University News

Student government evolves to effect change

Student government contends with high turnover, limited resources to give student body voice

Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Established in 1893 as a senior society and named after the lobster that its founders often ate for dinner, the Cammarian Club was the first iteration of student government at Brown. By the late 1960s, the club distributed funds to student groups, but it was not “the motivating force for what I think turned out to be the more important changes” in University governance called for by students, said Elliot Maxwell ’68 LHD’94 hon., P’06.

Club leaders, such as Maxwell and Ira Magaziner ‘69 LHD’94 hon. P’06 P’07 P’10 MD’19, operated outside of the club to bring about change on campus. The “Magaziner-Maxwell Report,” which provided the basis for the University’s New Curriculum, “wasn’t a student government-sponsored activity or driven by the student government,” Maxwell said.

As student activism and involvement in campus and national issues increased, members of the Cammarian Club “began to feel that there was some irrelevance to what they were doing,” said Dan Cummings ’72, a former Herald editor. In 1971, the club was superseded by a new form of student government, the Student Caucus, which was then replaced by the Undergraduate Council of Students in 1976. Both restructurings were intended to give the student body greater influence over University decisions.

Student government participants active from the Cammarian Club’s final days in the 1960s until today’s UCS president described the organization’s goals as representing the student body and advocating for students’ interests in University governance. Yet many acknowledged that some of the most profound student-driven changes to University policy since the 1960s have had little to do with the student government.

The student government’s power to effect change on campus depends, like the strength of most institutions, on the people running it at any given time. Still, throughout the last 50 years, student government leaders hoping to drive change have had to contend with limited resources, the organization’s bureaucratic structure and a multitude of responsibilities that can detract time from activist efforts.

Dreaming of a University Senate

On the heels of Maxwell and Magaziner’s drive to establish the New Curriculum came the idea for a University Senate — “made of elected representatives from the faculty, elected representatives from the students and elected representatives or appointed representatives from the administration” — which would replace the Cammarian Club, said former UCS president Tony Affigne ’76 AM’91 PhD’92. This new body would “control the curriculum and would control the academic policies of the University,” Affigne added.

In March of 1971, students voted overwhelmingly to disband the Cammarian Club. Students tried to convince the faculty to form its own caucus, which would have participated in the University Senate, but the faculty rejected the idea, leading to the student-only Student Caucus, Affigne said.

In 1975, the Caucus played a crucial part in the occupation of University Hall to protest then-President Donald Hornig’s plan to balance the University’s budget, Affigne said. “His plan for balancing the budget would have eliminated financial aid, would have laid off all of the black deans and support staff that had been hired,” and would have laid off “75 probationary faculty, people who didn’t have tenure yet,” Affigne said.

The Caucus also pushed the University to take a stance on divestment from certain companies, “hired a lawyer to provide legal advice for students” who were resisting the draft and facilitated anti-war activities, said Curtis Blessing ’73 P’13, the first Caucus president.

But Matt Wald ’76, a former Herald editor, said that the members of the Caucus were not able to “establish consensus” on the issue of the University Hall takeover and so were “left out of this” and “scrambling to keep up.”

The Caucus “wasn’t a locus of change,” said Noel Rubinton ’77, a former Herald editor.

The Student Caucus also approved budgets for student groups. Today, the Undergraduate Finance Board independently allocates funding for student groups, though UCS still categorizes those groups to determine the level of funding they can receive.

The UCS era begins

Affigne, one of the key players in the transformation of the Caucus into UCS, said the establishment of UCS resulted from student and administrative responses to the 1975 University Hall takeover.

Backlash against the building occupation included “pressure to abolish the Student Caucus because, among some sectors of the student body, the Student Caucus was seen as having orchestrated this militant takeover,” Affigne said, adding that “the pressure was to take away the student activities fee from the Student Caucus and also to restructure the Student Caucus into something more bureaucratic, more matched to the administration.”

But Nathan Bicks ’78, the first president of UCS, said the impetus for the council’s formation was not pushback against the takeover but rather “a renewed emphasis on student involvement and participation in governance of the University” prompted by the success of the building occupation.

In the wake of the building takeover, “there was a sense that the caucus had not been terribly effective and that we needed a more useful vehicle for articulating student concerns on campus and getting students more involved in things on campus,” said Stephen Owens ‘78 P’17, a former Caucus secretary and UCS president.

The structure of the council was modeled after the structure of the administration, so that each committee corresponded to a function of the University and a specific dean, Bicks said. For instance, the Committee on Academic Affairs was created to oversee academics and to meet and work with the dean of the faculty and the provost, Affigne said. Eventually, though not immediately, control of the Student Activities Fee was also transferred from student government to the Undergraduate Finance Board, he added.

Before the creation of UFB, UCS controlled and distributed 55 percent, or about $170,000, of the funding for student groups, said Matthew Carroll ’86, a former UCS president. The Student Union, the equivalent of today’s Class Board, oversaw the remaining 45 percent.

Carroll was president of the council in the spring of 1985, when UCS engineered the transfer of its own funding duties, along with those of the Student Union, to UFB. “I (valued) efficiency over the notion that maybe you’d be a little less relevant if you didn’t have that function,” he said, adding that UFB was founded to “focus solely” on the financing of student groups.

