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Enough with the Rhetoric, A Defense of Student Government

PHOTO/ CLAS Student Government - Facebook
PHOTO/ CLAS Student Government – Facebook

By Nissim Said, President of CLAS Student Government

Published: February 14th, 2018

Student government always gets a bad reputation. Whether it’s here or across the nation, more and more students are becoming cynical of their student representatives. A product of the current political landscape, I’d wager.

I’ve heard the claims more than I care to admit: The elections are corrupt and fixed, those who are elected don’t serve the students, student government discriminates and excludes certain populations, money is hoarded for personal expenditures, and that somewhere exists a vast sum of money that is only used for Michelin Star meals. (Thomas Keller, please cook for me.)

Well, I’m tired of it. I’m tired of this narrative. We are not perfect, and I don’t believe we will ever be, but it’s time to dispel this false narrative that only furthers the distrust. It prevents more students from taking initiative and changing their community for the better. We’ve had our problems, problems that existed for decades, but we’ve worked to remedy those issues.

Look, the elections are not fixed. The turnout is abysmal, but we’ve sought to change the nature of elections by extending the election period, creating presidential debates, and increasing awareness of student government. If anyone recalls my own campaign and our intense social media focus, I nearly lost. I nearly lost on a ballot where I was the only student who had student government experience. If the system was fixed, it did an awful job. I served three years on student government prior to running. If a political machine that sets up future presidents exists, I’d like to know why I didn’t have its support. If you thought I did well during the campaign, great. I wrote a guide outlining all of my strategies. I have no interest in keeping secrets and strategies from any candidate. All I aimed to do was raise the level of debate on our campus and create more competition throughout our ranks.

The students elected are some of the most self-sacrificing and passionate students that walk through these halls. These are students who have academic and work commitments, and are trying to give back as best they can. Yes, there will always be bad apples, but we’ve cut the fat and ensured every elected representative was responsible to their constituents. For that reason, my administration has seen some of the highest turnover in CLAS, but at the same time we created a training program that involved students who immediately filled the void left by less passionate students. If you think CLAS representatives are not working incredibly hard, try reading the different governing documents at Brooklyn College, CUNY, & NYS. If you think change is simple, you do not understand the enormity of the challenges involved to accomplish even the simplest of things.

In the past existed a two-party system. The process of getting on a ballot allowed insiders to choose their running mates, effectively keeping the power amongst their friends and allies. Well, we got rid of the party system. I believed it would solve our issues. To a degree, it did, but came a new series of challenges. If a minority party no longer automatically get seats, then what safety net exists to ensure the minority opinion will always be heard? That’s why we brought back the party system with refinements. Limiting the size of parties, to ensure that at any point in time at least four parties would be in power, requiring partnership and mutual understanding similar to the Germanic Coalition system.

That’s not to say we haven’t fixed the diversity issues. Currently, this student government is more diverse than it ever has been. My executive board alone is comprised of multiple backgrounds and religions, the leadership within student government has never been held by this many women, and women of color. We’re not perfect, but we understand the importance of our representatives to be at least close to the proportion of the makeup of our campus. No one identity or background should assume total power within student government.

There are no personal expenditures. There are checks and balances, along with a medley of laws and regulations we need to comply with when it comes to spending any amount of money. In fact, furnishing for our office has been paid mostly out of pocket. I paid for my own monitor, keyboard, mouse, chargers, and any decorum I added. My desk belonged to ex-President Karen Gould that we had snatched when she threw it in the trash. There is an “Office Supplies” line that we use to order pens, paper, coffee, cleaning supplies and some snacks. Anyone is free to grab what they’d like, and students usually do.

In fact, if you’d like to check, on our website lists our budget. Take a look at exactly what we have allocated and how it’s spent. Transparency is vital to rebuilding trust in student government.

Finally, we do not have this treasure chest to spend on food and drinks. We purchase the cheapest pizza available with a discount for our meetings. The only reason we even purchase food is because our meetings are during lunch hour on Tuesdays and it would be impossible to ask students to forgo their chance to grab food between classes in order to attend meetings. Again, if you’d like to see what food we purchase, check the budget.

I’ve been in my position for a little over a semester now. Anyone who’s followed our activities knows the energy that we’ve brought to student government. We are, but college kids, with our own academic, career, financial, social, romantic focuses and problems. We do the best we can each and every day, and this rhetoric is disrespectful and embarrassing to the students who commit hundreds of hours over the course of a year to better their own campus.

If you don’t like what we’ve done or think you can do better, get involved. Don’t sulk and complain. If you’re not working towards a solution, you are part of the problem.

I measure my success by the success of those who come after me. If within the next few years student government completely outshines my administration’s contributions, then I have succeeded. Anything less is a failure on my part.

I’ll end with my personal philosophy. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

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