Help fix MIT’s student government

The UA is dogged with problems, and only collective effort will fix it

In high school, many of you were likely involved in some form of student government. Whether as a class officer, a member of the executive board of Student Council , or as a student leader in some other capacity, I’m willing to bet that you left a positive mark on your school. In fact, I know you have. According to the May/June Faculty Newsletter, 31 percent of you founded an organization. Perhaps, like myself when I was a freshman, you are proud of what you’ve accomplished so far, but are wondering where you will find your niche at MIT. With over four thousand undergraduate students at this school, will you be able to have as big an impact as you did in high school? I’m here to tell you that the answer to that is a resounding “yes.”

If you participated in a student government in high school that was anything like mine, you probably spent a lot of time submitting purchase orders, planning events, and organizing fundraisers. Perhaps you were the “go-to person” for students to voice their frustrations with a new policy the administration had implemented. While certainly important, the influence that student leaders have in high school is largely restricted to intra- or inter-class events. Students can certainly act in an advisory capacity to school administrators by serving on the school council or the local or regional student advisory council, but even those positions afford students limited power.

Some say MIT has one of the most powerful and influential undergraduate student governments in the nation. This government, the Undergraduate Association (UA), is in charge of recognizing and providing funding to student groups, organizing events with budgets in excess of $100,000, has student representatives serving on many committees that the administration forms, whether they’re charged with finding a new dean, creating a new major, or changing the HASS requirement. It is in no way an exaggeration that MIT students have a substantial amount of influence when it comes to nearly every aspect of the Institute. Do we always get our way? No, of course not. But by and large, the administration actively seeks out student input and takes it into consideration when making decisions.

Why, then, does the headline to this article ask for your help in fixing the UA? Despite the potential of this system and its history of providing input, the UA has broken down over the course of the last few years, oftentimes losing sight of what its purpose is. Serving as MacGregor’s Senator my freshman year, I witnessed the dysfunction in this body firsthand. Meetings stretched anywhere from three to or six hours, but were far from productive. During debate, Senators would repeat, slightly rephrased, the same major points over and over again. The majority of items on the agenda would needlessly stretch far beyond their scheduled end times. Not only are long, unproductive meetings a burden on the Senators representing their living groups, but they also lack transparency; after all, what student, curious about a certain bill or issue, would want to attend a meeting lasting four hours?

Although Allan E. Miramonti ’13, the newly elected UA President, asserted in the March presidential debate that “If we have a more efficient body, a body that gets a lot more done, people will be less likely to leave,” he was sparse on specifics throughout the campaign. His running mate at the time also pointed out that Senate and Exec need to “get along more and work together more efficiently,” Hopefully, Allan will translate these words into more specific actions once the term begins.

The ineffectiveness of the UA was beautifully demonstrated last year, when in the months preceding the presidential election, five members of the UA — both Senate and Exec — resigned. In addition, the Senate consistently has an extremely low turnover rate. Since 2002, the percentage of Senators who served two consecutive years only rose above 24 percent once, usually falling much lower. In four of the eight years, the percentage returning was between ten and fifteen percent. The reason that many, including myself, did not seek reelection was because of the feeling that despite the significant number of hours they put into it, they got very little out of it. It’d be like paying $100 for a candy bar. Sure, the output is tasty, but it is definitely not worth the input.

But there seem to be problems more fundamental than unproductive meetings. The former vice president-elect, who resigned shortly after being elected, point to an atmosphere that does not encourage collaboration, teamwork, or input from new members. Not only does the negative atmosphere seem to marginalize individuals who do not agree with the leadership, but it encourages playing politics over substantive policy. In a May 2011 column, last year’s UA President, Vrajesh Y. Modi ’11, claimed that the UA has still accomplished important goals. Certainly, the UA managed to tangibly benefit students, but while Vrajesh sees the good outweighing the bad, I take the opposite view. The large number of resignations and student disillusionment with the UA points to more systemic problems. Even if the UA is able to accomplish a few of its goals, it cannot strongly advocate for students when students themselves view the organization as dysfunctional.

Some might argue that as MIT students, our academics come first. This is certainly true, but it is no excuse to bail on other commitments. Students still find time for athletics, volunteer work, and a variety of groups that are important to them. The Senate’s low retention rate does not point to an MIT student’s inability to balance commitments, because that’s what MIT students excel at. Rather, it suggests that the UA is not important enough to them, whether because it is inefficient, fails at incorporating input from newcomers, or is just not a good atmosphere in which to work. Students care about issues on campus; we see this every time the administration announces a new policy that many students do not like. What students seem to fail to recognize is that student government is the group which addresses these issues. If you want to influence policy, then you should be involved in, or at least care about, student government.

The wave of resignations, including the prominent resignation of the vice president-elect, along with the poor retention rates and consistent placement of politics over policy should be a wake-up call to the UA. But I harbor doubts that much will change, unless we force it to change. It is up to all of us, but perhaps none so much as you, the Class of 2015, to take back our student government and make the changes that need to be made. Later this year, the Committee on Restructuring will present a proposal to restructure the UA and it is the duty of all of us to ensure that this proposal will address the fundamental problems of the UA and the larger issue of student representation. “Student representation” refers to MIT’s multiple student governments: the UA, representing all students; Dormitory Council, representing the dormitories collectively; the Inter-Fraternity Council (IFC), representing the fraternities; and the Pan-Hellenic Council, representing the sororities. Such a de-centralized government makes it difficult for the administration to figure out which government(s) they should go to if they want input on a certain issue. Just one more item to add to the list of problems.

The UA’s problems are numerous. It will take more than an one person to correct them all. Rather, it will take a group of individuals all dedicated to implementing the kind of policies that will fix the UA. I certainly have a few ideas for solutions of my own, but I am curious to hear what you have to say, particularly members of the Class of 2015. I invite current students, especially the Class of 2015, to contact me at letters@tech.mit.edu with ideas. With the feedback I receive, I will run a second column around the time of elections regarding how I — and, more importantly, all of you — believe the UA can be repaired. Until then, enjoy the free REX and Orientation food!

Senate retention data can be found on the UA’s website at http://ua.mit.edu/structure/.