SINGAPORE — In the first three semesters of its existence, students at Yale-NUS had no semblance of self-government. That is about to change.
On Feb. 6, students at the college elected 11 peers, out of a field of 19, to represent them on a newly formed student governing body. The student representatives will help manage student organizations and plan college-wide events. Seventy-eight percent of the student body voted in the elections, which marked the end of an 18-month-long effort to create such a body.
A constitution drafted and ratified in fall 2014 set the basic framework for the government. The body consists of 11 members with equal voting power — a representative from each of the three residential colleges, two from the class of 2017, two from the class of 2018 and, finally, four representatives-at-large. Though the constitution provides few specific grants of power to the new body, Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis said he sees student members serving on committees jointly with faculty and staff and helping to decide important college-wide matters as the school continues to define its identity.
Lewis said the new body will allow elected representatives to “take ownership” of aspects of the college that affect students most, while establishing avenues for the student body at large to provide input and voice concerns to the administration.
“Having a conduit for student ideas and perspectives only strengthens the Yale-NUS community,” said Chris O’Connell, manager of student life at Yale-NUS.
There are stark divisions in student opinion on the efficacy of the new body, which is designed to amplify student voice. Ami Firdaus YNUS ’17, who was elected as a Cendena College representative, said he is glad to see the process come to a close, ending months of debate about whether it was too soon to elect a student government. Firdaus said he sees the position as a way to contribute to something greater than himself.
Still, Firdaus acknowledged widespread apathy about the elections. He said students who choose not to invest in the body are giving up a chance to have a say in the identity of their school.
“Ultimately all of us have a stake in the success of the college. This college can’t be run from top-down, it has to be run by the students. I know that is very idealistic and that the administration will still run it, but we have to do all we can to ensure that everyone participates in the formation of the student government,” Firdaus said.
Jolanda Nava YNUS ’17, who was part of the committee that planned the elections, said the new body, while not a cure-all for student engagement, provides sustainable means through which students can approach the administration with issues.
In future semesters, the body may be revised and perfected, according to Nur Qistina ’17, who was elected as a representative for the class of 2017. Only by seeing how student government works in practice can community members deliberate on the best model, she said.
Others think the body is purely symbolic.
While lauding the student government for being “broadly representative” of the college, Timothy Lim YNUS ’17 said its powers are “minimal at best.” Others emphasized the poor turnout at an election forum on Jan. 31, where candidates made speeches.
“Generally, there’s a feeling of inertia and disinterest,” said Tu Linh Nguyen YNUS ’17.
Professors, too, expressed skepticism. According to Andrew Bailey, an assistant professor of philosophy, “there exists already collective movement on things that [students] care about.” He wondered if the student government will become “an extra layer of bureaucracy,” in fact impeding progress on issues.
Significant work remains in demarcating the authority of the student government from other student-centered groups. Notably, the central body will work alongside similar groups in the individual residential colleges. Elm College has formed its own residential college advisory council, while Saga College’s is in the works.
In a Feb. 5 email to members of Saga College, rector Sarah Weiss said she hopes the college’s internal council will have “observer status at some of the Big-C College Student Government meetings, a representative for reporting back to the residential college student council.”
The student council in her own college will ideally have autonomy over certain events and activities, as well as “keep [her] up with the mood and needs of students in the college since I don’t yet live in the building,” Weiss wrote.
Additionally, the college-wide student government will have to work with the Student Organization Review Board, jointly staffed by students and administrators, on funding for student organizations. Currently, the constitution does not allow the student government to allocate funding to student organizations.
The current constitution includes a sunset clause that mandates a review of the constitutional model. It will take effect in November 2015, after a two-semester term.
Chan Li Ting, Lai Ying Tong and Yonatan Gazit contributed reporting.