You cannot make an informed decision without accurate, accessible information. If we, as students, wish to guide and inform decisions of our student and Institute representatives, we need information. While the MIT administration needs to increase its operational transparency to be held accountable for its policies, decisions, and spending, the adoption of transparent practices must start with us.
The Undergraduate Association has been hypocritically demanding of the administration for several terms now and must move to become more transparent itself or face continued irrelevance.
While the UA purports to be the voice of the undergraduate student body, its potential power is diluted by its consistent irrelevance. Only with broad support can the UA speak and act honestly as a representative of general consensus. The UA could exercise real power with sufficient backing by students but this can only happen when students are well-informed. Without information like UA Senate and committee meeting minutes, agendas, and the text of proposed, amended, and passed resolutions easily available, an average busy student has no chance of participation and no method of oversight.
Each semester, the UA is granted a portion of the Student Life Fee that every undergraduate pays in addition to their tuition. In total, there are tens of thousands of dollars of funds under the UA’s control each term. Where is this money, your money, spent? How much is spent by each UA committee or group and for what purpose? This is data that we should demand to have, not only from the UA, but from the Institute as a whole. If the UA opens their books, they have a much stronger position with which to approach the MIT administration on the issue of transparency.
Once UA proceedings become public and students can easily and effectively inform themselves about issues and policies, real debate can occur. With an informed and engaged constituency, the UA can muster real support for its efforts from improving textbook information to appointing and holding accountable students who sit on Institute committees. Furthermore, with legitimacy and backing, the UA can approach the MIT administration and demand transparency and accountability measures similar to what it has taken.
Implementing such transparency is often cited as a key obstacle, as it is difficult to both communicate well and distribute and organize information effectively. However, this argument is fundamentally flawed: when information is available, waste and excess quickly come to light. The cost of transparency will be repaid many times over through its benefits.
To clear itself of hypocrisy, spend our money honestly, and realize its potential power as a voice of the student body, the UA must adopt sweeping transparency measures. The current effort that is currently put into recording and disseminating the UA’s proceedings falls far short of what is expected. The UA should quit arguing about Senate procedures and genocide — efforts that do not further its mission — and spend its time doing what it was chartered to do: represent students. In order to represent students, it must inform students. Tell your UA representative that you’d like an up-to-date Web site with calendars, agendas, minutes, bills, and account ledgers. Tell them that the UA’s violation of its constitution regarding timely distribution of agendas is unacceptable. Change must start with us.
David Sheets is a member of the Class of 2009.