Leaders of the Undergraduate Association must respond to the resignation of vice president-elect Alec C. Lai ’13 on Wednesday by redoubling their efforts for organizational restructuring. Lai’s letter of criticism (reprinted on p. 5) amplifies previously noted frustrations about undergraduate governance and its leaders, but it does not substantially alter our interpretation of the problems in the UA. It should not derail the new committee on restructuring, which is currently the UA’s best bet for moving beyond their current challenges.
Undergraduate governance faces two major problems: Student representation structures are overlapping and redundant, and undergraduates — understandably — don’t understand how their governments are designed to represent their interests.
Nearly every student at MIT is represented by multiple bodies (e.g., fraternity brothers are represented by both the Interfraternity Council and the UA), and it is not clear where one organization’s responsibilities begin and another’s end. Undergraduate leaders, especially in the UA, find themselves in the unenviable position of needing to represent competing interests simultaneously. A complicated undergraduate governing structure at MIT also makes it difficult for student representatives to have productive, reciprocal dialogues with MIT’s deans, staff, and faculty leadership. The Dean for Student Life should know exactly where to turn in order to understand student opinion — be that a single undergraduate leader or a small, cohesive, efficient body.
We are also concerned that most students don’t understand how representative bodies are designed to represent their interests. It is not clear to students how UA policy committees and Institute Committees function. The UA — whether restructuring happens or not — needs to ensure that 1) Student representatives who serve on committees with faculty and administrators understand what their role is, and 2) Undergraduates at large understand how committees work, what they do, and how to contact student representatives. It should be a trivial process for any student to find out who represents their voice at MIT; today, we’re not convinced most undergraduates would even know where to start.
The UA, then, is at a critical time in its history. In order to address core undergraduate governance issues, the UA recently attempted — and failed — to pass a sweeping consolidation of student representation structures, effectively absorbing DormCon into the UA. Opponents to the plan, including members of this editorial board, have raised reasonable concerns that the process was moving too fast and did not take the time to integrate sufficient input.
However, reform is still imperative. In addition to understanding the general student perspective, the UA and DormCon should listen closely to voices of dissatisfaction from within their respective organizations. A string of recent UA resignations, culminating in the vice president-elect’s on Wednesday, underscores serious organizational problems. To be clear: Every student organization has problems, and that will not change. The UA is not and will not ever be perfect, but in their role as student representatives of MIT, they must constantly turn a critical — yet constructive — eye inwards.
To that end, the UA must earn the time and commitment of their members. The atmosphere and personal interactions that all UA members face must resonate with what we suspect are the members’ own goals: improving student life at MIT.
Above all else, the UA must avoid the kind of acrimonious debate that has characterized some of their restructuring process so far. With intense commitment to an organization like the UA, we understand it can sometimes be easy to lose perspective. But at the end of the day, the UA is about student government; nobody’s life is on the line. UA members must be respectful to other UA members, even amidst disagreements. Pure, unadulterated criticism of others — especially in an all-volunteer organization — is the road to failure.
While not as pressing, we also call on the UA — and other student governments — to adopt a similar approach with the deans, faculty, and staff at MIT. Having understanding, functional, and professional relationships with MIT officials who make student policy is the best way for a student organization to make the kind of progress they seek.
Restructuring efforts must keep these principles at heart, and those on the current restructuring committee must remember the fundamental reason they joined student government: to improve student life. The common ground on all sides is larger than some may think, and the restructuring committee should remember not to stray far from it. A revised, improved UA will unite students, bring them together, and fairly resolve important campus policy questions. While they have a long road ahead of them, undergraduate leaders should find comfort in the value of their purpose.