The Role of Student Government

Disclaimer: I do not represent the collective nor official view of any of the organizations I am a part of (including but not limited to the Columbia Engineering Student Council) in writing this post. These are my opinions and mine alone.

Lerner Hall
We have regular meetings in the Satow Room on the fifth floor of Lerner

We just released our Fall 2013 End of Semester Report for the Engineering Student Council this week, publicized by Bwog and the Columbia Spectator. It’s the first time we’ve made a serious effort to consolidate the things we’ve worked on (including events, clubs, resolutions, and policies) into a single place for our constituents to read.

And yet I don’t think that many people will. In fact, I’d almost go so far as to say the number of people who have read it outside of the combined councils (CCSC, ESC, GSSC, SGA) make up little more than a rounding error here at Columbia. Statistically insignificant, if you will.

This is probably reflective of the general attitude towards student government, whether it be in Columbia College, General Studies, Barnard, or my own SEAS: In pretty much any random sample of the undergraduate population, you’ll find some people who don’t care about anything any of the councils do, a few that believe everything council does is wrong, and maybe a couple who’ve gone to an event or two. Maybe somebody in your sample thinks some part of council is doing things right. You’d be pretty lucky to find someone who is actually a member of a council committee or a governing board, but perhaps they’ve spoken to a someone who is.

In any case, few of them will have strong opinions about council in and of itself, and fewer of those still will be positive. Yet I would expect that the large majority of them would happily commiserate with you over the “Columbia Bureacracy,” or perhaps some particular facet of it — Housing and Dining in particular are often targets of student complaints, though certainly not the only ones. Certainly the myriad articles and comments on campus media outlets show that people really do have opinions about pretty much everything.

A Bwog comment
68 combined votes. Most things on WTF Columbia seem to have less than 10…

It seems rather disingenuous that the same people who care so much in Bwog comments are so unwilling to do anything themselves, though: certainly the amount of effort required is limited. An email, a comment, an upvote — anything and everything can make a difference. WTF Columbia, for example, is used by both the various administrative offices and council policy committees to determine what to spend time trying to fix.

As it turns out, the student councils have very limited fiat power. It’s not like the four undergraduate councils can, for example, decide to make the university spend less (or more) on athletics; nor is it possible to magically turn dining hall swipes into dining dollars, or even change the operating hours of buildings on campus. And the oft-cited lack of school spirit is definitely not something that can be legislated into place.

But that’s not to say we don’t make an effort to make life better for our constituents: Everyone I’ve worked with on council has been concerned first and foremost with the problems faced by the people we represent. We try to build a sense of community with school-wide events (one of those, Engineering Week, is coming up soon!), we provide student groups with the funding they need to operate, and more.

Yet it seems like some people build a false dichotomy between council members and themselves: the only real difference between someone sitting on council and a motivated student is that the council member is obligated to participate in committee meetings, to help plan and execute events, and otherwise dedicate his or her time to serving the undergraduate population. In my experience, at least, being on council doesn’t make it any easier to arrange meetings with administrators (success is largely a function of perserverance), and council events are only a few of the big things happening on campus.

A common criticism of student government is that we have the wrong priorities. Some people want more events like Bacchanal; others, a change to the Lerner Hall room booking policies; still more, an across-the-board review of classroom grading policies. From the outside perspective of an occasional reader of campus news, you’ll never really be satisifed: an ongoing project or policy proposal simply isn’t worth reporting about until it’s done, and conversely we don’t know to start working on an issue until somebody reaches out and tells us.

We’re here to be your advocates, to try and solve problems that you face. But we’re also just students like you: we’re not omniscient, and we can’t make things happen whenever we want them to. And honestly? We’re always looking for ideas.

I’m not saying that the average Columbia student ought to be actively working to change policy, distribute funding, or plan events — after all, there are council members who are elected to do those very things. But the next time you feel like complaining that student government is useless, try shooting us an email, or upvoting a post on WTF Columbia. You never know, it might make a difference.

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