Every semester, The Herald polls the undergraduate student body to gauge student opinion on various community topics. One question that has remained consistent across each semester’s poll is, “Do you approve or disapprove of the way the Undergraduate Council of Students is handling its job?” This fall, 53.3 percent of the student body reported having “no opinion,” and the percentage of students who have taken this stance has ranged between 40 to 60 percent — a sizable sum — over the last three years. These results reflect a disconnect between the undergraduate community and its student government — one that should prompt both UCS members and undergrads to consider working harder to dissolve barriers to student government engagement.
This board has long opined on our desire for a more representative student government, but we feel it is important to begin by acknowledging the Council’s recent heightened efforts to engage students. This semester, UCS created club liaisons, who are directly responsible for making the Council and its resources more accessible. Moreover, it recently introduced first-year representatives — who hold office hours in Faunce every Friday — and held a successful election to fill these seats, with 65 percent of the first-year class voting. These changes are welcome news, and we look forward to the student feedback UCS will incorporate into their agendas from these initiatives.
That being said, the persistence of student body indifference to the Council’s work does not bode well for the campus community. Many students remain unclear about the role UCS plays on campus and seem unaware of the Council’s quotidian objectives. UCS must continue its efforts to improve student body engagement, but students must be more willing to connect with UCS as well. The Herald’s poll results suggest a general sense of apathy among many students toward the Council, but by its very nature, UCS requires student input to formulate an impactful and relevant agenda. Moreover, UCS depends on student participation to make tangible changes on campus and to hold influence in University decision-making processes.
The Council’s governing power certainly has limits, but students should not overlook UCS’s capacity to share student perspectives with the University’s administration. Indeed, the Council’s renewed efforts to connect students with administrators over this past year saw UCS performing at its best. For example, UCS hosted an open forum last week with Brown Dining Services administrators, which allowed students to voice concerns about the University’s handling of meal plan accommodation requests after the University made the decision to require sophomores to stay on meal plan. To be clear, the efforts of student advocates — like those in Project LETS — who worked considerably with the University to ensure meal plan accommodations would be met, also deserve immense recognition. Nevertheless, we found it gratifying to see UCS respond to student voices and use its platform to facilitate important conversations between students and administrative decision-makers.
Previous UCS members have also shown how the Council can use its platform for good. Former UCS President Viet Nguyen ’17 made national headlines when he used his position to call on Brown and its seven peer institutions in the Ivy League to eliminate the application fee for low-income students. Thanks to Nguyen’s advocacy, the University officially began waiving the fee in fall 2017.
This initiative is an important reminder of why we should not remain indifferent or ignorant to the power UCS wields — and the role that we can play in its direction as students. We encourage current UCS members to reflect on the Council’s rich history and continue to call on community voices so that the Council can use its platform as a vehicle for meaningful change.
Brown students are far from indifferent to many community issues, as recent student organizing and protesting around #BrownDivest, #NoTechforICE and Warren Kanders Must Go demonstrate. All of these protests reflect the immense passion and opinions students have about the decisions that the University makes.
But to be clear, the onus to increase student government engagement does not lie completely with students outside of UCS. As a body whose purpose is to represent and advocate for students, UCS could do better in responding to student mobilization and remaining consistent with that support. For instance, our previous issues with the wording of the Brown Divest referendum question aside, if the Council believes that the 69 percent of students who voted in favor of divestment represents the will of the undergraduate student body, it should publicly and persistently advocate for the referendum’s enforcement even though the election season has ended. As we encourage students to use the UCS platform to make their voices heard, we also hope that UCS can follow through in doing the most to support them.
Ultimately, we hope that first-year students, who currently have the highest “no opinion” rate among the student body, at 37.3 percent, will capitalize on newly-created opportunities to hear about the Council’s work and how its agenda affects their lives on campus. But overall, we hope that students of all years feel encouraged to connect with their student government, whether it be through following their updates on Facebook, attending their general body meetings or joining UCS as a voting member. As UCS continues to focus on improving student engagement this semester, we hope our fellow students will rise to the occasion and engage with UCS too.
Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editors, Grace Layer ’20 and Krista Stapleford ’21, and its members, Dylan Tian ’21, Eduard Muñoz-Suñé ’20, Jonathan Douglas ’20, and Riley Pestorius ’21. Send comments to email@example.com. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.