At Yale-NUS, as at Yale, student government officers have recently found themselves struggling to justify the effectiveness of their representation.
Last week’s Yale College Council elections had a significantly lower turnout than the 2016 election, with just 22.3 percent of undergraduates voting in the presidential election, one of the few contested elections of this cycle. As the YCC considers how best to increase student engagement, the Yale-NUS student government has similarly made engagement a central talking point.
“I believe the student government to be like the United Nations. To have legitimacy, we must work for it and we must grab it when we can,” Yale-NUS Student Government President Saza Faradilla YNUS ’18 said. “Only when there is legitimacy will there be trust from students.”
Concerns about the student body’s apathetic attitude toward the Yale-NUS student government most recently came to the forefront after five elected representatives resigned from their posts midterm. In their notices of resignation, two representatives cited personal reasons, two cited a “change in priorities” and one left to spend a semester at New York University.
In the ensuing special election for the five positions, more than 100 students received the nomination required to run, but only two students chose to run, leaving three top representative positions unfilled.
The student government constitution requires a minimum of 50 percent voter turnout, even if candidates are running unopposed, and only a late surge in voting prevented the election from being nullified. The Octant, Yale-NUS’ student newspaper, reported that the election chair sent a collegewide email decrying the eventual 65 percent turnout rate as “a disappointing lack of civic participation” — a rate more than 40 percentage points higher than this year’s turnout at Yale.
Concerns of civic participation notwithstanding, Saza said students at Yale-NUS have developed a system of student governance that frequently liaises between students and the college administration.
As president of the student government, Saza oversees a council of 12 representatives who are responsible for policy areas like academics, athletics and student life.
During her tenure, the student government has recommended changes to several policies, including the provision of mental health resources and health insurance to students. The representatives make their cases for changes to the administration in regular meetings: Members of the council meet Yale-NUS Dean of Students Christopher Bridges every week, and Saza and Student Government Vice President Avery Simmons YNUS ’19 meet every fortnight with Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis.
“President Lewis has always been very open and communicative,” Saza said. “He would often ask and refer to the Student Government for our opinion on many issues.”
Saza and her fellow representatives are also kept accountable by a unique feature of the student government: a student-run judiciary. Composed of seven members selected randomly out of a pool of interested applicants, the judiciary is tasked with scrutinizing the affairs of the council of elected representatives and ensuring that they adhere to the constitution of the student government. It is led by a chief justice, who is elected by the selected members of the judiciary.
“The judiciary acts as a check against misconduct, corruption and abuse of power within the council,” Chief Justice Tee Zhuo YNUS ’18 said in an email. “It also serves as a channel for any student complaints against the council, especially in situations where complainants are uncomfortable with bringing these complaints directly to the council.”
Requests made by the judiciary are occasionally responded to in extensive detail. The student government’s finance committee’s report on a “not-insignificant” use of funds for a daylong retreat in January ran six pages, and included references to the student government constitution and procedural contentions, in addition to commending the retreat organizers for staying “well within budgetary allocations.”
“The judiciary has a professional working relationship with the council,” Zhuo said. “However, given that our duty is to scrutinize and act as a check on the council, we also keep an appropriate distance especially in decision-making to maintain impartiality and the separation of the judiciary from the council.”
Zhuo counts the ratification of the student government’s constitution as a major step in the successful institutionalization of the college’s student government, and hopes to have set in place norms of good governance and constitutional adherence by the end of his tenure in August 2017. As for Saza, she hopes that the work of the student government she has led will be built upon in the future by governments that focus on student health insurance, mental health policy and organizing events for student welfare.
Yale-NUS will graduate its first class this spring.