One Campus, Two Student Governments

Frustrated by what they view as the system's lack of commitment to addressing their concerns, minority students at the University of Kansas are forming a parallel student government.

May 3, 2016
Minority students protest student government at U of Kansas.

A common complaint among minority students participating in campus protests in the past year has been a lack of representation in their student governments. Last month, students at the University of Kansas came up with a possible solution: create a separate government to represent students of color.

The move has drawn criticism from those who argue a parallel government is a form of segregation and that students would be better off seeking election to student government. The move has also drawn praise from researchers who study race on college campuses and from activists who say minority students are frequently shut out of student government.

Shaun Harper, executive director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, said while few -- if any -- other institutions have separate governments for minority students, the concept of creating a new structure specifically for minority students on campus is not new.

“Historically black fraternities were born out of this same sense of exclusion,” Harper said. “That’s true for ethnic cultural centers, too. We wouldn't need them on campuses if the campuses themselves were much more culturally inclusive of students of color. These students are not trying to just segregate themselves. That is not their motive. They’re just tired of waiting for this larger, longstanding structure to be responsive.”

Those behind the creation of the new Multicultural Student Government at Kansas say the change is necessary after years of neglect and discrimination. Inaction on those issues, including concerns that the government's election code was biased against low-income students after the Senate raised the spending cap for candidates, led to an intense meeting between activists and the student government, the Student Senate, in November. The meeting ended with the Student Executive Committee asking that the senate’s president, vice president and chief of staff -- who, along with most of the executive branch, are white -- resign over what was seen as a lack of support for minority students.

At the same meeting, the Student Senate Rights Committee passed a resolution in support of a list of demands created by student demonstrators. That list included the creation of a parallel student government for marginalized students. The president, vice president and chief of staff later said they would not resign, releasing a statement in support of minority students.

“Black lives matter,” they wrote. “Black lives matter at the University of Kansas.”

Last month, the senate formally approved of the new Multicultural Student Government, though many details of how it will function and work in tandem with the original Student Senate are still being worked out. At the moment, the Multicultural Student Government functions ostensibly as a student club, albeit one with a far larger budget than other student organizations on campus. Its funding will come from the Student Senate's Multicultural Education Fund, assisted by a proposed $2 increase in student fees per student.

The University Senate Code only allows for three governing bodies on campus: the Faculty Senate, the Staff Senate and the Student Senate. Altering the code to officially allow for a fourth governing body would require at least year of deliberation, the university said.

Butch Oxendine, executive director of the American Student Government Association, said he’s never heard of a campus operating two parallel student governments and questions whether such an arrangement could work. Noting that voter turnout at most campus elections is typically very low, Oxendine said students may be better off rallying their supporters and running for student government offices themselves, rather than create a new government. 

“They’re very passionate about not being represented, and I totally understand that,” he said. “But I don’t know that this is the way to get what they want. To me, this hearkens back to separation and Jim Crow days. It’s going backwards in time, not moving forward. I don’t see any assurance that a smaller, separate government would have any influence over the existing body. Why not work within the system and then try to get the current government to evolve and change?”

Researchers like Harper and Eddie Comeaux, an associate professor of higher education at the University of California at Riverside, however, said many minority students have already tried working within that system, and feel that it’s a structure that refuses to respond to their concerns no matter their attempts. Students have long claimed that student governments and their elections are biased against minority students, instead favoring white students and members of fraternities and sororities.

Earlier this year, a student at the University of Florida -- a former chief strategist for a prominent student government party -- posted a video online that quickly went viral, in which she criticized the student government there as being rigged against minority students. The student, Sabrina Phillips, explained how a coalition of Greek chapters collude to choose who should run for open positions and then pressure chapter members into voting a certain way.

“No one that’s a part of this system can change it from the inside,” Phillips warned.

The predominantly white Greek chapters are divided into three powerful voting blocs, she said, while non-Greeks typically run as independents. The three Greek-led blocs, which do sometimes feature a handful of students of color agreeing to run for lower-level positions, come together to vote as one during elections, using their 2,500 votes to overpower any independent slates.

The former strategist's claims were an open secret of sorts at Florida. The coalition of predominantly white, fraternity-led voting blocs, which students at Florida liken to a shadow government, is known as "the System.” It has operated on campus since the 1960s, and critics say the system was created in response to integration.

In 2010, leaked recordings of a meeting with one prominent party revealed that some fraternities and sororities withheld dinner from their members until they voted for the preferred candidates. “You guys cannot let the Greek system down,” a voice said on the tapes. “This is what we live for. This is what we pledge. Everything about it is why we run this campus and why we have been for the last century.”

In 2008, the private emails of top Florida student government officials were leaked, including a list of students who applied for open government positions. Twelve names were highlighted in green. “Green means go,” the student president wrote. Ten of the 12 names won seats in the government that election.

A similar shadow government exists at the University of Alabama, known as “the Machine.” A brochure published by the group in 1989 noted that in the Student Government Association's 75-year existence, the Machine successfully elected its choice for president 68 times. “This is because the SGA is ours,” the brochure reads.

“When inequities are made to be institutionalized, it's so much harder to disrupt them,” said Demetri Morgan, a University of Florida graduate who is now a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. “It takes a couple of years to learn about the system, and then when you get to a point where you can and want to do something, your time there is almost up. The system keeps going, but the people who want to disrupt it are only on campus for a finite about of time. The system always outlasts them.”

A group of minority student activists at the University of Wisconsin at Madison hope to be an exception to the rule. Coming from several organizations on campus -- including the UW Blackout Movement, the Wisconsin Black Student Union and Students for Justice in Palestine -- 23 students created a new slate this year called the Blind Side.

Piggybacking off their activism and the attention their protests received last year, 17 of the students were able to win positions on the Associated Students of Madison Student Council. That’s a majority of council's open positions. The slate nabbed two of the three open seats on the Student Services Finance Committee, the body that allocates $45 million in student fees per year.

Voter turnout increased by 53 percent over last year, Associated Students of Madison said in a statement.

“I think on one end you can try taking the traditional route of running for office and serving in that leadership role, having a voice where you can effect change,” Comeaux said. “But I don’t think students necessarily have to be confined to that traditional route. Every now and then you have to take alternative routes that might be more effective for addressing your cause on your particular campus.”


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