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.