Opinion: Improving DC’s student governments begins with a study of their faults
True improvement is unlikely to be met without thorough analysis of their failures
From the Newsstands: This story appeared in The Eagle's April 2023 print edition. You can find the digital version here.
The student governments in D.C., despite representing colleges with large student populations in political science and international studies, lack substantial policy action. American University, George Washington University and Georgetown University have all faced recent calls to abolish their student governments. These calls are warranted by this lack of policy action and unmet goals of “integrity, professionalism, and transparency,” as well as failure to “advocate, allocate, advertise, and assist,” in undergraduate needs. Although change is necessary, organized student leadership should not be completely abolished, as it would lead to increased administrative control. As they stand, D.C.’s student governments may leave dangerous power vacuums and disorder in higher education.
An analysis of the student governments’ shortcomings may be more beneficial than complete abolition; however, D.C.’s student governments have done little to persuade undergraduates against abolition. The AU Student Government specifically lacks transparency. SG leaves students in the dark, as it has not formally updated its policy reports listed on its website since 2020.
The available policies proposed by SG contradict the changes that have been made at AU. In one instance, SG presented The Affordability Roadmap: Concrete Steps for a More Affordable AU, only for AU’s tuition to increase in the years since. Although SG alone can’t change tuition costs or administrative policies, when their proposals directly contradict university actions, it shows SG’s inability to advocate for students. In falling short of the primary goal of advocacy, mistrust rightfully builds among the student body but breezes past the possibility of analysis.
Effective student governance not only requires analysis but collaboration from administration. Currently, AU makes little room for student voices. Without administrative cooperation, little can be achieved. Struggles within SG are also a prominent issue in effective student governance, as observed by repeated speaker elections and a dissent on the misuse of power and ethics from the Judicial Board. The lack of available policy reports and consensus hinder the prioritization of undergraduate issues, but the policy that is developed is still halted by administrative barriers. Both SG affairs and administration then leave these patterns of dysfunction without a resolution. SG creates barriers to undergraduate advocacy by providing minimal policy information, yet as it cannot enact policy changes itself, administration must be more open to student voices.
Power struggles within the George Washington University Student Association are clear as well, most notably between the SA’s president, Christian Zidouemba, and his cabinet members. Zidouemba was recently tried in the SA student court by a cabinet member, who attempted to declare his presidency illegitimate. In response to campus frustration, a student court representative said, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game,” as reported by Washingtonian Magazine. Although a common phrase, this mindset has no place in student governments, as it deflects responsibility and facilitates the abuse of procedure.
Members of student governments have the privilege to change “the game” more than any other student group on college campuses. Moreover, there is little excuse for their complaints without accompanied action. Suggesting undergraduates “hate the game” is a misuse of an office position and facilitates the drama that leads news outlets to pick up student government stories.
Other members of GW’s SA and undergraduates at the university seem to blame its own governing documents for creating conflict and disorganization. This provides little support for future use of these procedures. While SA has now developed a committee for the improvement of its governing documents, this must be in conjunction with an evaluation and adherence to its priorities. Organized student leadership should still be put in place to prevent greater administrative discretion, but this does not endorse the continued use of faulty foundations. Leadership in student government can and should take accountability while acknowledging errors in the system, instead of continuing to operate on the same foundations that lead to government and public unrest.
The Georgetown University Student Association recently attempted to reevaluate its priorities and abolish its government. However, the reform fell short of the necessary 25 percent voter turnout needed for the constitutional referendum. As Georgetown’s SA strayed from student priorities and was instead used to build resumes, undergraduate belief in action dwindled. This resulted in inaction, even in abolishing the root of on-campus dysfunction. Now, the university’s high concentration of passionate government and foreign service majors refrain from taking part in the system they are affiliated with, instead of working to improve it.
Lack of participation in elections, especially at a university known for its political prestige, is cause for significant concern. This low turnout also occurs at AU, with only 10 percent of students voting in the fall 2022 election. This reflects a larger distrust in political institutions, as only 27 percent of youth in the United States cast a ballot in 2022. Although considered high for youth voters, undergraduates and student governments can work on these voting issues on a smaller scale to build institutions that work for its people and push for accessibility. University administrations, however, must make substantial room for student voices for student governments to function.
All three student governments reflect that attempting to implement the same systems we see play out in D.C. and in our country are ineffective and perhaps dooming. The lack of transparency and professionalism present at all three schools go hand in hand with this and result in public distrust. These issues are often systemic, like that of voter turnout, but the analysis of such dysfunction with collaboration and movement away from current governing documents can create change on our smaller scales. Although these changes certainly take time, administration, undergraduates and especially student government leaders should examine policies for improved efficiency and cooperation, instead of playing by a system that only works on a resume. At higher institutions with political focus, we must use our privilege to improve our governance.
Rebeca Samano is a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs and a staff columnist for The Eagle.