A Yale Daily News poll conducted last semester found a general lack of opinion among students about the Yale College Council, and students at several other Ivy League schools said some of their peers are also apathetic about the policies and activities of their own student governments.
While opinions about student governments range from supportive to critical, many Ivy League students have suggested improvements for their representative bodies. But factors such as budget size and institutional structure may partly determine the relative effectiveness of these student governments. And some student government leaders said their constituents are simply unaware of their contributions
At Harvard, some students criticized the Undergraduate Council for its lack of real influence on campus. Harvard student Nate Kiechel said he thinks the UC is irrelevant to the student body and to the administration because of the large number of specialized councils on campus.
“All they do is plan pretty lame parties and, this last year, the fiasco that was the set of buses to the Harvard-Yale game,” Kiechel said. “The lack of significance is exacerbated by the fact that each of our houses has its own student council body that regulates more immediate affairs.”
Students at Dartmouth College, Columbia and Cornell universities also criticized their undergraduate governments for a variety of reasons. Columbia sophomore Eddie Beaulac said he thinks the Columbia College Student Council only plays a significant role on campus when there are big issues to address, such as the changes made to Columbia’s alcohol policy last semester. Dartmouth sophomore John Tepperman said he thinks Dartmouth students generally have a negative opinion toward the Assembly because much of the coverage about the organization in The Dartmouth focuses on petty internal bickering.
Cornell senior Stephen Wang said he thinks that although Cornell’s Student Assembly plans some popular campus-wide social events, it is not a particularly effective advocate of student issues despite having a relatively good relationship with the Cornell administration.
Some undergraduates at Princeton University also said they do not think the school’s Undergraduate Student Government has a significant impact on campus life.
“Though I am sure that USG representatives have our best interests at heart, they have little, if any, noticeable affect on my daily life at Princeton,” Princeton sophomore Nick Adam said. “The USG seems to me to be resume filler for its members rather than a method of communication between administration and student body.”
Princeton senior Eleanor Barkhorn said she does not think the USG is taken seriously by Princeton students because it has been ineffective in initiating major change, despite its attempts to do so.
“All it does, as far as I can tell, is organize study breaks and design class gear,” she said. “Wider attempts at far-reaching projects, such as the USG’s attempts to protest grade deflation policies … have failed.”
USG President Leslie Bernard-Joseph said sentiments like these are inevitable. She said many Princeton students have no idea what the USG does on a daily basis.
“Like any college council, students will often say that USG has no effect on their life, that it’s irrelevant,” she said. “There are a lot of people who don’t care what USG does.”
But Joseph said many students do not take into account changes the student government has initiated in the past from which Princetonians still benefit.
“Some don’t realize that every time someone visits the Student Course Guide, the main student homepage Point, or get a Burrito at 2 a.m. … it’s from USG,” she said. “If they’re eating an apple in some distant dining hall at 4 a.m. on a Tuesday, that’s USG. Anytime a student sees a movie in the campus center on weekend nights, it’s USG.”
Former Yale College Council President Andrew Cedar ’06 said the same principle applies at Yale. He said many students don’t know that services like the online course evaluations and free New York Times newspapers in the dining halls are a result of YCC efforts. The fact that the YCC is not always making huge changes on campus does not necessarily demonstrate a lack of influence, but the relatively high quality of life that Yale students already enjoy, Cedar said.
“The types of issues we have to work on, a lot of them are not essential,” he said. “A lot of them are really important for the school moving forward … but there aren’t that many problems at Yale, and the nature of our problems are a lot less acute than they are at other schools, and that’s not a terrible thing.”
The effectiveness and impact of a student government is often related to the size of its budget, and must be viewed in this context, Cedar said.
For example, the Undergraduate Assembly of the University of Pennsylvania — which has an annual budget allocation of $1.4 million per year, according to the organization’s Web site — funds six different governmental branches and a wide variety of student services, including free legal services and counseling for all undergraduate and graduate students, in addition to event planning and advocacy.
Tristan Shephard, a freshman at Penn, said the UA sets up practical services, such as free buses to the airport, that students appreciate. He said that while the students on the Assembly take their work very seriously, the student body generally does as well.
“Those who do it are really into it. They really take it seriously for sure,” Shephard said. “In general, students take it pretty seriously, and they appreciate what the student government does.”
YCC Treasurer Emery Choi ’07 said a rough estimate for the Council’s annual operating budget, including the budgets of the Yale Student Activities Committee and the Undergraduate Organizations Funding Committee, is $300,000 — less than a quarter of the Penn student government’s funding.
The size and structure of a school’s student government may also affect the outcome of its efforts. Many student governments, including the YCC, create secondary organizations to oversee various tasks, including the allocation of funds to student organizations and the planning of social events. Those governments that delegate the majority of these functional tasks to subsidiary groups have more time to focus on other issues.
The Undergraduate Council of Students at Brown, for example, is primarily an advocacy group, UCS Communications Chair Tristan Freeman said. Because the UCS serves as an umbrella organization for a number of other groups — including the Undergraduate Finance Board, the Brown Student Union, the Brown Concert Agency and the Special Events Committee — the Council itself is free to focus on soliciting student input and lobbying for issues that are important to the student body, Freeman said.
“UCS is most effective in advocating for what students want at Brown,” he said. “Over the past year, there has been a series of important communications changes that has increased UCS’s visibility and its general standing on campus.”
These changes include a door-to-door initiative and public “office hours” with every UCS committee in addition to a campus-wide poll the organization takes every semester in order to determine what issues are important to students, Freeman said. This coordinated outreach effort has translated to a high approval rating for the Council, he said.