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A few weeks back I wrote up some thoughts on one of the classic essays in American student activist history — Ray Glass’s “Are Student Governments Obsolete?” In that piece I argued that there was a strange paradox lurking in Glass’s repudiation of the student government model in favor of voluntary student unions, since Glass himself had helped to found one of the most important and effective statewide student associations the nation has ever seen — an organization funded through mandatory dues with student governments as its membership base.
In the course of exploring this contradiction I took issue with some of Glass’s criticisms of mandatory dues structures in the labor movement, quoting one historian’s suggestion that if “the price of civilization is taxes, the price of unionism is solidarity. And, yes, that does involve coercing people to contribute to the union.”
Patrick St. John at For Student Power has written a really worthwhile response to that, in which he pushes back — quite convincingly — against my assessment of the role of mandatory dues in the labor context. “When an organization’s bureaucracy has become calcified and disconnected from its members over the years, thanks to guaranteed revenue,” Patrick writes, the organization can “collapse under its own weight” at the first moment of challenge.
“Like most unions, student governments are handed a large pot of money at the beginning of the year without necessarily having done anything to actually earn it — regardless of whether the last election had 90% turnout or 2% … understanding the conservative and bureaucratic tendencies that automatic dues can engender is crucial to avoiding the pitfalls that so many fighting organizations inadvertently run headlong into.”
This is important stuff, and well worth saying. Anyone who’s ever spent any time at all around student government is familiar with the phenomenon Patrick describes, and the insularity, disconnectedness, and lack of accountability that typifies student government is surely one of the American student movement’s greatest challenges. But even so, as Ray Glass himself demonstrated, such student governments can be mobilized to do great things, and I think it’s worth spending some time contemplating why that is — and under what circumstances it happens.
It makes sense to criticize student governments’ lack of accountability, as Glass and St. John do, but in some weird ways that lack of accountability may be worth standing up for. A student government isn’t just its elected leadership — not just the president and officers and assembly that get so much deserved and undeserved flak. It’s also the other projects that those folks facilitate — on my undergraduate campus, SUNY Binghamton, the student activity fee, administered by our student association, funded not only all our student clubs, but also the student newspaper, and the radio station, and a campus bus service, and all sorts of other stuff as well. (For a while we controlled the budget for campus athletics, too, but that’s a story for a different day.)
The mandatory activity fee is a large pot of money, but even in poorly-run student governments a tremendous amount of that money typically winds up going to vitally important student organizations that wouldn’t find much funding any other way. At Binghamton today (according to a 2010 budget I just Googled), the student-run bus system gets more than $400,000 a year, a student-run ambulance service gets $100,000, and programming gets nearly $200,000.
And that’s before you get to the three quarters of a million dollars a year that goes to Binghamton’s hundreds of student clubs. More than twenty thousand each to the Black Student Union, Asian Student Union, Latin American Student Union, and Jewish Student Union. Seventy-five hundred to the Rainbow Pride Union. Thousands apiece to Students for Students International and the Women’s Center and the Children’s Dance Theater and the Thurgood Marshall black pre-law organization. And a few hundred each to dozens more, from the Society of Women Engineers to the College Libertarians.
That’s a huge amount of under-the-radar grassroots student activity, and most of it would disappear if even half of Binghamton’s students declined to pay a voluntary student fee. (Student government election turnout at Binghamton today averages about 15%, which means that non-voters supply the student association with nearly $1.9 million of its annual $2.2 million budget.)
Yes, it would be possible to keep rates of participation in a voluntary fee up, and yes the organizing work required would likely bring a higher profile and greater engagement to the work of the student government. But it would also consume a tremendous amount of time and energy, time and energy that was devoted to restoring most of the funding that nearly every American student government — the finest and most engaged as well as the least competent — now wields as a matter of course.
When I served on Binghamton’s student association budget committee as a 20-year-old undergraduate, I was one of a dozen elected students who spent two weeks meeting with representatives of nearly two hundred clubs to recommend how to divide up more than a million dollars in student money. When we got done, we presented our proposal to the student assembly, who spent some ten hours hearing from dozens of those groups again, going over the budget line by line, hammering out a plan to provide students with the support they needed to do all of the hundreds of different things — from tutoring struggling undergrads to providing safe spaces for underrepresented student communities to playing intramural touch football — that they wanted to do in the coming year. (What they wanted to do. Not what some student affairs administrator wanted them to do, what they wanted to do, and what their fellow students wanted to support them in doing.)
