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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.

He continues:

“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.

“Are Student Governments Obsolete?”, an early-70s essay by New York student activist Ray Glass, has enjoyed a boomlet of attention in recent months. A couple of people put the text up online, and it’s been getting passed around quite a bit — I keep seeing it pop up on Facebook and Twitter and various blogs.

Ray Glass was one of the founders of SASU, the system-wide student association for the State University of New York. He was the engine behind SASU’s successful campaign to get an elected student representative on the SUNY board of trustees (and on those of all the SUNY campuses), and was completing a stint as the organization’s legislative director when he was struck and killed by a drunk driver in Albany in 1975.

When I joined SASU in the late 1980s the group’s annual organizing conference bore his name, and “Are Student Governments Obsolete?” was one of our touchstone documents — a passionate, broad-ranging critique of university governance, student government, and campus organizing as they had existed fifteen years earlier. In it, Glass argued that voluntary student unions, “dependent in all respects on students and independent of all other people, agencies or forces,” are the path to true student power, an argument with a powerful allure for anyone who, like those of us who worked in SASU, had spent years struggling in student governments compromised by their institutional relationship with the university.

Student unionism is today experiencing a rebirth of interest as our contemporary wave of campus activism grows, matures, and begins to ponder next steps. It is that phenomenon that has spurred the Ray Glass mini-revival, and that element of his work that has drawn the most attention.

But there is a strange paradox here. Ray Glass helped build SASU from a perch in student government, serving as student association president at SUNY Binghamton while he did much of the early organizing that brought the statewide group into being. The SASU that he and his peers constructed wasn’t a voluntary union of individuals but a confederation of student governments, and it was the power of that confederation that enabled SASU to win SUNY students’ first ever direct role in university governance — a victory to which Glass devoted years of his life. And neither was SASU funded by individual memberships, as Glass advocated in the essay. At the time SASU drew revenue from those same student governments, and later it would be supported through binding campus referenda.

This seeming contradiction puzzled me when I first encountered “Are Student Governments Obsolete?”, and the essay offered no guidance as to how to resolve it. An editorial note on the first page of the typed version we all endlessly photocopied said that Glass had written it while serving as SASU’s legislative director, but SASU was — bizarrely, it seemed to me — mentioned nowhere in the document. (My hunch now is that the piece may have been written earlier, but I’ve never found anything to confirm that theory.)

For nearly twenty years the unfolding story of SASU, the organization to which Ray Glass devoted the entirety of his adult life, stood at odds with the thrust of his best-known written work. In the years after his death the organization continued to grow, emerging as the nation’s strongest and most successful statewide student association — winning victories on tuition, governance, and student rights issues, building stronger and more independent student governments across the SUNY system, and helping to transform the United States Student Association into a more activist, progressive, effective force nationally. The collapse of SASU in the 1990s left a void in American student organizing that is still felt today.

So how are we to reconcile these facts?

To start with, much of Glass’s critique stands even if we demur from his conclusions about organizational models. His criticism of student government is acute and lacerating, and many of his arguments about the nature of real student power are cogent and convincing. If student government has more potential than he recognized, it is in part because his generation of activists, and those whom he and his peers influenced, fought like hell to make those institutions into something more worthy than they’d been before.

It’s also, I think, worthwhile to interrogate the specifics of Glass’s argument in favor of voluntary dues. He envisioned the student union as a direct analogue to the labor union, with collective bargaining standing as its central task and responsibility. Voluntary dues were crucial to this project, he wrote, because “the mandatory dues which labor unions charge have probably done more to facilitate their entrenchment, removal from rank and file, and conservative policies than any other factor.”

Reading that sentence today, one is struck by its datedness. Where Glass wrote of labor unions as an “entrenched … conservative” force in the workplace, today nearly all observers — including those unions’ radical critics — would argue something close to the opposite, on one or both counts. Indeed, our era’s legal and organizing struggles around so-called “right to work” laws proceed from a mirror-image premise from Glass’s — nowadays, right-to-work’s voluntary dues schemes are understood by supporters and opponents alike as a mechanism for union-busting.

Consider the following, from a December interview with labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein on the right-to-work struggle:

“Solidarity isn’t a purely altruistic concept. Unions have to be a combat organization, ready to fight the boss. That means there is an element of coercion involved. It’s like taxes. The price of civilization is taxes. The price of unionism is solidarity. And, yes, that does involve coercing people to contribute to the union. Unions are not like the NRA or the Sierra Club, they’re not purely voluntary organizations. They were given a slice of state authority in order to solve the problem of industrial violence. … [Unions] need money, staff. They’re the ones hustling for votes. That’s where the battlefield is being fought. And the money to do that comes from dues. When you don’t have that, unions shrink.”

There are obvious critiques of this perspective to be offered. But its core message is hard to dispute, and its applicability to the student unionism movement as Ray Glass conceptualized it seems clear.

