Big Ten student leaders have big responsibilities

Tracy Ellingson

Purdue University senior Andrea Call said her fellow Big Ten student leaders need to remember just how many peoples’ interests they represent.
“Our school has 36,000 students, and with ten other schools (in the Big Ten) about the same size, we represent a large majority of students in the country, and I think that says a lot,” said Call, who organized this quarter’s Association of Big Ten Students conference at Purdue.
Big Ten student leaders use these quarterly conferences to get advice from one another on how to turn tribulations into triumphs when they’re having difficulties getting administrators at their schools to pay attention to the students’ voices. Big Ten schools give their student leaders varying levels of input when it comes to policy decisions.
Several Big Ten student leaders said administrators give them ample opportunity to convey student opinions at their schools.
“I would say at Ohio State we have a better representation and really a better relationship with our administrators than at a lot of places,” said Greg Krabacher, vice president of Undergraduate Student Government at Ohio State University. “We’ve got representation on every single decision-making body at the University, practically.”
Indiana University Student Association President Bob Moats also said at least one student sits on every administrative committee on Indiana’s campus, including the school’s board of trustees. The student representatives have full voting and decision-making privileges.
However, to be taken seriously by administrators, students must prepare thoroughly and research issues when they get their chances to work with school officials.
“There are definitely some bureaucratic things that we need to have a good grasp on before we go into a meeting,” Moats said. “Sometimes you’re underempowered through lack of knowledge, and that’s why the best thing we can do is research these issues well.”
A few leaders cited specific administrators who are particularly helpful to the student organizations.
Ohio State President E. Gordon Gee is particularly responsive to student body leaders and makes himself available to the students, Krabacher said. Krabacher credited Gee’s attentiveness to a high level of respect for student leaders.
Minnesota Student Association President Helen Phin said the University’s administrators’ concern for students is comparable to those at other schools.
“My sense is that Minnesota compares pretty favorably to other schools,” Phin said, “because our administration is willing to meet regularly with students, to have forums with students and that kind of thing.”
Phin said University President Nils Hasselmo, McKinley Boston, the vice president of student development and athletics, and Marvin Marshak, the senior vice president for academic affairs meet with students on a regular basis.
“I think the administration is really eager and open to listening to students’ wants and needs,” Phin said, “and they really enjoy hearing what students have to say.”
But listening to students and working side-by-side with students are two different things. Students from schools that do not have permanent student representatives on policy-making bodies must often use different strategies.
MSA does not have a formal channel for sending its resolutions to administrators once measures are passed by the forum. Instead, Phin determines the best way to get resolutions to the appropriate people, whether it be Hasselmo or the Board of Regents.
Angela Smith, chairwoman of the University of Wisconsin’s Associated Students of Madison, said Wisconsin’s student government relies heavily on the press to bring student concerns to their administrators’ attention. Smith said student leaders also hold monthly meetings where they can meet with Wisconsin’s chancellor and dean of students.
However, Phin said although administrators make themselves available to students, they don’t always act on student input. She said that last spring the administration implemented changes in the campus transportation system after asking for student input. But, Phin said, the final results did not reflect the MSA’s suggestions.
This month, MSA members formed an ad hoc busing committee to research why administrators didn’t implement the changes.
Some Big Ten student leaders said creating ways for students outside of government to channel and implement their ideas helps get administrators’ attention.
Vice president of the Michigan Student Assembly at the University of Michigan Probir Mehta said any student at Michigan can start a task force — which allows students to initiate projects that the government or administration are not working on at the time.
Meghan Henry, an executive officer in the University of Iowa’s student government, said her organization invites student leaders from groups around campus to participate in roundtable discussions. The discussions are intended to get students to use one another as resources and to brainstorm about major group activities for all students.
Iowa’s student government also encourages more students to become active on certain issues because involvement increases the student body’s confidence in its government. “This year we’ve tried to get people to write more letters and phone calls,” Henry said. “When they did that (students) said, for the first time, Oh, this is what the student government has done.'”