That’s student community. That’s student engagement. That’s student organizing. That’s student power. And it’s made possible by student government, an institution that many activists — back then and today — spurn as pointless, ineffectual, and hollow.
Those criticisms aren’t completely misplaced, of course — much of the work that student governments do is pointless, ineffectual, and hollow. But if you believe, as I wrote in my Ray Glass essay,
that every American campus should have a student union “which so overwhelmingly speaks for students that it becomes recognized by the university as the exclusive collective bargaining agent for students on all matters affecting the students of that university as students,” then the events of the last four decades suggest that you have to entertain the idea that building a robust, democratic mechanism for implementing mandatory dues schemes is a valid, even essential, organizing goal. And if that’s your goal, you have to at least contemplate the possibility that student government organizing may be the path most likely to get you there.
In my next post I’ll talk a bit more about why I believe in that route, and what shape I picture such organizing taking.
A computer science undergrad at Montreal’s Dawson College was recently expelled after stumbling across — and reporting — a coding flaw that compromised the security of the personal information of the college’s students.
Ahmed Al-Khabaz, 20, found the security leak while working on a mobile phone app for students. Thanks to “sloppy coding,” he says, anyone with basic skills could have accessed “personal information of any student in the system, including social insurance number, home address and phone number, class schedule, basically all the information the college has on a student.”
Al-Khabaz reported the flaw to Dawson’s Director of Information Services and Technology on October 24, and was assured that the college and Skytech, the company that had written the software, would take immediate action to plug the leak. Several days later he ran a test of the system from his home computer to see whether the students’ information — including his own — had in fact been secured.
Within minutes Al-Khabaz received a phone call from Edouard Taza, president of Skytech. (He had made no attempt to conceal his identity while running the probe, he says.) Taza accused Al-Khabaz of launching an attack on the system, and demanded that he sign a non-disclosure agreement covering the incident. (Skynet later declared that Al-Khabaz’s test had compromised the responsiveness of its site.)
Not long afterwards, Al-Khabaz was called into a meeting with top college officials, after which — with no notice to Al-Khabaz and without hearing his side of the story — the faculty of his department voted 14-1 to expel him. Two attempts to overturn the decision were rejected, and now Al-Khabaz is out of college with a semester’s worth of failed classes and a dismissal for academic misconduct on his transcript.
Since this story broke in the National Post on Sunday, however, Al-Khabaz has seen his fortunes begin to change. His plight was featured in Boing Boing, the Twitter hashtag #HamedHelped began to blow up, and the Canadian — and global — media began to knock on his door.
A large portion of this attention came from the Student Union at Dawson College, which set up a website providing resources relating to his case, a petition calling for his reinstatement, and assistance to media looking to talk with Al-Khabaz. At this writing, 7,763 people have signed the Student Union petition, with tens of thousands more visiting the site.
Dawson College, however, shows no signs of backing down. A statement posted to their website asserts that “the reasons cited in the National Post article for which the student was expelled are inaccurate.” In an interview yesterday, Dawson director general Richard Filion called Al-Khabaz’s actions “a criminal act,” though the college has not contacted police about the incident.
Jim Banks, a Republican state senator from Indiana, wants to legalize concealed carry on the state’s public college campuses. And he’s got a novel argument in favor of the proposition.
“That’s what’s compelling about this issue,” he told an Associated Press reporter. “how many female students there are around the state, who have very specific and real reasons to be afraid for their own safety on their campus. The number of sexual assault cases on campuses is alarming.”
Of course a large majority of rapes are committed by people known to the victims, with nearly half perpetrated by friends, acquaintances, or prior sexual partners. And while it’s perhaps appealing on some level to imagine Indiana’s college women carrying guns on study sessions, to dorm parties, and on dates to protect themselves from the men they socialize with, one suspects that that’s not what Banks had in mind.
