No time for student apathy

MSA leaders need increased student involvement in order to be effective.

by Nora Leinen

Way to go students! The turnout for the MSA election this year was the highest itâÄôs been in four years, a staggering 14.3 percent. I say this with a slight hint of sarcasm, but considering the voter turnout in the past few years, it is nothing to be sneezed at. âÄúNow we have more of a mandate to lead,âÄù MSA President-elect Sarah Shook said. âÄúMore student recognition, more student participation in elections. This is the first step into making us more heard on campus.âÄù The University of Wisconsin, whose shared governance system of student government has been cited as a model to increase student power at other universities, only saw 8.8 percent voter turnout in their spring 2009 elections. However, because of their shared governance system, the student voice on decision-making committees at UW is ensured. I sat down with newly elected President Sarah Shook and Vice President Brandon Cofield to find out exactly what we voted for. Shook and Cofield have a busy year to look forward to, but theyâÄôve narrowed down their focus to three key ideas: student engagement, safety and the communication of MSA roles and actions. Shared Governance While only 3,496 ballots were cast in the UW spring 2009 elections, student representatives there sit on about 50 committees at the university, from a bicycle-pedestrian subcommittee to the academic misconduct panel. Earlier this year, MSA began looking at instituting a shared governance model in which seats on administrative, educational and advisory committees would be reserved for student representatives. But students at the University of Minnesota will have to keep the enthusiasm up if they want a chance at shared governance. In a recent interview with The Minnesota Daily editorial board, President Bob Bruininks said that although lapses in student involvement have been made in the past, the administration has tried to include students more in University committees. The most recent example was the inclusion of three students on the Advancing Excellence Steering Committee, he said. Bruininks also said he believed the way to solve issues of student power would be within the institution and that state legislation âÄúties your hands.âÄù Shook and Cofield also believe the shared governance model can come from within the University. âÄúThe model weâÄôve been looking at is the Wisconsin model,âÄù said Shook, âÄúbut we donâÄôt want it to be from the state. We want our shared governance to be organic within the University. WeâÄôre going to reach out at the regents level.âÄù But donâÄôt we want the hands of the administration tied? DonâÄôt we want a voice no matter what, no matter who the president is or who makes up the Board of Regents? While a regents ruling on shared governance would mean a lot for student power, a ruling from the state Legislature makes sure no exceptions can be created through administrative discretion. Shook and Cofield are choosing an avenue that involves trusting administration, a bold and mature move. But will administration step up to the challenge? I, for one, wonâÄôt be holding my breath. Student Fees Along with increased voter turnout, student engagement will get a big boost if MSA passes a bylaw change to decrease the number of members a student group needs to have in order to be eligible for MSA representation. The number is now 30 but could change to 15 next Tuesday at the MSA forum. And why would a student group want representation on MSA? Well, one of the largest issues the student community is dealing with right now is the student fees process. Several organizations, including The Minnesota Daily, have voiced concerns about certain decisions made by the fees committee. If a student group has a representative on MSA, they then have a vote on who is elected to the fees committee. âÄúObviously there is a need for an appeals process,âÄù Shook said. âÄúWe have all summer to look at what that appeals process would look like and âĦ make sure the fees process is viewpoint neutral.âÄù Safety In an effort to increase the power and voice of MSA, Shook and Cofield are looking to work with the city about off-campus safety and lighting. âÄúWe have a good research institution,âÄù said Cofield. âÄúBut if students worry about leaving their dorms, thatâÄôs an issue.âÄù Shook and Cofield said MSA has already started the inquiry process with the city about placing more lights in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood. âÄúItâÄôs a very long and complex process,âÄù Shook said. âÄúBut I think with student concern and University support it will speed that process along and make Dinkytown a little safer.âÄù OK, so MSA canâÄôt impeach the president and they canâÄôt unilaterally stop tuition increases. But the reason MSA has been ineffective in the past is directly tied to the lack of student support and interest in the organization. Shook and Cofield have some good ideas that could change the role of student power, but they readily admitted that student apathy, not administrative bullying, is their biggest obstacle. MSA only has as much power as the students give it. Nora Leinen welcomes comments at [email protected]