UT administration should give Student Government more power

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Last week, I discussed how a Rotnofsky-Mandalapu victory in this week’s runoff election for Student Government president and vice president can help UT students reclaim Student Government as a representative institution. But electing an inclusive ticket can only go so far in providing the student body with a say in its own governance. The other part of the equation requires UT’s administration to actually give such a ticket the power to make a difference. Unless that happens, Student Government will likely continue to play a very limited role in governing students, no matter who wins the election. 

Part of the reason relatively little real change comes out of the Assembly is that UT doesn’t give Student Government a lot of authority. It can pass nonbinding resolutions whose decrees administrators and politicians are free to ignore. It has some voice in managing the Co-op’s profits, and it can distribute funds from the student services budget among student groups and small endowments. That’s about it. 

The concept of a powerless student assembly has a long history at UT. When The Daily Texan cartoon Hank the Hallucination was elected SG president in 1982, his campaign manager described him as “the perfect candidate for the illusion of student government.” A similar theme has propelled recent Texas Travesty campaigns (excluding this year’s ticket). If the president of the student body can’t do anything productive, the argument goes, does it matter if he or she doesn’t even try? 

It should. While UT is hardly unique among its peer institutions — aside from the experimental Deep Springs College in rural California, no well-regarded school gives its students much of a say in governing their own affairs — giving students some form of limited authority would provide myriad benefits to the University. 

Because the student body has a compelling self-interest in maintaining both UT’s livability and its prestige, its voice on such matters as transportation and curricular development matters just as much as its voice on student services. It also carries the sort of expertise currently missing from discussions in those arenas — that which comes directly from personal experience. Any proposal concerning how to design a more impactful environmental campaign or how to integrate technology into classrooms can only be improved by student input. The Texas Legislature is beginning to reach that exact conclusion, proposing a bill that would require SG to approve any student nominee to the Board of Regents. 

A stronger Student Government could also help UT promote a more positive path for American politics as a whole. As it stands, SG’s total lack of authority sends a terrible message to the aspiring politicians who typically occupy its highest offices. Young leaders should be empowered to find solutions to challenging problems. Instead, SG officials receive an introduction to navigating bureaucracy and playing politics. That’s a surefire path toward incubating future public servants in the mold of the virtually useless "Parks and Recreation" staff — or worse, the manipulative sadists in "House of Cards" — instead of the productive idealists of "The West Wing" or "Dave." 

Deep Springs, for its part, credits a high degree of student autonomy as a major contributor to its alumni’s success — and if no other element of this argument appeals to the University, the prospect of happy and successful alumni should at least catch the attention of the Development, or fundraising, office. 

Because student affairs comprise such a small part of the UT enterprise, giving Student Government more autonomy over those affairs wouldn’t constitute a very radical change. As it is, a lot University policy is governed by the state Legislature, leading even UT system administrators to complain over their own lack of autonomy. And among the issues that the University does control, there’s no reason to inject student input into issues that only tangentially relate to students, like negotiations with University employees or the management of the University of Texas Investment Management Company. 

But there is no reason to shut students out of decisions concerning campus affairs. Anyone who lives, works and/or studies on campus should help decide which statues are worth maintaining — whether they represent mangled canoes or Jefferson Davis — or when dining halls should open or when to close school for Thanksgiving break. For those kinds of issues, no matter how trivial or how serious, student autonomy is both a fair promotion of democracy and a great path toward engendering trust and cohesion between students and administrators. 

UT tells its freshmen each fall that “what starts here changes the world.” If it wants to live up to its lofty slogan, it should start by allowing what starts here to at least effect change on the Forty Acres. 

Shenhar is a Plan II, government, and economics sophomore from Westport, Connecticut. He writes about campus and education issues. Follow Shenhar on Twitter @jshenhar.