Incoming Undergraduate Student Government President Rachel Yee has promised to improve USG’s communication with the student community at large. Sadly, far too many students live under the mistaken impression that USG “doesn’t do anything.” My fellow columnist Jan Domingo Alsina went so far as to argue that our Undergraduate Student Government members were nothing but “glorified social event organizers” — and that there was nothing inherently political about the position.
In reality, USG does far more than most students might realize, and belittling the work that they do does not do our campus community any favors. USG president Myesha Jemison’s administration helped to accomplish important projects on providing free menstrual products, establishing a committee on eating club relations, and piloting gender neutral bathrooms, among many others. These are tangible reforms that make a real difference in the lives of our fellow students, and we should be grateful for all of the good work that USG does, often under the radar, here at the University. But, note that all of these accomplishments are limited to life inside ‘the Orange Bubble.’ This needs to change.
Our undergraduate government can, and should, do more to represent the interests of our students to the world outside of Princeton. During this year’s fall 2017 USG elections, U-Councilor Samuel Vilchez Santiago raised a particularly salient point about the candidates’ stances on contemporary political issues (or lack thereof). On Facebook, he wrote that they were missing stances on sexual misconduct, diversity and inclusion, immigration and protections for DACA and other undocumented students, to name a few. “This is disappointing to say the least,” Santiago wrote. “These are real issues that not only affect Princeton students, but also the rest of our society. As student leaders, it is our responsibility to bring them up and talk about them!”
Now more than ever, the role of student governments is more political than any of us could have imagined. In the face of a highly destructive U.S. presidential administration, the personal becomes political. A conservative political action group, Turning Points USA, has even flooded student government elections with money in an effort to elect conservative student government candidates. As much as many of us here in suburban New Jersey would like to pretend otherwise, what happens in the outside world affects us just as much as anyone else. So, we need an entirely different approach to the way we think about what our student government does — it’s time to think about the world outside the Bubble.
There’s also a place for the student government to get involved nationally. There aren’t any estimates about the total size of the undocumented population on campus, but the Trump Administration’s aggressive immigration enforcement threatens the lives of many of our friends, classmates, and families. The University has already filed suit against the Trump administration for its rescinding of DACA. Even more locally, the debates over welcoming/sanctuary county resolutions at the county government could have outsized impacts on undocumented students and other members of the University community. USG should step up and take an active role in advocating for undocumented students, regardless of their status as DACA recipients or otherwise.
Even the recently passed tax bill threatened to harm many current undergraduate and graduate students. The previous versions of the bill that had included provisions to tax the tuition waivers of graduate students and to eliminate the tax deduction for student loan interest. The final version only removed those provisions because of a huge outcry from students across the country. USG should have exercised its voice in this debate. The Graduate Student Government, for its part, was very active in rallying graduate students to fight against the proposed tuition waiver tax. Student advocacy matters more than many of us realize, and creating a more outward-facing presence for USG would be a way to support and institutionalize it.
Our undergraduate student government needs to step up to fulfill its full potential as a liaison between the student community, the campus administration, and the broader University community. There might be concerns about the partisanship of such activism, but such concerns are unfounded. We elect our student officers to represent the interests of the student body, and those interests don’t stop at FitzRandolph Gate. Issues directly affecting the lives of our fellow students should not be partisan issues.
There’s a proven model at other universities that USG could follow. The University of California, Los Angeles student government has a very successful office that fills this role, which they call the Office of the External Vice President. They advocate on behalf of the UCLA student body with local and state government officials and completed a number of successful campaigns this past year on neighborhood housing, student food security, tax reform, and immigration. Their External Vice President is directly elected by the student body, so we would have to hold a special election to do so, but given that we already use the electronic Helios ballot system, it should not be too difficult to reactivate the system.
Creating a position similar to the External Vice President and addressing student concerns outside the Orange Bubble is an easy way to raise the visibility of USG’s advocacy and take a clear stand for the rights of students at Princeton and beyond. Let’s get to work.
Nicholas Wu is the Head Opinion Editor of The Daily Princetonian. This letter represents the views of the Head Opinion Editor only; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.