Cayden Mak, Contributing Writer & Assistant Professor at SUNY Buffalo
I have been leery of the Student Assembly from the beginning. My first encounter was last March, when the Graduate Student Employees Union’s Lobby Day and SA’s SUNYpalooza fell on the same day. GSEU members crashed the SUNYpalooza rally, giving the microphone to students who were mad that the SA, in their name, was advocating against their own interests. Of course, I’m talking about “rational” tuition, a plan to raise tuition 30 percent in the next 5 years, a part of NY-SUNY 2020, which was declared a student victory by SA.
My involvement with SA was accidental. Last spring, the President of the Graduate Student Association at UB asked me if I would like to attend as a voting delegate. He knew I had expertise in current events with SUNY, especially fiscal issues and government policy, as I am active with GSEU and other organizations. I went to the conference and, after a long weekend of sitting through absurd personnel complaints and a drawn-out executive board election process, I went home a newly minted graduate representative.
SA’s support for “rational” tuition has already damaged credibility in the eyes of many students, including student government leaders, but that’s just scratching the surface. There is also the anti-democratic way in which executives are selected at a conference—not through a popular vote. There is the Board of Trustees’ short fiscal leash. There is the constant, hovering presence of System Administration.
Yet I thought participating was worth a shot. Student government is an important structure, and one that should be taken seriously. So I gave it my all, attempting to build contacts with graduate students whose buy-in is minimal. I also felt like I could bring some perspective to the table within SA; in two consecutive weekends in Albany, I attended the founding retreat of New York Students Rising, a grassroots student advocacy network of SUNY and CUNY students and the transitional retreat for SA. These two organizations could not be more different: where NYSR is open to all, built on a consensus model of decision-making and wholly independent, SA is closely regulated, relies on parliamentary procedure and is heavily influenced by System Administration.
I thought that bridging the differences would open up new avenues of discourse and SUNY students would get more than they would with just one organization working on their behalf. SA also gave me the opportunity to peer inside System Administration to see how the machine works, even as I was organizing with NYSR to critique and resist it. In the end, the systemic problems were simply overwhelming.
The Problem is Structural
The problems begin at the campus level. Some campuses hold elections, but in many cases, representatives to the SA are appointed by the executive boards of their local governments. Thus, appointees vote on resolutions and select the executives that System Administration so proudly says are democratically elected, and in order to successfully run for office, you need to have the blessing of your local student government. You have to attend the spring conference to even be considered for office, but you must be selected to attend, or be friends with delegates.
It is a simple fact that an executive committee elected during a meeting of arbitrarily chosen representatives is not democratic. In no possible world is this democracy. To call it democracy is an affront to what is understood to be democracy. SA is set up to be nepotistic—those who are most involved and committed know and support one another. Those who are less involved, like most voting delegates, tend to just allow the inner circle to play with the legislation as they see fit.
SA is also kept on a tight leash financially by the Board of Trustees—all its funding comes from them, and any in-kind or monetary donations that the governments of specific schools are willing or able to contribute. And—big surprise here—the Board of Trustees is hacking away at the SA’s budget.
If the money and elections weren’t enough, System Administration keeps SA in a stifling bear hug at the highest levels. This is partially an effect of history: in 1970, a SUNY-wide student organization called the Student Association of the State University was created by students to give us a voice in the halls of the legislature. As a response, the Board of Trustees created the Student Assembly in 1973, though the two organizations coexisted for about twenty years. Ultimately, the Board of Trustees essentially strangled SASU out of existence, leaving the organization of their invention in place.
Today, the President of SA is a member of the SUNY Board of Trustees, which is actually quite problematic. Due to the electoral process in SA, the President must pass a series of selective filters, as I’ve described. And the President, regardless of beliefs, going into a Board meeting, is so frequently intimidated, coaxed or flattered by members of the Board and the Chancellor that it’s easy to forget the core reason for being there: to represent students’ best interests.
People in System Administration proudly point to SA as the democratic voice of the students, when in reality it is playacting at representative democracy. Its decisions and processes happen far from the needs and concerns of the majority of students. I became a graduate representative by default, because so few graduate students participate. This yields a culture that is toxic to true democracy. We all run a little scared, worried that popular opinion will oust us from office as easily as we settled in.
Finally, to add insult to injury, System Administration uses these “democratic” decisions and proceedings to discredit popular organizations that are promoting counter-narratives, while also throwing SA under the bus. This is irritating at best and dangerous at worst. It allows System Administration to manage the discourse, using SA as a pawn on every issue. Even when members of the executive committee speak out on issues important to students, System Administration representatives steer resolution language toward a safer, less assertive timbre.
These are struggles that occur outside the public eye – a testament to the fact that many in SA believe in advocating for what students want, regardless of what System Administration thinks. A great example in the past few months has been the debate over the Chancellor’s Shared Services proposal. Yet due to intentional limiting of leadership and a fatally damaged process, System Administration exercises a great deal of control over what gets said and how. In the fallout of the statewide walkouts, System Administration also didn’t hesitate to make SA a scapegoat for “rational” tuition in order to shift blame away from itself. It is clear why SA is useful to our administrators and Trustees and why this broken system needs to be fixed.
Solutions to the Problem
As I mentioned before, student government in much of the SUNY system, and certainly here at Buffalo, is quite radical: construct a system where students have agency to support each other outside the control of faculty or administrators. Very few other campuses in the country have this kind of autonomy, a chance to make independent decisions and advocate for their own self-interest. This began as an experiment to give students agency in the process of shared governance that, up until that time, was reserved for faculty. Frankly, at present, SA is completely undermining this process.
As someone who has seen this organization’s functioning from within as well as critiqued it from without, I do not believe that SA can be reformed. On the contrary, I believe the bylaws must be scrapped, the process re-imagined and students given back their own democratic government. Perhaps a guiding light could be to look at current grassroots organizing efforts or the history of SASU.
I want to emphasize that the problem is not the people in the organization. There is a refreshing amount of critical thinking going on in SA, and it is fair to say that the entire executive committee firmly believes it is helping students. Being misguided when you haven’t been exposed to alternative points of view is not a crime, but failure to seek them out, especially as a leader, is a problem.
Student government is a necessary phenomenon, but it’s time for a change: System Administration is steering a course that has been charted already, and we are hauling at its oars. “Rational” tuition is little more than a smokescreen, after all. It’s part of a bigger plan to run SUNY aground on the same shoals that crippled the University of California. A little mutiny in the ranks is crucial now.
What SUNY’s student body needs now is a frank conversation about what it means to be a part of this great system. It needs leaders who ask hard questions and seek new ideas. It needs to stand up for itself. It needs to innovate on its own behalf. I have always believed we have the expertise to solve SUNY’s problems more creatively than System Administration, the state legislature or the governor. We just have to be willing to think big, participate and speak up. Student government should be a conduit for innovation, not a dam.