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Free the UA From Financial Dependence

Hans E. Anderson

Perennial dissatisfaction with the Undergraduate Association centers on concern about its legitimacy, as evident in the lack of support, understanding or appreciation for its work among its constituents.

What are the factors undermining UA legitimacy?

First, low voter turnout. Although the recent presidential election might suggest otherwise, turnout is usually directly correlated to the number of platforms.

Second, inaction and ineptitude among officials, who have often run unopposed to win their positions, lending weight to the perception of lack of legitimacy.

And third, the inability of the UA to address what should be its highest priority: to stop the trend among MIT administrators to act first and seek student opinion later (if at all).

One way to counter these UA shortcomings is to increase the UA’s independence.

Low voter turnout tends to become a downward spiral. Lack of legitimacy drives disillusionment, which cuts the participation at the polls, which then further decreases the legitimacy of the newly elected body. It is an unfortunate cycle that can only be addressed by trying to improve the appeal of the UA in other ways, for example by improving diversity of the candidates.

The problem goes deeper; because of the perception that the UA tends to draw resum builders rather than those committed to serving the student body, otherwise genuinely interested people may expect it to be a low-responsibility title and act accordingly. Fortunately, resum builders are not the dominant contingent among UA members.

Unfortunately for those genuinely committed to effective student government, the power of the UA as a body is limited, perhaps because those in power are too concerned with limiting abuses of power to allow its justifiable exercise.

While individual senators have successfully brought positive changes to facilities and procedures at MIT, such activities build the popularity of the person who leads the project, while marginalizing the role of the UA as a whole. If the UA’s job is to give people a title to use when they champion pet projects, we have succeeded. If it is to systematically improve the way the administration interfaces with students, then we have much distance to go.

This distance is compounded by the minimal power vested in the UA Senate. The Senate can do three things: regulate itself, fund groups, and write resolutions. The first two are exercised the most often and most effectively. The third is less common, but it is what makes the Senate a senate and not a self-regulating funding board. However, these resolutions are used only sparingly against undesirable administrative measures. The primary argument for this restraint is that continual use would drive down the potency of all resolutions. However, this reasoning is flawed; it takes far too long to build potency, and during that time many unfavorable policies could be enacted. The Senate is unjustified in restraining its voice, even if administrators fail to react.

The principle behind the lack of resolutions against unpopular measures may be due to the close ties between the administration and the UA. The vast majority of UA funding is filtered through the administration. Students have no leverage against the administration when their government’s existence depends on administrative largesse. The only obvious check to administrative decisions is a potentially negative impact on admissions applications. As it stands, the UA is a giant lobbying organization operationally tied to the group it is lobbying.

There are reasons for the dependence on the administration. The institutional memory of the UA is limited by a four-year rollover at best (assuming fall elections). Administrative involvement is crucial to prevent embezzlement from entering the financial system, and thus, financial duties are performed by external parties. As long as its members cannot be trusted, the UA cannot balance its own checkbook.

The creation of an Independent UA would address issues of both undue financial dependence and lack of legitimacy. The new UA would control its own finances from an account outside of MIT, generated from additional revenue gathering measures, supplementing contributions from the student life fee. No longer tied to the administration to operate, the UA could better meet them as equals. To prevent the embezzlement problem, the said account could be jointly run by a board such that withdrawals would require the consent of a majority.

An argument that might be made against this program is that MIT could then divert the student life fee to other purposes that are not in the best interests of the students. This is a problem, but to what extent? Any such inappropriate measure would hopefully cause enough outcry among the student population to prevent its passage. But as time has shown, institutional memory is quite short; students may not notice if they only redirect funds slowly from the UA to something else. Additionally, administrators may argue that the external account replaces student life funding; we must make it clear that on the contrary, it is designed to augment it.

As things now stand, the UA is inherently dependent on the MIT administration, and will remain so either until it starts collecting fees directly from students, or finds another means to achieve self-solvency.

Hans E. Anderson ’08 was the 2005-2006 Undergraduate Association Senate Representative to the Finance Board, and is the incoming UA Chair of the Finance Board.