Despite the reinstatement of this year’s Fall Show and the buzz — both positive and negative — created by the implementation of the new Student Activities Fee last fall, many students remain uninterested in the Yale College Council, according to a recent Yale Daily News poll of 200 randomly selected undergraduates.
When asked if they agreed that the YCC significantly affects their lives at Yale, 33.5 percent of students polled responded with no opinion, 31.5 percent disagreed, and 25 percent agreed. Students responded more positively when asked if they agreed that the YCC was representative of their opinions and concerns: 41.5 percent agreed, 37 percent said they had no opinion, and 15 percent disagreed. But 46 percent of those polled said they did not care if they were informed about the YCC’s policies and activities.
While YCC representatives said a degree of disinterest in the activities of the student government is to be expected on any college campus, others said the results of the poll may be indicative of the Council’s lack of real power and effectiveness.
But YCC President Steven Syverud ’06 said the disinterest reflected in the results of the poll is not unusual or alarming.
“Of course, any student government is going to encounter a contingent of students who question the significance of its impact, and I think the number of those students at Yale is not particularly high,” he said.
In fact, Syverud said he thinks the number of students who question the influence and importance of the Council is decreasing.
Charles Hill, a lecturer in international studies and an international security studies distinguished fellow, said the general lack of interest in the Council may be representative of its lack of real political influence on campus.
“If students don’t care about YCC, it may be because YCC is not structured or authorized to be politically influential,” Hill said in an e-mail. “If a political entity can’t, or is not allowed, to deliver political results, it won’t be given much time by its constituents.”
But Daniel Weeks ’06, a former YCC representative and founder of Students for Clean Elections, has a different theory. He said he thinks that because national and international issues are often the most important to Yale students, those championed by the YCC seem insignificant in comparison.
“Yale students seem to have a remarkable capacity to think big, often at the expense of our immediate environs,” Weeks said. “That fact, combined with a very high quality of life on campus relative to the far more pressing needs of the homeless victims of Hurricane Katrina, the AIDS orphan in Africa, or the tsunami survivor in Southeast Asia, only serve to diminish the importance of a campus-oriented student government in the eyes of many.”
Weeks said the Council becomes more relevant to students when it broadens its focus to include national or international issues, such as raising funds for Hurricane Katrina victims, and when it meets a specific need on campus, such as the airport shuttle service.
Kate Schmidt ’08 said she is not surprised that so many students have no opinion about the activities of the Council. She said she thinks the issues raised by the YCC are usually uncontroversial, so many students do not feel the need to stay informed.
“I feel like people who aren’t on the YCC are usually somewhat apathetic,” Schmidt said. “I feel like students in general don’t care too much. Probably if the YCC were making bigger changes around campus, it would be more important to students.”
But YCC representative R. David Edelman ’07 said he thinks a “no opinion” response is not necessarily a negative response to the YCC.
“Sometimes the best sign is no opinion at all,” he said. “If the YCC were truly failing in its projects, if students were really upset about the quality of life by-and-large, then we’d be seeing people saying that the YCC isn’t doing its job.”
According to the poll, many students do not think the YCC plays an important role in their lives. Stephen Chien ’08 said the direct impact of the YCC on his life is limited to large events such as the Fall Show and Spring Fling.
“Other than that, it’s not obvious when the YCC does things,” he said. “I don’t really think about the YCC that much.”
YCC Vice President Marissa Brittenham ’07 said she is not surprised that many students think the student government does not have a tangible impact on their lives, but she said their impressions are wrong.
“What the YCC really does is behind the scenes … little things that students don’t notice really affect their lives,” she said. “They don’t look at the steps that the YCC takes every day on certain issues.”
Brittenham cited the Council’s involvement in last year’s financial aid reform campaign as a particularly important example of the deep and lasting impact the YCC can have on individual students. This year, the Council has also successfully advocated increased security on and around campus, she said.
But not all students said they think the YCC’s advocacy efforts are worthwhile. Some said the extent of the Council’s influence on campus is merely social.
Matt Kennard ’06 said he does not think the YCC plays a major role in the decisions made by the University, despite the Council’s advocacy.
“Administrative decisions that the YCC claims as a result of their policy recommendations seem to be decisions that the administration would have made anyway,” he said. “It often seems like they are piggybacking on decisions that the administration has already made and claiming them as their own to perpetuate a view that they have significant impact on the administration’s policy-making process.”
Still, many students said the YCC is a good representative and effective advocate of student issues. Brittenham said she was pleased with the number of students who agreed that the Council is representative of the concerns of the student body.
“I think that is a huge success on our part,” she said. “The YCC works very hard to make sure that student concerns are voiced to the administration.”
But Brittenham said she was surprised that a quarter of the students polled said they were uninformed about the activities of the YCC, since increased publicity has been a major focus of the current executive board, she said.
“I think that a lot of uninformed people are uninformed because they choose to be,” Brittenham said. “Some people are going to be turned off to the YCC no matter what.”
Some YCC representatives and others said they are not surprised that relatively few people are interested in the activities of the University’s student government despite the fact that so many Elis are interested in politics.
David Cameron, director of undergraduate studies for the Political Science Department, said many of the students in his department are interested in working for the government or entering into politics after graduation. He said that while the YCC may provide a valuable education in politics, students may find other political avenues more relevant.
“My sense is they find the experiences they have in working in campaigns, or as interns in Washington or state capitals, or in localities more educational — and perhaps more interesting,” Cameron said in an e-mail. “If nearly half of the students in the YDN poll say they don’t care abut being informed about the YCC’s activities, and half say they have no view as to whether it’s effective, I’d say that probably reflects a view that the YCC’s activities are more or less irrelevant to them.”
Brittenham said that although many students do not place political importance on the issues championed by the YCC, the organization is nonetheless a political entity.
“A lot of Yalies are very interested in politics, and they don’t necessarily see things like safety on campus as real politics,” she said. “Student government … kind of seems like small potatoes.”
The Yale Daily News surveyed 200 randomly selected students by phone last month.