ASCH: Student self-governance is a sham

If we are to claim that students govern themselves, we need to fix the inherent flaws in our system

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While I am not downplaying the real-world impact many of the policies enacted by these groups have on the University, the whole system in which they operate is flawed.

Katja Cresanti | Cavalier Daily

During student election season, everyone extols the importance of voting in student elections and the virtues of student self-governance. Students involved in student government are particularly motivated and excited by election season, as it is a chance for new initiatives to be implemented and new individuals to be elected to these prestigious positions. And while I am not downplaying the real-world impact many of the policies enacted by these groups have on the University, the whole system in which they operate is flawed, which makes them broadly inaccessible to many in the U.Va. community. 

The University is unique in that it delegates important tasks to students involved in several prestigious organizations that are typically carried out by paid adults at other universities. Although it may be considered admirable that these students are willing and able to complete this work for no compensation, many students' only reason for doing so is to gain a prestigious position on their resumes. This is not to say that individuals who join and lead these organizations do not do so out of a sense of love or duty to the group or the University. However, this arrangement creates a cycle, where only a limited number of students who have the financial security, compete for what are essentially full-time jobs for no pay. The University therefore, not only promotes these positions as prestigious, but also makes them competitive to acquire, all the while escaping the responsibility of compensating these individuals. 

This reality makes several issues with our current system painfully clear — that only a select few will realistically be able to govern the student body. This select few will do so without financial compensation for their hard work and can only do so with a very narrow set of powers that the University has granted them in order to complete their administrative task. With these issues and their implications for the community in mind, it is hard to reach any other conclusion about this particular aspect of our University but one — student self-governance is a sham. 

One only needs to look at how other universities compensate student leaders to see that the University is an outlier in not paying student leaders for the incredible amount of work they do. According to the American Student Government Association, around 77 percent of student leaders are given some sort of compensation and 85.88 percent of elected student leaders at state Universities receive salaries. Moreover, some student leaders earn as much as $20,000 for their work on behalf of the student body. This is likely one of the higher salaries for student leaders in the country, but even those at the low end of the spectrum get far more perks than the Student Council president at U.Va. In fact, in a 2012 article published in the University of Georgia’s student newspaper, the author detailed how the compensation awarded to their student government president “paled in comparison” to other Universities, though he received $2,500 a year and a parking pass to park anywhere on campus — perks that student leaders at the University do not receive. 

Moreover, jobs at U.Va. undertaken by students are completed by paid employees at other universities. For example, a student usually serves as vice president of organizations and is in charge of reviewing and recommending contracted independent organizations for approval to the Council’s representative body. This is an incredibly time consuming job which is probably why other schools, such as Virginia Tech and James Madison University, have full time employees to assist with managing student organizations. 

Honor and the University Judiciary Committee, which are tasked with handling cases relating to violations of the University’s Honor Code and Standards of Conduct, are also undertaking roles that paid employees would carry out at other universities. In fact, Matt West, former chair of the Honor Committee, actually stated in an interview that the fact students are tasked with jobs that administrators would have at other colleges was a virtue and was indicative of the students’ “unique capability” to govern themselves.  William and Mary is one example of a college which has a paid “director of community values” who is tasked with determining whether to pursue these cases. 

Given that these administrative roles are essentially full-time jobs that must be completed on top of a full course-load without compensation, the University's student leadership positions are inaccessible to many low-income students. In the United States, a majority of college students have to work, in addition to taking classes, to stay afloat — a situation which is not exactly conducive to occupying one of these positions. 

Furthermore, initiatives put in place to relieve these inequities are woefully inadequate. For example, University President Jim Ryan’s announcement that students from families earning $80,000 a year would attend the University tuition free is in reality not that different from current financial aid practices.The Access UVA program is purported to be a generous financial aid system among public universities — however, according to some analyses financial aid only covers half of the cost of attendance for those in the $80,000 income bracket, leaving students to pick up the rest of the tab. Given that this is the reality that many low-income students at the University face, these unpaid roles simply are not an option for many in our community.

This is not to say that it is impossible for underrepresented groups to gain these positions. But, I would argue that this occurs not because the institutions are inclusive but because the individuals who beat the status quo are exceptional. 

In addition to the limited accessibility of these positions, students are, in reality, not given the ability to govern themselves. This is true in part due to the limited powers of student organizations to enact meaningful change but also because the administration can intervene and overturn their decisions. Some prominent examples of this include how in the 1990s when the administration intervened and ordered a new Honor trial after a student was removed from the University and threatened a lawsuit. In addition, last year the administration allegedly told the U.Va. chapter of conservative organization Young Americans for Freedom that their CIO status would be approved after they threatened to sue the after their status was provisionally denied. However, Student Council is the only organization that is supposed to have the power to grant CIO status. These examples point to one unfortunate truth. Student organizations who govern the University are allowed to govern when they are taking on administrative roles, but if they make decisions that conflict with the perceived interests of the University, the administration steps in. 

Even though all of these issues significantly threaten the whole concept of student self-governance in our community, we have the capacity to remedy this problem. In order to ensure student leaders are fairly compensated for their work and that these positions remain accessible for all students regardless of income level, they should authorize salaries, stipends or other incentives that would supplement the income students would earn working a paid job. Additionally, if the University is serious about committing to the principle of student self-governance in practice, they should give these organizations more power to pursue initiatives that can make more of a tangible impact on the University, instead of simply carrying out administrative tasks for free. 

Student self-governance is a lofty ideal — one worth striving for — but striving for it means acknowledging when we are falling short. It appears we have reached one of those moments, and I urge the University to remedy the sham student self-governance has become so that we can truly realize the vision that goes along with that principle. 

Jacob Asch is the Executive Editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at j.asch@cavalierdaily.com.

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