet voted to remove President Christian Zidouemba on the basis that he was “unable to execute [his] powers and responsibilities” as president. The next day, Vice President Yan Xu and Communications Director Aiza Saeed resolved the crisis when they withdrew their votes for removal and acknowledged Zidouemba as “the legitimate president.” Undoubtedly, the SA let students down. The student government left them unsure if their elected student body president was kicked out of office during the summer break of all times.

For many, this summer’s crisis validated the feeling that the SA focuses on “meaningless political theater” and is out of touch with students. It leads to students’ primary problem with the SA: the SA is often engulfed with pointless matters or members’ personal ambitions that detaches it from the student body. The summer crisis is a low point, but students should not disregard the SA’s purpose and achievements. Even with flaws, the SA is a successful experiment in representative governance that grants students influence in the policy-making process that would be minimal without the SA.

A university and its students are analogous to a country and its citizens, differing mostly in leadership structure. Unlike a system of government, students at a university cannot cast votes to hold accountable officials who hire their own staff. The SA attempts to bridge this gap. Established in its charter, the Board of Trustees acknowledges that students have the “right and responsibility to achieve a system of representative governance.” The SA is designed to represent students and report their concerns to the University. The student government effectively serves as an activist organization for student representation and administrative accountability in the policy-making process.

Student tuition payments contribute to the SA. For every credit most students take, they pay $3 and up to $45 total per semester to the SA. These funds, which surpassed $1.7 million last year, are allocated to more than 500 student organizations every year. If money talks, then the SA’s finances give it a voice when working with officials. Students have a financial interest in an effective student government that uses their money for their interests.

Given the overarching authority of officials and trustees, the SA will not always secure the result that students may want. But the SA’s advocacy is the best way to persuade those with administrative power to incorporate what students want from their University-wide policies.

Last fall, after years of SA advocacy, GW enrolled in the U-Pass program that offers students unlimited Metro rides each semester. Former CFO Mark Diaz said the push for U-Pass “has been something that the students have wanted for a long time.”

After a 2018 student-led petition called for the removal of the Colonials moniker, the SA held a referendum in which 54 percent of students voted in favor of the change. That fall, the SA president established a “student-run task force” that produced guidelines to address “future building names.” After former President Thomas LeBlanc noted the SA’s push for change, the administration in June 2020 established the Special Committee on the Colonials Moniker, which included four student representatives and ultimately recommended the retiring of the Colonials moniker.

In November 2020, SA members helped negotiate full digital access to The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal for students. The SA also secured 34 free laundry credits per semester for students and expanded residential tap access – improvements implemented during the spring 2020 semester.

The SA has delivered thousands of dollars worth of policies that enrich the student experience, not to mention its yearly student organization allocations. But this summer’s crisis proves more needs to be done.

The SA must focus on issues that directly affect the student experience. To that end, the SA Senate has voted to update the SA’s governing documents and internal practices, streamlining and simplifying its rules so it can focus on students instead of constitutional questions. Coordination among members to better focus on relevant student matters must also improve. Last week, President Zidouemba and Vice President Xu posted their joint renovation tour of Thurston Hall and new dining halls to give students a sneak peak of the renovated spaces that they will use. After the events of this summer, SA members are coming together to ensure students are put first.

Instead of criticizing the SA when it disappoints, I propose an alternative. Join it. Shake up the SA and improve it with your ideas. Unlike criticizing, joining the SA grants you a direct voice in influencing its processes. Even if the ideal government is unachievable, why not try to make it as helpful as possible?

The SA will never be perfect. Future controversies and disappointments will arise. SA leaders will not agree on how to best serve students. Administrators will oppose students’ requests. Although it is easy to criticize the SA’s failures, students should not discount its many victories.

The SA has successfully advocated for and implemented multiple policies that have improved the student experience at GW. May this defense of the SA catalyze a new generation of students who may prevent meaningless crises and advance meaningful changes.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.