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What Has the UA Done for You?

Wesley T. Chan

In his State of the UA Address last September, Undergraduate Association President Paul T. Oppold ’99 urged students to be “awakened” and “jostled from your rest.” I certainly have been jostled, not by my enthusiasm for the UA but by my disappointment and concern for what the UA is now and what it has done.

The UA is in a state of disarray. It has no clear plan of action and lacks focus. Furthermore, a majority of students at MIT have little idea of what the UA does.

Particularly disturbing is what some students said about the UA in the last issue of The Tech. Said one student, “I have no idea what the UA does.” Another student remarked that the UA should “educate the general student body about the UA and the scope of what they can do for us.” He added, “I don’t even know what the UA does right now.”

Simply put, I don’t know what the UA does for us either. I say this not out of ignorance, but out of concern that the UA does little to address student needs and to improve campus life.

Unfortunately, the UA simply dismisses our ignorance as nothing more than student indifference. “MIT overworks students,” explained one UA Councilor, who claimed that he was constantly discouraged because students at MIT are much more apathetic than students at our peer institutions. While this may be true, the UA itself suffers from the same apathy that plagues the rest of our campus. The UA’s web site is indicative of this. Clicking on their event calendar leads to a page that says “Fatal Error.” Worse yet, when you try to find out what happened at the last UA meeting, you get a web page that says nothing more than “hello.”

Regrettably, the UA has little to put on its web site in the first place. Of the meager amount of legislation they passed this year, half were resolutions of condolences for students who had recently passed away. Students are unaware of what the UA does, not because they don’t care, but because the UA doesn’t give them something to care about.

More disturbing is the predictable cycle that occurs every year surrounding the UA elections. Soon after the campaign posters come down, the newly elected officers and councilors quickly become absorbed in their pet projects or worse yet, lose interest in the UA entirely. Campaign promises are quickly forgotten and broken. Students hear little more from them besides the e-mail forwards that get sent out about sporadically scheduled and poorly attended study breaks. The UA seems to remain silent until campaign posters flood the infinite corridor again the following year.

Even on the rare occasions where the UA seizes the opportunity to do more, it fails miserably. Last October, the UA delayed releasing the results of a UA sponsored housing referendum, raising suspicions that it had once again botched a balloting initiative. (Last year, the UA elections had to be rerun because of then-candidate Paul Oppold’s election violations) In addition to gathering general input about housing issues, the referendum showed that a clear majority of students were against freshman housing on campus. Despite this fact, UA leaders quietly showed it to the administration and then shoved it under the table.

Nevertheless, the UA does have a few notable accomplishments in the past several years to its credit. The UA has done reasonably well in informing students about Institute rules through a series of mailings. The UA, along with the Graduate Student Council, also successfully lobbied the administration for a $200,000 increase in large event and student activities funding.

While admirable, these accomplishments are trivial compared to what the UA could do given the resources it has. The UA’s recent achievements also do not disguise the fact that it suffers from an appalling lack of interest in the students that it is supposed to represent. Adding a fresh coat of paint to a beat-up jalopy does not fix the many leaks in the engine. The car will still break down from disrepair in the end. Likewise, the UA will suffer the same fate if it does not address and fix the underlying problems that plague it.

So as the election comes to a close, I ask the candidates to carefully reflect on what they think the UA should do for students at MIT. Striving for a more “user-friendly UA,” as one presidential candidate put it, or a more “student accessible UA,” as another presidential candidate recently said, is a start, but it does nothing to address the apathy that the UA suffers from. The Undergraduate Association has the potential to reinvigorate the MIT student body and to give it something to care about. I urge all the candidates to seriously consider how they can help students to answer the question, “What has the UA done for you?”