Why Student Interest Groups Can’t Win

In less than one month’s time, Boston College will make its way to the polls (read: online election form). It will commit to a future, with the fate of the University hanging in the balance.

Of course, by “Boston College,” I mean approximately one-third of undergraduates. And by “fate of the University,” more reasonably we’re referring to the fate of the Undergraduate Government of Boston College, which is still a big deal. And for those of you who don’t think student government matters, consider this: in the 2015-2016 academic year, UGBC’s total budget was $319,351, with $17,500 given in direct stipends to its leadership. Each undergraduate commits roughly $35 to this government via the student activities fee. For all intents and purposes, we’re paying for the services these student leaders provide.

Already in the 2016 UGBC election cycle, we’ve seen an editor for satirical newspaper The New England Classic commit to running for the highest student office. And given that this self-declared satirical candidate successfully secured the 250 student signatures required for a UGBC run, it’s safe to say we all have some soul-searching ahead of us this election cycle.

Does student government really matter? Is it even a legitimate concept to believe a modern university could, in part, be governed by students?

In his campaign, current president Thomas Napoli, MCAS ’16, proposed an overhaul of free-expression policies on campus, particularly in regard to University rules which punished students for unapproved fliers and protests. The proposed reforms, which at the beginning of the summer were said to be virtually a done deal, were completely squashed in September. The Office of the Dean of Students, which had the ultimate authority in approving the proposal, rejected it on the grounds that unfettered speech was something that would necessarily work against the interests of administrators.

In hindsight, this was an unsurprising conclusion to this particular student effort, but it does offer great insight into how decisions are made at BC: student interests can never win without significant buy-in from administrators.

Come this time of year, there will almost inevitably be some snarky opinion piece remarking on the futility of the incompetence of UGBC. Of course, we should be critical of our student leaders whenever necessary, but I also think it’s worth considering how many vested University interests stand to benefit from the belief that our student organizations are simply incompetent, and student advocacy only really ever touches on superficial problems.

As a BC undergraduate, you should be worried about how the University’s leaders perceive the concerns of students. A recent piece in Psychology Today, written by a researcher at BC, detailed the organized administrative response to the declining “resilience” of BC undergraduates. This piece has been modified from its original version, when the researcher discloses his relationship with the University. The piece details some distressing opinions coming from the University’s senior leadership, essentially characterizing BC students as petulant children, unwilling to accept responsibility and in need of thorough “handholding” from faculty in making even the simplest of decisions. It goes so far as to describe administrators and faculty members as victims of a sort, held captive by the id of an infantilized undergraduate population.

Aside from being heavily insulting, this narrative is really helpful to understand why BC insists that “unsupervised” student protesters deserve to be punished, why student government constantly struggles to maintain legitimacy at BC, and why—as one administrator put it—student groups at BC should not tell the University what to do.

Which brings us back to our election, and the baffling reality of a University—with an increasingly diminished perspective on the legitimacy of student advocates—allocating over $300,000 a year to an organization devoted to student advocacy.

If BC undergraduates truly are as mentally distressed as the “resilience” narrative maintains, it should be the University’s top concern to work with student leaders to better understand these problems and develop solutions. The natural conclusion should be that University policies are failing us.

Instead, BC has become the poster institution for framing the expressed needs of students as a major character flaw. Student interest needs to be considered a compelling force in University politics. When all decision-making happens at the top, it’s unsurprising that students (and faculty) exhibit a diminished sense of responsibility and mental wellbeing. It’s unsurprising that students doubt the legitimacy of the organizations said to represent them.

It’s also unsurprising when, year after year, BC’s best and brightest fall short in delivering on their campaign promises. To borrow from the rhetoric of national politics today, the system is rigged. We don’t need better leaders. We need a model of University decision-making that transcends the narrow perspective of administrative interest.

Students are not the problem.

Featured Image by Breck Wills

About John Wiley 98 Articles
John Wiley was the Editor-in-Chief of The Heights in 2015. Follow him on Twitter @johnjaywiley.