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Op-eds, Opinions

Wrenn MS’18 PhD’21: Fact-Checking the UCS Executive Board’s Herald Letter: A Historical Perspective

By
Op-Ed Contributor
Sunday, May 24, 2020

In their May 15 letter to the editor, the Executive Board of the Undergraduate Council of Students appealed to the Brown community that the Class Coordinating Board is not an official form of student government: 

“As defined by the student body in 1976, any group including CCB which is looking to become officially recognized as a part of student government can do so through the democratic process of amending the Brown student government constitution.”

This assessment is ahistorical. 

A history of plural governance 

Does the constitution of UCS generally regulate the existence of other community governing bodies? No. The word “government” appears in it only once: 

“This Constitution shall supersede all previous Constitutions of the Brown University student government and shall become effective upon receiving a two-thirds (2/3) affirmative vote in an undergraduate student body referendum.” 

Here, the “student government” can refer only to the Student Caucus, the only student government that UCS superseded in 1976. In that year (and throughout many years of Brown’s history), the University enjoyed a plurality of student governments. They continued to exist, unaffected and independent from UCS even after the passage of this constitution. In other words, UCS did not supersede any of these other bodies. 

The Undergraduate Finance Board is a present reminder of this. UFB was created in 1984 to centralize management of the student activities fee fund. Prior to this, two groups split the responsibility of allocating the activities fund to student organizations: UCS and the Student Union. (Per Encyclopedia Brunoniana, the Student Union was a community organization “formed in 1973 to coordinate extracurricular functions and provide student services, (and) had among its responsibilities the Film Society, Lecture Board, Concert Agency, Cultural Activities Board and Big Mother Coffee House.”) Membership on the newly-created UFB included four representatives from the Student Union but only two from UCS. Clearly, UCS did not supersede all other student governments upon its formation — it coexisted with them. 

A process for creating community governments? 

In the absence of definitive constitutional regulations on community governance, is there an informal “democratic process” for establishing student governments with clear historical precedent? No. In fact, UFB — the only other student government acknowledged by the UCS Executive Board in a recent publication to their website — did not undergo a “democratic process” like that proposed by the Executive Board: Its formation required the recommendations of three different community governing bodies (UCS, the Student Union and the Undergraduate Activities Board) and the assent of a fourth (the Corporation, the University’s highest governing body), but not a referendum of the student body. 

“Student governments” or merely governing? 

These organizations — UCS, UAB and the Student Union — independently contributed to Brown’s community governance throughout their coexistence. UCS (like its predecessors, the Cammarian Club and the Student Caucus) coordinated undergraduate membership on Brown’s administrative committees. The Student Union, representing a coalition of student organizations, financially supported and coordinated community events and spaces. The UAC (and its predecessor, the Faunce House Board of Governors) coordinated improvements and space allocations in the Student Center. 

These three independent groups were clearly participants in Brown’s community governance, and, to varying degrees, either were seen in the Brown community as decision-making bodies or outright self-identified as participants in student government. Trent Norris ’86, co-chair of the UAB, UCS representative and chair of the Budget Process Review Committee recollected to me over email that “the UAB and the UCS definitely thought of ourselves as participating in student government.” And in the Brown community, the Student Union was regarded as more than a mere student activity. A 1973 Herald editorial bluntly described the Student Union as “not a student ‘activity,’” but instead a “student service.” Peter LeWitt ’72 MS’75 MD’75, the final president of the Faunce House Board, saw the Student Union as a successor to the Board, commenting that the Student Union was “a bureaucracy that is working. It is just as well the new organization came about; it’s a little more centralized and allows more participation.” A 1974 Herald column also referred to the Student Union and the Corporation as “decision-making bodies of the University.”

Class boards in context 

The class boards are not materially different from the other governance bodies UCS has coexisted with.

Like the Student Union, Brown’s class boards predate UCS as organizations of community governance. At times, the boards have eclipsed other student-run governing bodies in serving the undergraduate student body: A 1949 Herald editorial praised the Junior Class Board and the Brown Key for their cooperative leadership in a period of diminished initiative from the Cammarian Club. 

Like UCS and the Student Union, class boards are empowered by a legacy of administrative collaboration — their current incarnation is the product of a 2003 collaboration between the divisions of Campus Life and Alumni Relations. 

Like UFB, the class boards’ legitimate existence as participants in student government need not be predicated on a UCS referendum. 

The onus is thus not on the class boards to demonstrate that they are a part of community governance, but on the UCS Executive Board to demonstrate that they are not. 

Legitimate governments, legitimate gatekeepers?

Even if there were historical basis for UCS superseding all other student governing bodies (there’s not), and their constitution defined an official process for acknowledging other governing bodies (it doesn’t), or there were an informal process with a history of application (there isn’t), UCS lacks the public mandate to claim that the student body of 1976 “defined” anything beyond the replacement of the Student Caucus. The Herald’s 1976 recap of the creation of the UCS reports as much: 

“Questions of legitimacy — the major factor in the reorganization drive — have plagued the UCS since its inception. Although the Council structure was approved by 90 percent of those voting, the turnout represented only 26 percent of those eligible.” 

These “questions of legitimacy” were not invented for dramatic effect by The Herald — they have plagued UCS for decades. UCS senior leadership commented publicly on their frustrations with questions of legitimacy as late as 1997. 

UCS has decades of first-hand experience with the damaging effect of questioned legitimacy, and the Executive Board should be careful to not wield these claims against others unless it is within their mandate to do so. Yet, the mandate of UCS is not to be an arbiter of government legitimacy — it is to “represent students and the interests of students” and “endeavor to maximize effective student participation in decision-making at the University.” 

The class boards therefore do not need the consent of UCS to claim that they, too, are participants in Brown’s community governance — but they are entitled to its good-faith cooperation. To withhold their cooperation contravenes UCS’s public and constitutional mandate. 

Precedent for cooperation 

Cooperation between CCBs and UCS would not be unprecedented. As recently as two months ago, UCS described itself as “one of three branches of Brown student government, the other branches being CCB and UFB.” And, contrary to the recent op-ed penned by the co-president of CCB for the class of 2020, last fall’s elections were not the first time UCS, UFB and the CCBs represented themselves as a “unified front.” UCS coordinated joint elections for themselves, UFB and the CCBs as recently as 2011 and 2012. The 2012 results were announced by UCS beneath the headline “Campus Leadership Elections.” 

The prospect of cooperative plural community governance is historically unremarkable. That UCS and CCB now regard cooperation as unprecedented reflects a deterioration in both inter-organizational cooperation and plural governance. In the absence of the Student Union, community event organizers now lack a specific representative body, and UFB (whose oversight is now contributed solely by UCS) no longer serves as a mediator between independent community governments. The undergraduate student body would be well-served by the restoration of community event organizers to UFB. CCB is a worthy successor to the Student Union in this capacity, and (if history is any guide) this return-to-form would precipitate greater cooperation between UCS and CCB. 

John Wrenn MS’18 PhD’21 is a fifth-year doctoral candidate. He can be reached at me@jswrenn.com. He thanks Bruce Chanen ’86 and Trent Norris ’86 for their invaluable correspondence on the creation of the UFB, and for clarifying the relationships between various community bodies; and Sonia Sachar ’20 and Jason Carroll ’21 for their insightful review. Their help does not imply an endorsement of this document. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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