No, of course it isn’t. Banks read somewhere about the epidemic of campus rape and he just slotted it into his previously existing concept of the trenchcoat-clad ruffian in the bushes. And he slotted THAT into his pre-existing predilection for more guns, anywhere and everywhere.
It’s not actually about rape at all.
Update | As @DanMcDs just pointed out on Twitter, the most likely result of a major impact of widespread campus carry on sexual assault would be a massive increase in rapes perpetrated via gun threats or intimidation.
On Saturday night two campus cops were sent to the dorm room of Graham Gaddis, a first-year student at the University of Kentucky, responding to a report that he’d been seen pouring liquor out of the room’s window. While the cops waited, Gaddis set up a video camera, turned it on, and pointed it at the door.
In the video that follows, Gaddis can be seen denying the allegations against him, then refusing the cops entry, then refusing to move his foot so that they can go around him and into the room. He says they need a warrant, they say they have “administrative rights.”
“Do you want to be kicked out of this university?” one asks. “Because I can pave that road.”
“You have braces,” Gaddis replies. “Nice.”
That’s about when the cursing starts. “Fuck you guys,” Gaddis says. “You guys suck dick. You can’t find shit.” That’s right after he makes a weird, mocking “nee nee nee nee nee” sound at them.
After that, they start debating procedure. “Have you ever read the student code of conduct?” a cop asks. ”Multiple times.” “Okay, cool. Then you should know well…”
Gaddis interrupts. “So the student code of conduct — if a cop comes to your door you have to let him in? Nah. Your fucking dorm is exactly the same as your house. You have the exact same privacy rights. You cannot come in my room without consent.” The cop says that’s right, but that administrative representatives, not cops, have the right to enter. When Gaddis asks why his RA isn’t conducting the search, then, the cop says “your belligerence.”
“I’m belligerent, dude? Are you fucking stupid?”
After that they just all hang out for a while, debating the Fourth Amendment, until Gaddis interrupts one too many times.
“No no no! Shut up!” a cop yells. “I’m talking! Okay? I am talking! I am in charge here! This is what’s going to happen. We’re just going to leave your ass alone. And we’re going to write up a Student Contact, and we’re going to the dean of students, and we’re going to kick your ass out of this university. Where you’re going is home. Don’t even bother paying your tuition next semester. Because you’re going.”
Then they apparently walk away, and as they do, Gaddis calls after them. “Good point, guys, good point. Sorry I kicked you out of my room. I just owned you guys. Fuck you guys. You can’t come in my room.”
That’s when the cop comes back, shoves him, and bursts into the room: “I can come in your room, because I’m a university administrator, stud.”
They proceed to search the room while the student continues to mock them.
As of yesterday morning, the video had been watched more than a hundred thousand times on YouTube.
Yesterday afternoon the cop was fired.
On Wednesday, students at Wilberforce University, a small historically black college just outside of Dayton Ohio, gave a demonstration of what student power can mean.
Fed up with the college’s failure to address its longstanding problems, than three hundred of the school’s five hundred enrolled students marched on Wilberforce’s administrative offices to request transfer applications. Some 337 the demonstrators — two thirds of the college’s student body — are said to be prepared to request transfer to nearby Central State University next fall if their demands aren’t met.
The students’ complaints include high tuition, reductions in student services, and unchecked mold in one dormitory.
Founded in 1856, Wilberforce is the oldest private historically black college in the United States. (Many of its earliest students were escaped slaves.) But the college has struggled in recent years, amid charges of mismanagement leveled against top administrators — enrollment has fallen by half in the last seven years, and the institution is tens of millions of dollars in debt.
WU student government president Brandon Harvey, who organized Wednesday’s protest, considers the threat to withdraw a last-ditch effort to save the university. “Academic life, spiritual life and social life are at an all-time low,” he told the Dayton News. “I’m afraid when I come back three to five years from now, Wilberforce University will not be alive.”
Wilberforce president Patricia Lofton Hardaway held a press conference in response to the protest, but made no specific pledges for reform. Students plan to demonstrate again next week when the college’s board of trustees meets at an off-campus location.