The Student Government Association of the University of Massachusetts possesses a formidable list of responsibilities as enumerated by its Constitution & By-Laws. These vary from dispensing funds to Registered Student Organizations, agencies and area governments, to policing and regulating itself through its bylaws, to acting in an advisory role to the Administration in matters of academic and university policy. In these rather mundane, humdrum matters, the SGA’s capabilities are rather well-known. However, no one has ever really delved into the more cerebral, philosophical causes of and reasons for the SGA’s existence.
If one asks anybody endowed with a leadership role within the SGA as to what he thinks its purpose is, he will inevitably respond, first and foremost, to “help students” in any way it can. After all, all undergraduate students are technically SGA members, as elucidated by Article II of its Constitution. Being a senator myself, I would have to say that this assertion as to the SGA’s purpose is indisputably true. It is made evident by the myriad committees, task forces, cabinet positions and ex-officio members that the SGA is equipped to handle the bread-and-butter issues that most students concern themselves with, from bike racks, to cheaper textbooks, to RSO funding allocations.
However, in the eyes of this humble senator, the SGA serves a purpose that many know, but that only a precious few are willing to admit– to bestow political experience upon those that have the ambition and motivation to seek it.
This is a perfectly valid conception of the purpose of the SGA. Many people who enter student government at colleges and universities across the country harbor political ambitions for later in life. Many famous political figures have used their student government experiences as a springboard into local, state and national politics, such as President Richard Nixon, who served as the Student Body President at Whittier College in California. As a conduit of political participation and leadership, it is at least partly the responsibility of student government to afford its participants the experience to wield the reins of power with prudence and efficacy.
Many people view politics as an unseemly, sordid thing – one that attracts the worst that humanity has to offer. This thesis, I would argue, is a patently unfair stereotype. Politics exists wherever resources are scarce or want is prevalent, be it want of money, property or adequate policy. The beauty of the republican system in which we live is that such conflicting desires for material and social betterment can be resolved peacefully and in an orderly fashion, rather than by constant revolution or civil war. This theory of government as an arbiter over scarcity can be seen in practice in our own SGA, which is charged with, amongst other things, allocating money from the Student Activities Trust Fund (SATF) to RSOs and Agencies. Aside from allocating resources that are, in the long run, quite scarce, the SGA’s budget allocation process also educates its executors in the fine art of balancing a checkbook, a skill our politicians desperately need to employ today.
The essential political education that the SGA provides extends beyond mere abstractions and speculative theories of government, however. For those looking to get involved in politics later in life, the SGA provides crucial experience in managing a campaign. This is especially true in the oft-contested spring presidential election. These skills include forging alliances to facilitate the passage of bills, legal analysis through the scrutiny of debate, and amendment of the constitution and by-laws as well as a vital dose of the sometimes-baffling realm of parliamentary procedure.
In this capacity, the SGA functions not just as a part of the great chain of governmental being at UMass, but also as a direct and vital method of civic engagement that is an essential conduit to participation in the politics of a republic.
However, the SGA also serves to politically educate in a fashion at least partially removed from parliamentary politics. It serves in a concurrent role as a lobbying group for undergraduate students – a guarantor of their welfare and representation in the confusing bureaucracy that often characterizes the UMass student experience. It is in this capacity that the SGA lobbies for and acquires internal improvements such as the ongoing reevaluation of the Student Code of Conduct, increased numbers of bike racks and cheaper textbooks. These programs have proven immensely popular with most students. It is imperative to note, however, that when the term “advocacy” is unearthed, student advocacy is often unfairly conflated with issue advocacy, such as the support or denigration of a piece of legislation. The unchecked excesses of the latter variety of advocacy have, in the past, led to the emaciation of the SGA, with its members crusading for legislation in such an idealistically abstract manner that its very legitimacy was oftentimes compromised.
Otto von Bismarck, Prussian Prime Minister and First Chancellor of the German Empire, once stated that “romanticism is no basis for politics,” and nowhere is this quote made more evident than in the efforts of the current leadership of the SGA. Instead of adhering to a rigid doctrine of purging politics from the SGA and lobbying for vaguely pertinent legislation, the SGA has made a concerted effort to focus on issues and goals that have positive effects on student life, while at the same time affording a future generation of leaders the political experience necessary to guide the destiny of our great republic.
Dan Stratford is a Collegian columnist and SGA senator. He can be reached at [email protected]