Students strive for influence

Students have a voice in University policy decisions, but their actual power is unclear.

by Haley Hansen

When University of Minnesota student leaders complained about a change from the athletics department regarding ticket bundling practices earlier this semester, administrators quickly reversed course and reformed the policy.

But only after Gov. Mark Dayton sent a harsh letter to the school’s president.

“It took a letter and a condemnation from the governor to get something done,” said Kyle Kroll, the student senator who brought the issue forward.

When it comes to University governance, most student leaders and administrators agree that students have a voice. But because of the complex nature of the system, it’s difficult to pin down how much actual power students hold within the range of committees, organizations and bodies they participate in.

And some say the sluggish pace at which policies are developed could discourage students from getting involved.

While administrators say they value student input, some student leaders say the University is most receptive to their opinions when both sides take the same stance.

“If the administration agrees with us, then our voices have a lot of weight,” said Student Senate Chair Valkyrie Jensen. “If they disagree with us, then our voices have no weight.”

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Governing bodies abound

University government is a maze of policymaking bodies, most of which include at least some student members.

At the highest level, eight students serve as representatives to the Board of Regents, a 12-member group that oversees the University’s entire five-campus system.

The board creates and approves academic, administrative and financial policies and hears presentations from the student representatives twice a year.

Matt Privratsky, who headed the group of student representatives in the 2010-11 academic year, said the students didn’t have a formal influence on the board’s decisions.

But regents almost always asked for student representative feedback during committee meetings, he said.

“You’re there to bring up your perspective and ask questions at committee that a regent might not think of,” Privratsky said.

The board also leaves one regent position open for students, a seat doctoral student Abdul Omari currently holds. Before he was elected more than a year ago, Omari held the same role Privratsky did.

He said he thinks students have a significant influence on big changes at the University, pointing to recent expansions to campus mental health services as a campaign driven heavily by students.

“I think we just don’t give ourselves enough credit oftentimes,” Omari said.

The regents are just one of many groups designed to shape University policy.

The Minnesota Student Association and its counterpart for graduate students, the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, frequently push for new policies and changes to help students.

The University Senate covers the entire system and typically focuses on larger issues, like tenure and academic freedom.

The senate comprises faculty members, students, academic professionals, administrators and civil service employees. Each group has its own senate.

Students make up a little more than 20 percent of the University Senate membership — a similar share to other Big Ten schools that have a comparable governing body.

And though students can vote in the University Senate, the body serves only in an advisory role and can’t create new school policies.

The issues that come before the senate typically don’t directly impact students either, Jensen said.

William Durfee, who previously chaired the senate’s  Faculty Consultative Committee, said the separate student and faculty senates sometimes work on overlapping issues in tandem. The two groups could do a better job working together in those cases, he said.

And while the senate doesn’t technically have policymaking authority, Durfee said administrators take it seriously.

Multiple groups working together to tackle issues is most effective for creating change, Jensen said, adding that strong relationships with administrators is essential.

“The most successful things that we’ve worked on have been hand-in-hand with administrators,” she said.

Student leaders recently made changes to campus bus routes by collaborating with Parking and Transportation Services. And both administrators and student leaders supported a tobacco-free campus, which was enacted this past summer.

But other student ideas have been more difficult to implement, such as the creation of a statewide, open-source textbook program. Groups have continually pushed the issue, but it has failed to garner momentum.

Student voice varies within conference

Many of the University’s Big Ten peers have similar governmental structures, but the amount of student representation and the authority of the student voice varies at each school.

Ohio State University’s senate, for example, can create and change school policies and laws. Students make up about 30 percent of the senate there — enough to change voting outcomes.

When the school transitioned from a quarter system to a semester system, some students were concerned with the way their credits might transfer, said student body president Celia Wright.

In that case, student leaders worked with administrators to create a May term and cushion the impact of the switch.

Because students have direct voting power at Ohio State, leaders are more likely to seek their approval before making major policy changes, Wright said.

And she said the changes usually favor students.

The University of Illinois system’s senate is similar to the University of Minnesota’s. Students make up about 20 percent of the senate, which exists to advise administrators.

But even though senators are advisers, being able to vote changes how students interact with school officials, said Mitch Dickey, student body president at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Not having voting power [would] mean they would look at us a different way,” he said.

Wisconsin claims to be the only state that requires its universities to gain student approval to implement certain policies.

University of Wisconsin-Madison Student Council Chair Gen Carter said students on her campus know their system is rare and that other schools don’t have as strong of a student presence.

Wisconsin’s undergraduate student government has successfully campaigned for 24-hour libraries and mandatory pre-exam study days.

Michigan State University student body president James Conwell said the Associated Students of MSU helped create a medical amnesty law — one that’s almost identical to the one passed in Minnesota last year.

In both instances, student leaders played heavy roles in the planning process.

An imperfect process

Some University of Minnesota student leaders call the process through which policies are made slow and confusing, generating frustration among some.

Kyle Kroll, the senator who drafted the resolution against the ticket bundling policy, said things don’t typically change as quickly as they did in that case.

And getting issues on policymakers’ minds isn’t always easy, he said.

“Sometimes it feels like pulling teeth,” Kroll said.

But Council of Graduate Students President Andrew McNally said the long process ensures student leaders master the
system before trying to use it.

“That’s sort of the value that student government brings — that it requires a lot of institutional knowledge about how to get things done at a university in which getting things done is so challenging,” he said.

Durfee, former chair of the Faculty Consultative Committee, said change takes a long time because a broad range of perspectives need to be considered.

Although students’ perspective is critical, Durfee said, it’s sometimes difficult for them to make change because students spend less time at the University than faculty members and officials.

And because the school’s governance system is confusing and loaded with barriers, it may take students a long time to feel confident in their roles, said Minnesota Student Association President Joelle Stangler.

“You’re almost requiring people to devote years of their life to understand a system before they feel comfortable navigating it,” she said.

Vice Provost for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Danita Brown Young said the system could be made simpler so students can more easily find where to voice their concerns.

“I think we have to make it a little more streamlined,” she said. “We have to just really put some solid parameters around the structure.”

Stangler also said the quality of student leaders can vary yearly, causing hesitance among faculty members hearing their concerns.

Kroll said he doesn’t think groups like MSA should have direct policymaking power. But students should be able to veto changes that affect them, he said.

“I don’t really think that students should necessarily be able to command that the University do something, but I don’t think they should just serve those kind of random advisory roles,” he said.

Despite difficulties with the system, Stangler said most people within the University are primarily focused on students.

“I’ve heard stories from other institutions where that’s not necessarily the case,” she said.

Meghan Mason, last year’s lead representative to the regents, said administrators and University policymakers were always accessible for her and other students to voice their concerns.

Other administrators and students highlighted the importance of groups like MSA and the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly.

Without groups like them, it would be difficult to gauge student opinions, Brown Young said.

GAPSA President Alfonso Sintjago said his group can identify common concerns among students that might not always get administrators’ attention.

“They’re going to try their best to address our concerns, but they won’t know them as well as when we tell them what our concerns are,” he said.

Stangler said she’d like to see even more students participate in student government so those groups can more accurately address what the student body wants.

“Part of the reason the system doesn’t work as well right now is because people stopped caring,” she said. “Ultimately, they’re going to have people making decisions on behalf of them if they know it or not.”