Students and Campus Leadership - I
However much they intend to be strong advocates, student body presidents are too easily coopted, writes Chris Odinet.
I walked eagerly last year into the picturesque and historic building that housed the Finance and Administration Office. As I sat down in the plush lair of one of the senior finance vice presidents, I was immediately hit with a nine-page, single spaced memo outlining new and innovative committees by which certain university services could be financially stabilized and told that I needed to sign on. After all, “You’re here to make the university a better place right?” asked my new administrator chum. I began to think to myself, “What have I gotten into?”
I had been elected only two weeks earlier as the student body president of my rather large research SEC, sports-loving university. The basic idea behind the job, as it is widely known, is to be the students’ voice to the administration, a man of the people! Well, at least I thought that was what I was supposed to be, that is, until I met my newly found and oh so eager group of new best friends: administrators.
Sure, every new head of student government gets the usual treatment: a round of university visits, regular access to the president, and even a free meal every once in awhile, but I had a lot more coming to me. Soon I was getting jetted off to big fund raisers in New York City, brought up to the suites at football games, and being placed on more podiums and platforms than I care to remember. Accompanying all of these outings, I was being brought into closed-door meetings where I was presented with business plans, budget sheets, and financial projections. Evidently, mostly through no fault of their own, administrators had allowed certain units on campus to go too long without a fee increase while cost of operations went up and now these units were about to, if not already, run into the red. “No need to worry” my vice chancellor blood brothers told me, they had a plan to getting these “much needed and long overdue” fee increases through: me. I was supposed to endorse the plans.
These strategies were soon followed by a new plan to have all freshmen live on campus their first year. I of course knew the students would not want this but, when I attempted to raise concerns, I was placed on a university task force to create the proposal for submission to our governing board. Before long I found myself, rather than voicing students' opposition to being forced to buy meal plans and move into rather run down dormitories, helping formulate new ways to craft the proposal so that it would be most politically palatable to the members of the board and external groups. This was shortly followed by the need for more fees for new construction projects and renovations, all of which were coupled with angry student opposition and protestations from the campus media. One late night I sat in my office in the Student Union, looked out the window and came to the realization as I shouted out, “Oh my God, they’ve turned me into one of them! I’m an administrator!”
Lo and behold it had become my reality: I was no longer an independent, elected representative of the students; I had become a Blackberry-wielding student rubber stamp to the administration. Although I understood the upper administration’s reasoning and the need for certain controversial decisions to be made, the truth of the matter was it just wasn’t my job. I was merely being used -- harsh a phrase as it may be -- to provide for the much sought after administrative Holy Grail: student input.
I brought this up with other student body presidents across the state and sure enough they too, albeit to a lesser degree because of the size and scope of resources on their campuses, had been slowly morphed from their once righteous place amongst the student constituents to a budget analyzing, policy crafting administrator-groupie. We had becomeless a part of a student democracy and more a part of a university oligarchy.
As my year in office ended I walked slowly away from the new student body president and the crowd of hopeful students surrounding him at inauguration. He stood eager-eyed and bushy-tailed, shaking hands with the university president, provost and vice presidents. I placed my hope in the fact that perhaps the next generation of up-and-coming student politicians would remember to keep a clear focus on the job description of being “SG Pres” and not be pulled into administrative orbit without a fight. I’m sure that he too thought, “I will be a man of the people, always speaking up as the voice of the students: no more fees, no more pushing students around.” Little did he know that the all too powerful lure of “doing what it takes to make the university a better place” and all the perks that come along with it would turn this student leader into a mini-administrator before you could say, “Vote for me!”
Chris Odinet graduated from Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge in May, and begins law school there this fall.
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