A more perfect university

AS THE Student Council Executive Board officially transitions today, incoming members ought to have the eyes of the University community on them. Most students, however, are probably only marginally aware of this group with a budget of over $600,000. With other student government organizations, the problem often rests equally on the shoulders of the constituency and the representatives. Student Council, however, seems to have become an insular organization that is uninterested in taking a direct stand for students on anything more meaningful than transportation issues.

Outgoing members of Council suggest that Council's biggest accomplishment of the year is the reform of its bylaws. According to Legislative Affairs Committee Chair Todd Eley, the by-laws merely clarified roles of representatives on Council and did away with requiring appropriations hearings to be timed by the University Chapel clock. Interestingly, the much touted by-laws cannot be found anywhere on the Council Web site.

This sort of internal focus causes students to disengage with Council and assume that it is a group of people interested more in their own affairs than representing student interests to the Administration.

"But Council cannot afford to have another year of work on the Constitution after having already done so for two years and ignoring the interests of regular students," Eley said. "I hope that our work, though far from perfect, will keep Council's focus off of its own internal structure and institutions and towards moving forward on initiatives with real effects on students."

Some students, however, seem to be privileged enough that the biggest problem they deal with every day is having to walk around the train tracks to get to class.

Incoming Council President Matt Schrimper ran on feel-good ideas of "University unity" and more convenient paths to school, but he also seems to recognize that there is a lot more Council could be doing.

"Student Council should serve as a source of communication and collaboration within the University community," Schrimper said. "We are in an incredible position to bring together every facet of the University, and we must capitalize upon the resources and opportunities we are so fortunate to have at our disposal."

The question remains, of course, what sort of collaboration will Council facilitate? Will this Council take a definitive stand on issues and force conversations with administrators or will they continue to reform bylaws and encourage the stadium to give us water at football games? These are important reforms, but imagine if Council took on bigger issues. There is so much more that Council could do. Our representatives could organize students around causes such as educational affordability and environmental sustainabiliy. We could be a group of college students who care more about making our university a better place for all than how far we have to walk out of our way to avoid the train tracks. Council could set the tone for a debate about bigger issues while also working on these smaller things students care about. It's called vision.

For students to believe they can affect any sort of change at the University and that they have any sort of voice the administration will listen to, Council needs to become a more visible, effective institution. At a University that claims to value student voice in every mailing sent out by the Admissions office, the representative body needs to become an activist organization. Students will not always agree what action needs to be taken, but that is the nature of representative democracy. No one is 100 percent represented 100 percent of the time. Waiting until that happens has caused Council to become an ineffective organization which cares more about internal reform than external action.

When Council does take a stand on some issue, the Administration very rarely pays attention because they know the vast majority of students will not back up Council with any sort of action.

Student Council Chief of Staff Ryan McElveen sees Council as having very little vision. "The current perception of Student Council is that it doesn't do anything and is reactive instead of proactive. I would agree with this observation because there was no vision for this past year. The committees did a great job working on their own projects, but they were given little vision with which to work," McElveen said.

According to McElveen, the only way to combat the problems with Council is to leave it be and to seek action elsewhere, but the fact of the matter is Council already exists as an outlet for student activism; it is up to students to use it.

The problem with Council lies in Council, but the solution, of course, lies with students to break the cycle. Attend a Tuesday night meeting. Speak up. Demand that the people who claim to embrace student self-governance do something more than rewrite their governing document. University students are lucky because the concept of student self-governance flourishes. If we don't do something drastic soon, however, Council will become nothing more than an organization that funnels money from students to student organizations.

There is more at stake in the University Community than taking a stand on issues with toothless resolutions. Surely an organization which funds trips to Richmond to lobby the General Assembly can find more to do than fund CIOs and pat themselves on the back for reorganizing their by-laws. Is that really what student self-governance is about?

Maggie Thornton's column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at mthornton@cavalierdaily.com.

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