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Editorial: UCS needs to be a serious voice for students

If you didn’t catch the latest season of the soap opera that Brown’s student government has become, you’re not alone: Only 27% of undergraduates participated in this week’s failed vote to recall Undergraduate Council of Students President Ricky Zhong ’23. The effort was prompted in large part by UCS leadership’s elimination of its general body, a move that limited direct UCS participation to elected members and which critics called anti-democratic. But after all the bluster, the recall vote won the support of only 28 more students than the 301 who signed the petition kicking it off. This is just another in a long line of unnecessary UCS melodramas in recent years. Is UCS a serious organization furthering student representation, or is it a sideshow only notable for its tendency to collapse into chaos? The time has come to choose — and both UCS and the student body must play their part.

In the past few years, UCS has not been known for its efficacy, stability or usefulness to students. Yet this semester has seen some of its most impactful work in years — with UCS playing a role in installing a queue-tracking monitor in the mailroom and conducting student polling that helped inform the Office of Residential Life’s decision to extend the free laundry program. But fruitful projects still feel much more like the exception than the rule. UCS has mostly failed to justify its existence to students: Less than one in four Brown students think they have benefited from a UCS program, according to The Herald’s fall 2022 poll. Perhaps undergraduates just aren’t aware of all the good work UCS does, but who could blame them for forgetting after the past year’s string of distractions: Last spring, UCS named one president, then UCS decided that it ran the election under the wrong constitution, then UCS ran another election, then UCS named a different president, then this fall a student called for a presidential recall, then the recall petition was nearly dropped for having too many unverifiable signatures and then finally the recall itself was held. This dysfunctional drama, not recent flashes of effectiveness, has come to define UCS.

As the most prominent branch of Brown’s undergraduate student government, UCS has a responsibility to be an effective intermediary between the University’s administration and the student body. While it may have started down that path in recent months, the drama endemic to UCS refuses to get out of the way. UCS will need to take a hard look at its real problems and implement effective solutions.

One crucial solution to the failings of UCS is to lay out a conclusive and comprehensive election code for all three branches of Brown’s Student Government Association — UCS, the Undergraduate Finance Board and the Class Coordinating Board. After all, the initial incorrect announcement of the UCS president last spring was prompted by a disparity between the UCS and SGA rules. The mess of constitutions, bylaws and precedents governing elections — “disjoint and convoluted,” in the words of UCS Elections Co-Director Eli Sporn ’24 — leaves room for the manipulation and confusion we’ve seen in the last year. To their credit, UCS is currently working on producing a uniform elections code, one that hopefully is clear and thorough enough to avoid these problems. 

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But at the end of the day, UCS’s central issue is the same one it has suffered from for ages: a lack of serious, substantive student engagement. UCS must actively foster this engagement by proving to the student body that it is worthy of their attention. This means meaningful projects with other branches of SGA as well as with the Brown administration — efforts beyond laundry polling and mailroom screens, although these are not bad first steps. Still, this is a reciprocal relationship: Students must recognize the goals that UCS does accomplish and take the organization seriously when deserved.

UCS had started to prove its worth, but this recall was a distraction. If UCS and those hoping to serve as student government leaders are going to earn our respect, this must be the last time forgotten rules and petty squabbling get in the way of real work.

Editorials are written by The Herald’s Editorial Page Board. This editorial was written by its members Irene Chou ’23, Yasmeen Gaber ’23, Tom Li ’26, Jackson McGough ’23, Alissa Simon ’25, Kate Waisel ’24 and Yael Wellisch ’26.

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