Undergrad Dictatorship Always an OptionGuest Column by Hans C. Godfrey
I have been at MIT for a number of years now (10 or more the legends say) and in that time I have gained a certain amount of wisdom about how the student body operates. For the most part, undergraduates tend to concern themselves with their studies, a particular sport or extracurricular activity, their living group, and very little else. At the extremes you have two sets of students: very outgoing people that participate in several activities across the campus and try to make a difference (or pad their resume), and those that don't really much care but like to flame about everything under the sun.
Over the years I have seen this last group not so much grow, but get ever louder. They don't make a real effort to research any of the facts connected with campus events or situations, but without a doubt they'll have an opinion about the situation. One of their primary focuses for complaint is of course the Undergraduate Association -- tied for first place with Physical Plant and ARA (whoops, I meant MIT Catering).
These people will maintain against all reasonable evidence that the Undergraduate Association is a closed clique of greasy politicians whose only desire is to hobnob with the administration. It's not as if the people that participate in the UA are actually fellow undergraduates who decided to sacrifice a great deal of their free time and run for offices which are open to any undergraduate to run for. Obviously, the UA is some shadow organization which through some highly undemocratic, super secret process chooses the leaders for the undergraduates. Yep, that's gotta be the truth ... and President Chuck Vest is probably in on it, too. Well, if undergraduate government on this campus has sunk so low then there can be but one solution. Actually, there can be several solutions, but I'm lazy. Anyway, government must be reformed to fit the needs of changing campus.
So, to have some fun for a change, I say the undergraduates (as if you had a say) should abandon any last vestiges of the democratic process. Since the campus seems to be sliding into apathy anyway, there are several forms of governance far more suited to an uncaring electorate. Let's take a look at two, the dictatorship and the corporation.
Let's take a fictional dictator, say, Manish Bapna, and put him at the head of the government. Let's not worry about Mr. Bapna's qualifications for the job because that's a state secret. In truth, it should be the favorite government of all undergraduates because it absolves you of any responsibility for what your (I mean his) government does. Think about it. Right now if things are going badly there are several ways for the undergraduates to change things for the better. Under a dictatorship el jeffe has to shoulder the entire burden. How about this for a sample conversation:
Dr. Vest: So, Manish, what would undergraduates think of a freshman dorm?
Bapna the Great: Silence, I alone have a say!
Dr. Vest: But this issue has ramifications for the entire student body in regards to the operation of R/O. Additionally, it would have a tremendous impact ... er, effect ... on the financial situation of ILGs. Don't you think that. . .
Bapna the Magnificent: Quiet knave! What care I for the welfare of the masses. My satisfaction is paramount. I alone shall decide the good!
Dr. Vest: But. . .
Bapna the Big Dog: Yes, there shall be a freshman dormitory. That way I will more quickly be able to indoctrinate the masses into worship of me. Make it so!
Truly this form of government would make life much simpler. The dictator could handle all of the business affairs of the UA and come to think of it, the Association of Student Activities, Interfraternity Council, Dormitory Council, and let's throw in the Graduate Student Council too. All financial allocations, all Institute committee nominations, all judicial cases, all housing disputes, every last decision the dictator could make. Think about all of the bureaucracy that could be eliminated with a few quick strokes of the pen. Hell, who even needs a written constitution -- the dictator could make it up on the fly. He'd be all that and a bag of chips!
If the masses (that's you) ever get oppressed too much then it's a simple thing to launch a coup d' etat. That in itself would be reason enough to have a dictator. They used to have tuition riots to blow off steam, a coup could be the modern incarnation of that august tradition. Just failed a quiz, Coop rebate went negative, didn't get enough money in your group's UA Dictator allocation? Hey, launch a coup. Then you could have all the power, the Vannevar Bush '16 Fund, etc., etc. With all the advantages to this system I'm surprised that the practical-minded engineers haven't already implemented it.
The second model that might be effective would be a corporation, run by a board of directors. This one has all sorts of potential and would probably be the next best thing to a UA Mafia. The Finance Board could act as a loan service (with 10 percent interest compounded semi-daily) to student groups -- forget grants. The Nominations Committee could be a placement service for students: "Want to be on the Committee for Academic Performance? That'll be $50." Professors could even get in on the act: "Gee, I'd like all 7s on my Course Evaluation Guide evaluation. No problem professor I'm sure that for a small fee we could accommodate you." The UA would be raking in the dough like nobody's bid'ness. If we wanted to expand we could even take the company public and sell stock to students (or anyone else).
With that kind of cash to work with, all sorts of wild stuff could happen. If The Tech starts giving the UA bad press, then we just buy them out and make it The Tech -- a wholly owned subsidiary of the UA. Yeah, then we could really get some tangible student services going. Rocket elevators in the Student Center, turn Transparent Horizons into slag, liquid nitrogen for everyone -- you know, the important stuff.
Now before some of you explode in righteous rage at the utterly ridiculous spout rendered above, chill. Being stuck in an environment like MIT seems to change people. It's highly competitive here and undergraduates seem to forget that the people they read about in The Tech and The Thistle are students just like them (kinda). Although both those publications raise some provocative questions and at times may even raise a valid point or two, they both leave out quite a bit of information relevant to their stories and, whether intentionally or not, hurt hard-working undergraduates in the process.
Take a moment and think. How busy are you handling the details of your life at MIT. Now add to that holding a position of responsibility (snicker, snicker) like UA President or UA Finboard chair, etc. It is not a pretty sight. I don't mean to ruin your picture of plotting and scheming politicians, but if that's how you like your politics, please focus your attention on the national scene and not the campus. The UA in its recent history has not been a closed set of people. How can the only organization on campus which holds campus-wide elections for office be an insular clique? The truth of the matter is that people here want to get things done in a hurry and when things don't change fast enough or in the way they like, they need a scapegoat. The UA has always been the convenient scapegoat for students and administrators alike.
More installments to come ...
Now The Tech is no place to debate the issues involved here because there are simply too many. However, over the next few weeks before I leave office I would like to write several columns detailing exactly what the UA (actually the UA government because all undergraduates are members of the UA) does and the situations facing it. I'm doing this for several reasons and from the point of view that I'm a lame-duck president. I'm tired of hearing all the bickering about the UA trying to dominate this or that, or that the UA is trying to tax us unmercifully. Some of the things I hear make the UA sound like one of the most powerful and evil organizations at MIT (i.e. the Academic Council). I would like to clear the air and give everyone some meaningful reference points from which to cast scorn or accolades. Then if you really want to argue, you have a real basis on which to build your arguments.
Next week I think I'll write about the UA budget, the UA Finance Board, and you.
Outgoing Undergraduate Association President Hans C. Godfrey has seen the light and regrets not devoting his free time to The Tech instead of the UA.