Students must take a political role this fall

In what promises to be a turbulent and precedent-setting year for the University, it is imperative that students pay special attention to campus and state politics and make room in their busy schedules to take an active role in crucial debates that will shape the future of the University and their academic lives.
University students are both constituents and consumers. The administration and faculty are first and foremost here to serve them. Students’ tuition makes up 35 percent of the University’s general operating budget. The quality of their education is a primary University tenet, and is the standard by which its stature is measured. Yet more often than not, it’s the student voice that goes unheard in decision-making processes — usually because it’s not offered.
There was a time when political activism was a hallmark of the college student. But this isn’t the ’60s and today’s students are preoccupied with challenges their counterparts of a quarter century ago never had to face. Since 1970, inflation-adjusted tuition has more than doubled while state funding has plummeted proportionally and the cost of living has risen. More students are thus forced to work part- or even full-time jobs to finance their education, and political awareness takes a back seat to harsh financial realities. Broad changes in America’s social consciousness have made students in the ’90s more likely to be openly skeptical about the political process and less likely to believe that their participation makes a difference. But while the lack of involvement may be understandable, it is a luxury that students cannot afford in this pivotal year.
Over the course of fall quarter alone, policy discussions and elections with direct ramifications for this campus and higher education in general will be resolved. The outcome of the current impasse between the Board of Regents and University faculty over tenure and the selection of a new University president are the most pressing concerns. Students have yet to take a substantial role in either issue. The Minnesota Senate and House elections in November will determine the University community’s representation in the Legislature, while the U.S. Senate and presidential election will have an impact on higher education nationwide. In each case, students need to stand up in numbers to have their perspectives acknowledged.
When students perceive a direct threat, they mobilize. Last spring hundreds rallied to successfully block the proposed closure of the General College. But issues that impact our campus are usually more opaque. Getting beyond the shroud of bureaucratic haze that surrounds U2000 or the tenure debate requires a serious investment of time and energy — an investment students must make.
The many problems facing the University weren’t created by students, but students have a vested interest, if not an outright responsibility, in their satisfactory resolution. Ultimately it is the students who reap the rewards or pay the price at the University. They should know by now that they can’t count on the administration or Legislature to take care of them. It’s crucial that students cultivate political awareness and put it to use. If they don’t, they’ll have no one to blame but themselves.