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Lately, there have been many opinion pieces published in the CU Independent about a range of problems on the University of Colorado Boulder campus.
Vayle LaFehr sheds light on overly expensive food services, which add to the already overly expensive CU experience. Savannah Mather addressed the burden of having to pay to park just to get to class. Walter Madison exposed CU’s almost unlimited power in using and selling students’ personal data. It is crucial to call attention to such problems, but this alone doesn’t mean that the university will listen and actually make changes. Students need more leverage when it comes to on-campus decisions.
Who makes policies on meal plans? On parking services? On data privacy? Not the students. Not the professors. University administrators should be involved with policymaking, but if these are policies for and about students, then we deserve a real seat at the table.
Let’s go bigger in scale: Who sets academic policies, such as graduation requirements or instructional policies? Who determines major requirements and the types of courses offered? Who determines the allocation of resources between, for example, fancy buildings and pools that seemingly exist for tours versus upgrading classrooms or paying instructors a livable wage?
Once we recognize that CU is first and foremost about academics – both what goes on in the laboratories and in traditional classrooms – we get guidance not only about funding priorities but also about who should have power in making decisions.
“If these are policies for and about students, then we deserve a real seat at the table.”
Maybe if students had more of a vote on campus affairs we wouldn’t have such a backlog for mental health services or such insufficient resources and information around food insecurity on campus. Perhaps CU would do more to support survivors of sexual assault or actually take a lead on making this an inclusive campus rather than giving a dismissive response to racism.
It is worth noting that our student government, CUSG, is one of the most powerful student governments at a major university campus in the United States, controlling a budget of $24 million. (That number sounds big until you realize that CU Boulder has a total budget of $1.89 billion.) CUSG has budget power over a wide range of campus entities, from the University Memorial Center to the Rec Center to Radio 1190. Control of these entities gives the student body real power. Unfortunately, too few of us make our voices heard in this space.
This past spring, voter turnout for the CUSG election was a pathetic 9 percent, adding up to just 2,930 votes. This is despite youth turnout in “real” government elections generally rising; Colorado went from 27.6% in 2014 to 40.8% in 2018. There’s no excuse for us not to be as involved in CU elections, elections that directly impact our lives and over which students have 100% of the votes. Yes, we should care about the “real government” election this fall, where we can significantly impact how our city is run and improve higher education funding across the state, but we should also care deeply about our chance to have input on our own campus.
CUSG is one of the rare places students have direct power over how CU is run, and the university doesn’t seem to like this. In spring of 2018, the university tried to strip nearly all of CUSG’s power, but this overreach was fought off thanks to a strong student body response and support from alumni. But if we don’t collectively continue to engage with and use the official power we have as students, there’s no guarantee the university won’t try to again take what little power we have.
Let’s be real. Individual administrators or even the regents might care about students and might genuinely work hard to do right by us. But the university as an institution doesn’t seem to value our voices. This was made crystal clear during the presidential search last year. Folks had to fight to get even a single full-time student onto the search committee, and there was barely even a pretense of listening to student (or faculty) voices once the sole “finalist” was announced. Now there are years worth of tuition dollars in incentives for this president to meet with non-students, governmental leaders and alumni across the state, but not sufficient structural incentive for him or other administrators to listen to students in any meaningful, long-term way. If we want CU to truly be an institution where students matter, we need to change the power structure.
What does an ideal governance structure look like, one where students, as well as professors, have real power? I don’t have that answer. But I do know that we can’t only think about changing particular problems within the current system; we must also think about changing the system as a whole.
We have to ask CU, and all higher education institutions, some important questions: Who should this institution serve? Who currently wields power? What big, structural changes can we make to change the balance of power? Merely asking what policies the powerful few can make on our behalf is to miss the forest for that one big tree. If we want a school, a society and a world to truly serve our interests, we have to ask the big questions and take the big actions.
Whose school? Our school!
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Alex Wolf-Root at firstname.lastname@example.org.