Student Governments are Out of Control

In an expose published in the Weekly Standard, Mark Hemingway describes the waste, irresponsibility, and petty politics that plague student governments. At a small liberal arts college, this kind of student mischief would only cause minor problems. But at large state schools, where student governments control piles of cash larger “than many municipal budgets in the United States[,]” their malfeasance is of serious public concern.

Student government budgets are staggering. The Associated Students of the University of Oregon (ASUO) “presides over a $15 million budget that runs 413 pages[.]” The University of South Florida’s student government has a budget of $14 million, and UCLA’s is a jaw-dropping $90 million. Such funds are culled from student fees—often mandatory—that can add up to several hundred dollars per student per year. At some schools, student governments have the power to raise these fees unilaterally. The ASUO, for example, is empowered to raise their fees by as much as seven percent a year. When that isn’t possible, they can often raise fees through low-turnout votes whose outcomes may be binding upon future students for decades.

Where does this money go? According to Hemingway, they support student groups of dubious educational value, like the “Belegarth Medieval Combat Society”; stipends or salaries for student government officers; and a variety of responsibilities that ought to be the province of university administrations, such as operating the student union building on campus.

With students charged with exercising such incredible power, it is no wonder that student body elections at these universities have become mired in the kinds of dirty tactics befitting the worst sort of national political campaign.

All of this makes one wonder where the adults are. Sadly, administrators are often complicit in student government mischief. It allows them to move big-ticket expenses off of their own books and avoid responsibility for many decisions affecting student life. There is a symbiotic relationship between student governments run amok and administrators who are more than willing to turn a blind eye.

Trustees should take the lead in forcing prudence upon student governments. They should demand information about how mandatory student fees are being spent, and they should put pressure on administrations to ensure that student leaders aren’t exercising authority best reserved to professionals.

We ought to remember that student governments are made up of students. While in college, their primary responsibility is learning, not running schools. It’s time for some adult supervision.

Avi Snyder

Avi Snyder is ACTA's Senior Program Officer for Communications.

One thought on “Student Governments are Out of Control”

  1. Respectfully, when most articles here discuss administrative malfeasance is it really that bad for students to direct where some of there tuition fees go? Students may be students, but they aren’t wholly incompetent, all they are directing is campus hobbies. If the fees were eliminated, I’d imagine these same sort of groups would operate outside university budgets. Furthermore, for many students, student government is learning. Quite possibly better learning then their classes we tend to complain about here. Student government is a student innovation, one which often press for change from admin. Ideally this would address problems with tuition cost increases and useless budget spending. Unless crimes are being committed, adults don’t need adult supervision.

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