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Student apathy towards USG has real consequences

<h5>USG Council members vote to confirm new committee members.</h5>
<h6>Caroline Shückel / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
USG Council members vote to confirm new committee members.
Caroline Shückel / The Daily Princetonian

The following is a guest contribution and reflects the author’s views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion Section, click here.

Hi, my name is Stephen Daniels, and I am currently a U-Councilor. You likely do not know what that means, underscoring the public relations problem of our Undergraduate Student Government’s (USG) Senate. Few students outside of USG can explain what the different groups that make up the body actually do. 

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This is a contributing factor to the general lack of interest in running for senate positions. While there are 24 potential voting members of the senate, we currently have only one of two Class of 2023 senator positions filled, which means we actually have 23. Furthermore, only six of the people filling those seats went through a contested election (I am not one of them, yet I hold the fifth most senior office according to the USG Constitution). This is not due to a constitutional quirk: all of those positions should be subject to an election. 

If the senate did not have any power, this information would be trivial. However, we do, which means that the lack of interest in senate positions is a problem that could have significant negative impacts on student life.

The key message I hope you take from this article is that the apathy many students have towards USG, an apathy USG has allowed to fester, has serious consequences. Even if you are never brought up on disciplinary charges at the University, the senate is an important voice on things that matter to students, whether that be grading policies, COVID-19 regulations, dining, or Lawnparties. In fact, while I am running for USG Vice President to ensure students feel that their ideas matter, I would rather — Scout’s honor — lose the election and see students engage more with USG, increasing USG’s ability to make positive change, than win with the current level of apathy. 

Part of this apathy definitely results from USG candidates campaigning on lofty platforms that promise to achieve goals USG lacks the power to enact. When representatives inevitably fail to fulfill such platforms, this naturally leads people to think the senate cannot take any meaningful action (I am not necessarily exempt from this). The reality, however, is that the senate does have the power to make the University a better place in some ways. But in order to have the greatest impact, students must understand what USG can actually do and elect candidates who have a history of making progress on those issues.

So, what can the senate do? While it is true that we do not have the ability to unilaterally change school policy, we do have a surprising amount of soft power. At least one administrator typically presents at our weekly meetings, which means the Q&A period afterwards is one of the precious few opportunities to give the administration the student perspective on issues. 

For example, Dean Dolan and Senior Associate Dean of the College Claire Fowler recently attended a meeting and presented new grading information, including the continued rise in the number of A’s given out. If you are pre-law, pre-med, or pre-anything where GPA matters, a senate failure to properly share student concerns about the impact of grading policy changes could potentially have a serious impact on your future plans.

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I, someone who only had to get 50 people to agree to let me run, had as much of an opportunity to speak on this issue as someone who received 1,260 votes last winter. While I think I do a decent job, it would be nice for everyone who was speaking about such a significant issue to have an electoral mandate.

Another meeting I recently attended provides an even more striking example of the importance of caring about USG. I am one of the co-chairs of the Community Dining Task Force, so I, along with three other voting members of the senate, was invited to a meeting with high-level administrators about the future of dining on campus. It was disheartening, but not surprising, to realize during the meeting that only one of us had actually been through a contested election. 

Campus dining affects every student on this campus, and the apathy towards USG had a direct impact on which voices were heard and which concerns were shared. This issue and that meeting was particularly important to anyone who enjoys the Tigers in Town program. Although this is not necessarily well-known, the funding for this program came from a part of the USG budget that only existed as a result of COVID-19. This means that going forward, funding for the program and thus the program itself cannot exist unless money is shifted away from other programs that USG funds, such as Lawnparties. Going forward, the only way to continue a program like Tigers in Town without cutting other parts of the budget is for students to elect representatives who are focused on funding programs and who have experience working with administrators to find more permanent solutions, like incorporating in-town dining into the meal plan.

The messy rollout of the recent COVID-19 regulations is another area where USG can more effectively represent the concerns of students. The familiar routine of University administration announcing a vague policy which leaves students (in particular international students and student leaders) in limbo, requiring multiple rounds of revisions, could be solved by USG working with administration to review policy updates with the student perspective in mind before the policy is announced. 

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I know the impact of the current lack of communication first-hand because an organization I lead made the irreversible decision to cancel an event following the initial policy announcement that need not have been canceled under the revised policy. This miscommunication is not something that students or USG should accept from a $37.7 billion institution. The role of an intermediary between the administration and the student body is one USG can and should fill on this issue, and electing representatives who will push for this would help move us towards this goal.  

Last but certainly not least is the Honor Code and Disciplinary Process. One of the more interesting parts of the USG Constitution is that 13 Honor Committee members and three-fourths of the senate are enough to amend the Honor Constitution. As we are past the referendum deadline, this is the only opportunity in the near future to make any changes to address the issues with the Honor Code and Disciplinary Process brought to light by a recent article in The Daily Princetonian

In addition, the senate is uniquely positioned to work to amend the process for Residential College Disciplinary Board hearings, what the majority of social contract violations fell under. The current system makes it so that your Director of Student Life (DSL) is both your provided advisor and one of the people hearing your case. Although I think my DSL is a great person, I would not want him serving as judge, juror, and counsel in a case where I could be given disciplinary probation, which has to be reported on some graduate school and job applications. 

This is an issue the senate is uniquely well-positioned to look into as we fundamentally function as an intermediary between students and the administration on policy issues. While we have not done enough in the past, this is another important issue where students who have experienced processes like a Residential College Disciplinary Board hearing could help us address if they understood the meaningful role USG can play. 

All of the issues I have mentioned could impact your lives, and not caring about USG elections, or dismissing the possibility of running yourself if you think you would bring an important perspective, leads to situations like this past semester, where only one-fourth of your representatives were directly chosen by the student body. Apathy towards USG has consequences for you and the people here that you care about. 

Please put time into thinking through who you vote for and whether their policy platform is actually something that USG can make progress on as well as the impact it would have on yourself and other students. You do not want to regret your vote or your choice not to vote when you or someone you care about learns about the consequences of apathy towards USG first hand.

Stephen Daniels is a member of the Class of 2024 and a U-Councilor from Wrightstown, Pa. who is running for USG Vice President. He can be contacted at spd2@princeton.edu.  

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