The Associated Student Body — as an institution — suffers from a souring culture of on-campus engagement. Of course, every aspect of student life has been upset in the past year, but student government was a boring disaster long before the age of facemasks and video calls.
An overwhelming majority of students don’t care about ASB. Uncontested elections have become standard in student government. In the most recent election, four out of six executive positions were filled by candidates who ran unopposed. In the spring of 2020, five executive positions were filled by candidates who ran unopposed. That cycle featured the last contest for student body president, an election in which only 3,111 votes were cast.
One exception to these dismal turnout trends was in the fall of 2019. On the ballot was an initiative to double the student activities fee from $5 a semester to $10. The Senate unanimously supported the measure, but students roundly rejected it at the polls. The increase would have been a negligible cost to students in an era of exorbitant tuition payments, but that wasn’t their primary concern. The problem was that student government had failed to explain what, exactly, it does.
Student leaders — for lack of a better term — have done some good in the past. They condemned the chancellor search process. They supported the relocation of the Confederate monument. They provided the occasional drama of campaign violation scandals. And yet, such instances seem few and far between. It feels like student leaders devote most of their official energies to making Business Row unwalkable and group chats insufferable.
This boring disaster — uncompetitive races, low turnout and general disinterest — is an apathy borne of contempt. From the outside looking in, ASB can seem a loathsome affair. For years, white and male students have overwhelmingly populated student government. Members of the Honors College are overrepresented in a system that spits out resume bullet points like a machine. Greek-affiliated students enjoy significant financial and social backing from their respective organizations.
A person seeking to join ASB can face absurd barriers to entry. Low-income students struggle to compete in races that can easily cost a couple of months’ rent. It turns out that all those obnoxious signs are quite pricey. In the spring of 2020, a candidate for vice president — who was running unopposed — spent just under $600 on her campaign. Students who are not in a fraternity or sorority face an uphill battle against opponents who can draw on expansive readymade networks.
A person who manages to prevail over such obstacles enters a daunting institutional culture. The Senate enforces an unwritten dress code and abides by overblown rules of decorum. Beyond sheer snobbery, business attire and parliamentary procedure are marks of an environment that has needlessly made itself less accessible to some students. Student government, despite recent gains in gender diversity, can still function as a “boys’ club” that overvalues male voices. Campus discussions — including those carried by this newspaper — often underappreciated accomplishments made by students of color. It’s no wonder that ASB — exclusive, elitist and pretentious — is so thoroughly despised.
At this rate, I would prefer student government by sortition. Take each year’s six-figure student activities budget and dole it out to various student organizations. Even after such expenditures, there would be a good bit of money left. Select a handful of undergraduates by lottery, and let them spend the rest. At worst, we solve for a toxic culture in student government. At best, we get chocolate milk in the drinking fountains and a waterslide behind the library.
Unfortunately, such a utopia is a long way off. In the meantime, the student government should do some soul-searching. Why do so few students run for even the most (self-)important offices? Why do so many of their peers forego voting altogether? And is there a way to solve either of these problems that doesn’t involve stickers?
John Hydrisko is a senior English, philosophy and history major from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.