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UA Effectiveness Reflects What Student Body Wants

Guest Column by J. Paul Kirby '92

Now is obviously the time when all good undergraduates abandon their problem sets to focus on the impending doom that elected student government could very soon bring to their lives, unless of course, they act decisively to elect the right set of candidates, in which case life will be happy for yet another year.

Some have written over the past few weeks that the lack of interest in last year's election was due to rigorous campaign restrictions, somehow keeping back the flood of zillions of interested candidates. I just don't understand this; certainly students being devoted to academics or otherwise apathetic to student government kept far more students from wanting to run than campaign restrictions kept willing candidates locked out, and so I must disagree with these writers.

Indeed, these people who rise from their coffins every February and March to bemoan the unrepresentative and ineffective Undergraduate Association are most curious creatures, for in so doing they suggest that student government should be powerful, representative, active, and potentially highly regulative of their daily lives -the exact opposite of what it is now. I disagree with them, as do most students, who I think should be quite content with the UA as a mostly harmless organization.

Some have proclaimed the UA elitist and exclusionary, but these people (invariably candidates seeking UA "power") seem to forget that the pace and pressure of MIT's coursework demands that the UA, like other student activities, recruit and recruit and recruit and take anyone who is interested. The UA, like every other student activity, could not survive with exclusionary policies.

Some have attacked the UA Council for being unrepresentative and ineffective, but this has almost always been so and won't substantially change no matter whom the student body votes for. The work the UA gets done (when it gets any done at all) is almost never done by the Council, but by committees like the Finance Board, the Nominations Committee, the Student Life Committee, and other ad hoc committees that respond to specific issues. These committees, which sometimes go nowhere fast but sometimes are pretty impressive, are a far cry from the Council, whose effectiveness has always been a function of how threatened the student body perceives itself.

When a "really dangerous administration proposal" surfaces (usually once or twice every five years), students reluctantly become active in student government to advocate their interests, an ad hoc committee is formed, and the UA Council becomes just effective enough to represent and advance those interests. When the crisis subsides, so does the Council's effectiveness.

Those who argue that the Council should be active and effective even when there is no crisis, I think, argue for a far more invasive form of government than most students would prefer. Should the UA Council set tuition, hear disciplinary cases, or send out patrols to ensure that students comply with MIT policy (or gasp UA policy)? More important, should it begin to get powerful enough to contemplate such things?

I for one am quite happy to have the UA Council idle for most of the time. Whenever something important has come up, more students have gotten involved and have brought the UA what is in fact an impressive, if sparse, record of defeating administration proposals (Report of the Faculty's Freshman Housing Committee, 1985-6; Pass/Fail, 1986-7) and implementing student services (the Course Evaluation Guide, 1979 and 1985; Safe Ride, 1990). The UA has more than earned its keep and in its present structure remains quite able to attract undergraduates into effective service should another crisis arise.

The Council, only one part of the UA, is not "unrepresentative" and "ineffective": it is bored, and therefore harmless, and that's just fine with me. I don't mean to say, though, that the election is unimportant; there is every reason to go out and vote. The more people that vote, the less the chance that a small corrupt minority will win. And good people are needed in the UA, not to make the Council better, but to focus on specific issues and projects that may or may not be in the limelight.

You might expect a former "UA insider" like me to disagree with candidates who belabor how ineffective the UA is, and I do. But I wouldn't respond by simply saying that the UA is effective; I'd say that those candidates shouldn't just talk about what they can do to make the UA more effective, but also about why it should even be so effective in the first place.

J. Paul Kirby '92, Director, UA Information Services Group, is a former: Undergraduate Association vice president;UA Alcohol Policy Committee chair;UA Finance Board Review Group chair; and UA Judicial Review Board chair.