Students like Ray Glass fought hard to build to gain access to mandatory funding mechanisms for student activist organizations, and their successors are fighting hard to keep them, and expand them, today. (As I write this, the Arizona Students Association has seen their democratically-approved student fee funds frozen by the university in a dispute over ASA’s pro-student organizing activities. The fate of the ASA may well hang in the balance.)

If you believe — as Ray Glass wrote, and as I agree — 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.

If reading Ray Glass is the first step in building student unionism in our century, arguing with him may well be the second.

Administrators at a California community college removed the elected student body president from office earlier this year over charges that students and faculty claim were concocted in an effort to silence his criticisms of college fiscal policy.

Officials at Moorpark College say that campus cops caught 33-year-old Jon Foote drunk on campus on one occasion and “inciting [his] fellow students into becoming a mob.” A professor who was doing calculus with Foote immediately prior to the first incident says he was not inebriated, and students present at the second say he was assisting them in dealing with over-aggressive canvassers.

In reality, his supporters argue, administrators were gunning for Foote because of the light he shone on excessive campus spending at a time when classes and professors were getting the axe. The administration’s unilateral decision to remove him from office in the middle of his term was preposterous, they say.

Another incident that took place around the same time seems to lend credence to their story. Accused of plagiarizing the homework of a study partner, Foote was barred from a physics class he was taking. When he refused to stop attending, administrators sent campus police to remove him from the classroom.

The kicker? The plagiarism charges were later dropped.

Foote remains on campus, progressing toward his degree. He’s concerned that the disciplinary charges could hurt his chances of transfer to a four-year school, but he has no plans to drop out in the meantime.

And he’s thinking about running for student government president again next year.

The student government at the University of California at Irvine last night voted unanimously to divest itself of investments in companies that support the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and to urge the UC Irvine administration to do the same.

The resolution, titled “Divestment from Companies that Profit from Apartheid,” is the second such policy to be adopted by a UC student government in recent years. (A similar resolution at Berkeley was passed, and then rescinded, amid intense media attention in 2010.) It passed by a vote of 16-0, with no abstentions.

The student government’s vote is unlikely to have any immediate practical effect. There is no indication that the UCI student government has any investments in corporations supporting the Israeli occupation, and UC administrators have stated that they have no intention of considering any such divestment on an institutional scale. But it is likely to revive discussion of Israel divestment on American campuses.

Irvine’s resolution draws explicit parallels not only between Israeli policies and South African apartheid, but also between the current campaign and American students’ past organizing for South African divestment. “As the example of South Africa shows,” the resolution declares, “it is imperative for students to stand unequivocally against all forms of racism and bigotry globally and on campus, including but not limited to Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia, patriarchy, and Israel’s system of apartheid.”

Unlike anti-apartheid campaigns, which targeted any companies doing business in South Africa, last night’s resolution does not call for full divestment from Israel. Instead it calls on UCI to end ties with companies that “provide military support for, or weaponry to support the occupation of the Palestinian territory,” those which are involved in “the building or maintenance of the illegal wall or the demolition of Palestinian homes,” and those which “facilitate the building, maintenance, or economic development of illegal Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory.”

The resolution names eight companies meeting one or more of those criteria in which it claims UCI invests — Caterpillar, Cement Roadstones Holding, Cemex, General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, Raytheon, Sodastream, and L-3 Communications.

In 2010 UC Irvine suspended its Muslim Student Union in the wake of the disruption of a campus speech by the Israeli Ambassador. Ten Muslim students were subsequently convicted of misdemeanor charges in connection with that incident.

Just last week an Israeli news website described UC Irvine as “a hotbed of pro-Israel activity,” by the way.

As many as forty people were killed early Tuesday morning in a student hostel adjoining Federal Polytechnic Mubi, a college in northeastern Nigeria, and authorities are trying to piece together why.

Initial suspician centered on Boko Hiram, a violent Islamist group whose name literally means “western education is forbidden.” But given the nature of the killings and the reported targets, officials now believe that the massacre may be connected to student elections held last weekend.

The police commissioner for the region told reporters that many of those killed “were executive leaders that were elected” in the Saturday elections, which the New York Times said were “bitterly contested along religious and ethnic lines.” The BBC reports that student union leadership positions in Nigeria are often “stepping stones” to careers in national politics, providing opportunities for economic advancement. The new leader of the Mubi student union is said to be one of those killed.

Nigeria also has a history of university violence in connection with unofficial fraternities which have been described as campus cults. In 1999 eight students at Obafemi Awololo University in southwestern Nigeria, including the secretary-general of the campus student union, were murdered by members of the Black Axe Confraternity.

Federal Polytechnic Mubi is a campus of some fourteen thousand students which opened in 1979 and moved to its current location in 1982. In the last six years its student body has more than quadrupled, and it now has a staff of some two thousand faculty and other employees.

The college has been closed since the massacre, and many students are now evacuating the area.

About This Blog

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StudentActivism.net is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

To contact Angus, click here.

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