Written by: Alexander Johnson and Aajah Harris
At the close of another academic year, students and higher education administrators alike are looking ahead to the Fall 2021 semester. As these groups navigate key decisions, there is one constituency who can help bridge the needs of students and pressures of institutions: student government leaders. University student government associations (SGAs) serve as a crucial vehicle for student advocacy and change that is under-appreciated in many aspects. As former student government executive leaders at two very different institutions (the University of Michigan—a large, public research university in Michigan and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore—a small, rural, historically Black college in Maryland), we know that student government can be a vehicle for positive change. Like with many aspects of higher education, now is the time for transformation in student government to ensure it realizes its potential to best serve students and institutions.
Student government associations are uniquely positioned to lead on campus: they have stable budgets (usually paid from required student fees) and consistent access to top university officials. However, in their current structure, SGAs are sometimes relegated to symbolic roles, particularly when there are tensions between what students ask of SGA and what administrators ask. For example, some student government leaders are asked to sign contracts that they will remain politically neutral and avoid advocacy activities. This practice puts these student leaders at a disadvantage in meeting student expectations, as Aajah experienced in a situation where she aimed to help resolve an over-policing issue that significantly impacted student experience and academic success. In other situations, SGAs might be used by administrators to check the box on getting student input and deflect criticism, even though students were not truly empowered in decision making. These barriers to student government success often have to do with state politics, power dynamics, or individual egos, but have real consequences around the SGA’s ability to effectively serve.
If properly resourced and respected, student government can be an invaluable tool improving student experience and narrowing the gap between students and administrators - particularly during crises like COVID-19. For example, at the University of Michigan the medical school student government was able to bridge key demands and divides created by the chaos of COVID-19 as recognized in a leading journal. Additionally, the main campus SGA at U Michigan helped to alleviate financial burdens for students surrounding COVID-19 testing needed for in-person attendance this past year by offering a $25 reimbursement for testing done off campus. In these situations, student leaders already in place were able to mobilize quickly and serve as a bridge between the pressures facing administrators and the needs of students. Students are often closest to the problem and thus closest to the solution.
However, in other situations, student governments are not empowered to solve problems due to a lack of resources that can stem either from campus decisions or the broader financial inequality that plagues higher education as a system, as the institutions that often serve students with the most complex lives have the fewest resources. For example, UMES students were also required to show up to campus with a negative COVID-19 test for spring 2021 semester. Unlike other highly resourced institutions, UMES was unable to provide a budget to pay for these tests for students, leaving students to find and pay for testing on their own. This was a challenge for the large percentage of students at UMES who do not have health insurance. The SGA was asked for help, but faced a lack of resources to solve this challenge. While this situation was unique to the COVID-19 pandemic, the key takeaway is a mismatch between the depth of need for certain students and institutions and the support in the current higher education system.
Student governments themselves can also reform to ensure they are more representative of the increasingly diverse needs of students. Over the past few years, many SGAs have recognized that current policies cater to students in the upper echelon of socio-economic status. For example, policies such as positions with limited or no pay, requirements for an extremely high GPA, and bans on representatives holding part- or full-time jobs make it near impossible for the new majority of students to serve, as many of these are student parents and learner-earners who need to work while pursuing education. Each year, the SGA at the University of Michigan conducts a student demographic survey of participants and the numbers continue to show the disproportionate representation of wealthy, white, heterosexual students in leadership positions. Individual associations can consider how to change policies to recruit and retain representatives that better reflect today’s students.
As higher education leaders consider how their institutions will continue evolving once the pandemic is over, student governments have a key role to play. At their best, these associations bring together diverse student backgrounds and innovative officials for conversations and change across campus; at the very least, they provide a meeting ground for students interested in making their little corner of the world a better place. Further investing resources and creating meaningful reform can ensure student governments build bridges that allow students, administrators and institutions to flourish.
Alex Johnson is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he obtained a B.A. in Communication and Media Studies with minors in Political Science and Community Action and Social Change (CASC). He started this minor, which is housed in the School of Social Work, in his junior year of college, and has been fascinated by different forms activism can take, not only as a college student, but through all stages of life. He is planning to return to school to pursue a joint MSW/MPP. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community and a student of significantly less financial means than a majority of my peers in college, Alex is passionate about opening avenues of opportunity for those who come after him. He believes that we have an immense amount of knowledge to learn from those who came before us, especially activists, and that we can use this knowledge to build a more equitable future.
Aajah Harris recently completed her graduate degree in criminal justice at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. During her undergraduate studies, she served as Student Government President. During Aajah’s term, she and her colleagues advocated for many, if not all HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) across the nation. After graduation, she plans to obtain a PhD in higher education administration, building upon her experience in the Student Coalition on Higher Education. In this Student Coalition, Aajah hopes to shed light on the issues that HBCUs face and possible suggestions that could be implemented.