Go and vote

By Mike Fox

I am involved in student government and campus activism, and have been for the past three years. Around this time of year – with student government elections coming up – we engage in the time-worn political tradition of the campaign and do everything we can to boost our visibility so our visions for the rest of the campus body can be endorsed and supported in the coming year. The elections – as they do in all democratic societies – bestow on us our legitimacy and serve as worthwhile barometers of how much of the student body feels our impact.

However, it has become a reoccurring source of frustration that we get around 3,000 voters, or around 12 percent, of our campus of more than 20,000 undergraduate students, each year. This limited dialogue with the rest of the student body – especially in our time of highest visibility – has turned campaigning into a game instead of a full and thorough conversation with the general student body. It has begun to eerily resemble the zero-sum game of national politics.

I, for one, have been guilty of prioritizing this mini form of large scale electioneering over trying to forge real relationships.

Perhaps it’s an inevitability of anyone seeking leadership to rely on shorthand in order to prioritize effectiveness. But it’s worth taking the opportunity of having a smaller and condensed group of people going through similar experiences to figure out how to elevate campaigning to holding honest conversations – not just with potential voters, but also between all of those who aspire to participate in student leadership.

Dissenters will cite low turnout numbers to label what I would like to do as negligible. After all, if it’s a relatively small percentage which engages with student government, why shouldn’t one be concerned with just pushing the vision one sees as correct?

This view employs the student body’s apathy as an excuse to not exercise self-criticism. A more comprehensive and deliberately measured view of student leadership would create a body which all students see as accessible. As more students view a student government as accessible, more viewpoints will be contributed to the student government.

The cycle would continue until the system can be an organization that will best address the concerns of all students and ensure that as one body, we can be organized in shaping the direction of our campus and experiences here.

This isn’t to discredit the work student activists and student government members have done. This past year, student government members have made great progress in making our Code of Student Conduct more answerable to students. They have done extensive research and advocacy on behalf of social issues confronting our campus and have established a swap market for textbooks. The government is also in the process of allocating Registered Student Organization funds, among many other efforts.

MASSPIRG, an organization committed to student activism, takes the biennial approval it receives in spring student government elections to heart. While it is connected to a larger external organization as many student groups are, students are essential in shaping the group’s direction. Notably, on our campus, this involvement helped shape a coalition with the Student Government Association and the UMass Democrats to register 1500 new voters. They also conducted efforts on a larger scale, winning funds for Pell Grants and helping to achieve credit card reform.

These experiences also provide valuable real world lessons. Fighting and advocating for causes while trying to balance the interests of many different constituencies help develop essential skills in becoming an engaged citizen. Student government and student activism provide an outlet to directly contribute to the society around oneself, considering the relative universality students feel from campus policy change.

However, the typical turnout number remains an indicator that, despite efforts being made on campus, there is significant work to be done. It doesn’t work to blame apathy on one’s own constituents or the people on whose behalf one is fighting. Communication must be increased within passionate groups in order to accomplish more collective goals and greater efforts at creating a welcoming community must be undertaken.

All of this calls for a public sphere on campus where people feel comfortable and valid in expressing their visions for the University of Massachusetts and how it can help them attain their aspirations. Student government provides a good model for this outlet, but the closed-minded nature and quick judgments that reflect larger politics must be avoided.

These flaws aren’t inevitable. On a university campus, a place established to promote and advance the greater good, these flaws can be addressed at a level that is comparatively manageable.

Please vote this Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. If you don’t, I apologize, and I will do all that I can for you to see that a future vote is worthwhile.

Mike Fox is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].