I was recently asked a really interesting request from a Canadian student activist, and I’ve received permission to share it, and my answer, with you all.

His question:

I’ve been looking into starting graduate school in 2013. I found myself naturally drawn to [a private college in New England] but after some basic research I get the feeling that despite their claims of championing social justice & democracy, there does not seem to be a legitimate accredited representative student body on campus. I find myself doubting that I will ever be able to truly enjoy my educational experience at a school that doesn’t have progressive/radical student representation.

So my question to you is: do you have a basic list of some schools in the states that have such representation? I know the Student Union model varies quite intensively between Canada and the USA, but I’m still hoping there may be a few schools out there that have the sort of Union I’m looking for.

My response:

It’s a good question, and not one that has a really straightforward answer. Instead, some general thoughts.

The basic unit of campus representation of students in the US is generally the student government, sometimes called the student association or something similar. (Graduate students and undergrads are typically organized separately.) Student governments range from very weak to fairly strong, with a few general trends visible.

First, and probably most importantly, student governments at public colleges are usually more robust than those at private institutions. Public universities are responsive to political pressure in ways that privates aren’t, and they tend to be more likely to have policies in place ensuring a measure of student autonomy and representation in campus governance. When student activists fought for university reform in the late sixties and after, it was in the public universities that they had the most success, and those successes are still visible on some campuses today.

A second indicator of the strength of student government is the existence of a statewide student association, or SSA. SSAs are most often constituted as federations of student governments within a public university system, and they tend to be established outside the control of the university itself. (In contrast, campus student governments generally exist within the university governance system, and are subject to administrative interference.)

The presence of an SSA in a university system is an indication that the student governments within that system have a history of students’ rights organizing. Many SSAs also foster a culture of student engagement with university governance issues while representing a check on administrative meddling in student affairs. Similarly, campuses that are members of the United States Student Association are generally at least a bit more likely to have activist student governments.

Looking beyond the student government world, some sites of institutionally significant student organizing to keep an eye out for are graduate student employees’ unions, Occupy-affiliated mobilizations, and chapters of groups like Students for a Democratic Society. These groups aren’t directly embedded in university governance like the ones discussed above, but they often represent a pro-student force in campus struggles.

So. That’s what I came up with. I’m eager to hear from y’all on this — I suspect that some of you may have different and better advice than I do.