With its loss of control over the Student Activities Fee and its former “huge budget,” UCS lost its ability to directly fund and support important campus movements and groups, Affigne said. The council is sometimes unable to take action because it lacks financial resources, said Rahim Kurji ’05, former UCS president.

UCS currently has a “strong relationship” with UFB, said Tim Ittner ’18, vice president of the council. “Having all of the UFB’s work also as part of UCS would be way too much work for one organization and a lot of responsibility, and so I think it’s a really good idea to have those separate,” he added. “But we work really closely together.” The council also appoints students to UFB, though UFB’s top officials are elected.

Like other student groups, UCS now receives funding from UFB, wrote Yuzuka Akasaka ’18, UCS treasurer, in an email to The Herald.

The creation of UFB did not take away “student voice in the allocation of funds because it’s still in the student domain,” said Viet Nguyen ’17, president of UCS. “But it is a separation of powers, which I think is a good balance.” Control of funding is not “the deciding point of whether student government is effective or not,” Carroll said.

Activist aims

UCS approaches change “from a procedural or political orientation,” using its abilities to further its “activist focus” as “the mouthpiece for student groups and the student body,” Ittner said. With “conscious effort and intentionality,” the council can be “used as a lever to advocate” and be involved in political efforts on campus, Nguyen wrote in a follow-up email.

UCS functions as one way of “representing student voice in University governance,” Nguyen added. UCS accomplishes its goals through lobbying, “passing resolutions, appointing people to University committees or just helping people wanting to navigate the University structure.”

The council reaches out to student groups, including those working on major issues of University policy, to gauge their aims and understand their efforts, Ittner said.

UCS also refines its agenda through the Corporation focus groups that it hosts every time the Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, convenes on campus. After a discussion between students and Corporation members on socioeconomic barriers to success on campus, “We worked with the provost and the dean of the College to increase funding in the campus life emergency fund and in some other areas,” Ittner said.

The role that the council plays in campus activism depends on the president, Nguyen said. His background in working in “the community in spaces that do activism” shaped his approach to the council, he added.

When Kurji served as UCS president, “there was a great deal of activism, and I think we tried to be a voice,” he said. “We tried to focus on the issues that were the most pressing, the most relevant. We were starting conversations about admissions, about financial aid, about respecting folks because of their background.”

During Kurji’s time on campus, UCS tried “to empower other student groups and to really empower students to have their own voice,” he said. “I don’t think anyone should ever make the claim that UCS is the only voice. … It’s important to really ensure that every student had their choice.”

Playing to strengths, recognizing limitations

Like many student groups, UCS must work within the constraints of a high turnover rate. At the beginning of the school year, each UCS committee comes up with a set of goals and projects, said Joel Payne ’05, a former UCS president. By the time the council has formalized its agenda, “It’s December, you’re starting the second semester, and really and truly you’ve only got a handful of meetings before people are starting to think about running for next year,” Payne added.

While time is a limiting factor everyone can recognize, alums and current students have different takes on whether the council’s structure is a hindrance or an asset.

“In practice, it didn’t work very well at all,” Affigne said of his plan to model the council’s structure on the administration’s. Following the dissolution of the Caucus, the council “attracted people who had a more bureaucratic and less political image of themselves,” he added. “They didn’t necessarily feel like they were representing students anymore.” The bureaucratic structure of UCS discouraged members from engaging in activism as representatives of the student body, he said.

The organization of the council has shifted over time and no longer so closely mimics that of the administration, Nguyen said. “It may have started out that way, but I think now it’s been able to be a lot more nuanced and change with the needs of students,” he added. For example, the Student Wellness Committee was created “in response to the growing need of mental health and sexual assault prevention on campus.”

Blessing said that during his time on student government, he saw it as one of many organizational vehicles “that students used to try to press their viewpoints and achieve certain ends.” Though the Caucus had “limited resources” and no “legal or actual authority to make decisions or veto decisions,” its members focused on what “we believed we could do to boost decision-making” that reflected the needs and desires of the student body, he added.

The most effective student governments are the ones that devote their energy and resources to dealing with one or two priority issues,” said Ken Rivlin ’87 P’19, a former UCS president. “You can’t be all things to all people.” Rivlin added that this approach is most likely to “yield tangible results” and “offset many students’ skepticism about the usefulness or effectiveness of student government.”

The greatest strength of UCS lies in its inclusiveness, Ittner said. “The entire student body can join — there’s not an election process; it’s not competitive in any way — and therefore if you are invested in the school, you want to see change and you are really passionate about this school for whatever reason, you have the opportunity to serve on student government,” he added.

Making “sure that the entire campus feels involved and invested” is crucial to the success of the council, Payne said, adding that he valued the council’s ability “to bring a pretty diverse group of students together and get things done.” This set an example for the rest of the student body of “people coming together, working together and figuring it all out,” he said.

“Our biggest priority is making students care and believe that UCS is a valid vehicle for change,” Nguyen said, adding that he wants to facilitate greater “centralization of student voice” during the remainder of his tenure. “Right now we have student groups doing great work, we have students on University appointments doing great work, we have UCS doing work — is there a way in which we can have cross-communication?” To ensure that student advocacy and activism are directed by an awareness of student concerns, Nguyen hopes to create a congress of student groups and a congress for students on University committees, he added.