“Administrators don’t care about the student voice. They care if it costs them money or not.”
So says Mariah Urueta, the vice president of the Student Government Association at Central Michigan University. Nearing the end of her term, and her collegiate career, she said she continues to face the same problems in SGA that she has confronted repeatedly as a student activist. She’s starting to feel the creeping sensation of deja vu.
It brings backs memories of her involvement with Take Back The Tap three years ago, when the RSO gained more than 30,000 local signatures in support of banning the sale of bottled water on campus, alongside faculty support, RSO support, and student government support. The efforts culminated in a march on campus, where more than 40 students marched to Warriner Hall on a Sunday morning.
And then nothing happened.
Urueta is finding the same barriers within the SGA. But with an organization she said is too large, too complicated and too apathetic, she hasn’t found the widespread enthusiasm for a collective cause that she found in Take Back The Tap. She said that’s a problem for the student government’s efficiency.
“There’s a lack of interest,” Urueta said. “Not with everyone, but it’s there. There are fleeting moments.”
With an election around the corner, some SGA officials expressed frustrations with the role student government currently plays on campus and are beginning to entertain potential solutions that could significantly reform the very nature of how the organization operates.
Four of these ideas were expressed to CMU Insider by SGA officials.
1. Abolish SGA House Membership.
Registered student organizations on campus gain SGA Membership by actively attending weekly House meetings and participating in the passing of legislation. By being a member of the SGA, RSOs become eligible to receive funds from Student Budget Allocation Committee, which many RSOs rely on to put on events.
Without being active in an RSO, students cannot participate in the House.
Some SGA officials said this has created an inefficient system in which many House members, dragged in by the allure of receiving SBAC funding, show no interest in governmental affairs, Urueta said.
“By the time we get a semester rolling, it’s almost over,” Urueta said. “There are so many proxies. They’re always coming and going. There’s never a full group of House members.”
But the problem is deeper than just a perpetual slow starts on legislation, said SGA City Commission Liaison Arnela Lela Bogdanić; it’s a part of the reason SGA receives such a generally indifferent reaction from campus at large.
“The reason people don’t know the SGA, or don’t care about it, or ignore it when it’s advertised (is) because being in the SGA is equal to being bored,” Bogdanić said. “That’s not true. That’s a false representation, but if you’re a House member that’s forced to be there, it’s boring.”
Bogdanić said the solution is to open up the House to the entirety of campus, in order to empower the interested and allow for the indifferent to stay home.
“If it’s a townhall meeting and you want to be there, obviously the people who would be there would wish to be there,” Bogdanić said. “CMU would just be SGA.”
The marketing potential, Urueta said, would be there too.
“If you know there are only two student coalition meetings a month, it would be great advertising,” Urueta said. “Students would know that they want to be heard.”
The main problem SGA in being effective has is House membership, Bogdanic said.
“What is SGA without House membership? It’s honestly a bunch of organizations who get together and focus on a specific topic they are very passionate about,” Bogdanic said. “That’s what the SGA is about to be. The problem is membership.”
2. Detach SBAC funding from House attendance.
If the House is to stay, though, some SGA officials are beginning to discuss whether SBAC funding needs to go.
“The House doesn’t want to do anything, They’re there for funding and only funding,” Bogdanić said. “Don’t get me wrong, there are people who love the SGA, but those are members who become senators and executive council members.
“After one semester, many go back to their RSOs and say, ‘I’m never doing this again.’ You find enjoyment because you have inclination towards it, not because you’re forced to be there.”
With the SBAC funding incentive gone, only the RSOs interested in attending would show up, leaving SGA leaner and more efficient, Urueta said.
“I think the House should only be comprised of people who are interested of being in it,” Urueta said. “Right now the House is comprised of almost every RSO because they want to receive funding. The ability to (receive) SBAC funding should not be correlated with being a House member.”
Urueta said SBAC funding should instead be determined solely on the merit of the RSO’s request.
3. Eliminate stipends for executive council members.
Under the current system, SGA executive council members are paid an annual stipend valued between $200 and $1,200, depending on the position. Some SGA officials said while that’s a nice benefit for council members passionate about the cause, it also attracts members who are only in it for the money.
Disintered members not only lead to a high turnover rate in the House, but also a high turnover rate in the upper echelons of the SGA. Four executive committees had to replace members in this semester alone.
“I still know for a damn fact that (SGA President) Chuck Mahone would be doing everything he’d be doing if he didn’t have the stipend,” Urueta said. “Someone is still going to be there if they’re not being paid.”
Eliminating the monetary incentive could eliminate the motive for disinterested members to apply, leaving only passionate members to take the reigns.
“Our committees are doing really really great, but I know there are people there just there for the stipends,” Bogdanić said. “ I think it’s unfortunate SGA works the way it does, but not everyone is (passionate).”
Urueta said a vibrant core will remain at SGA without there being additional cash in council members’ pockets.
“Why isn’t the executive board for every other RSO being paid?” Urueta said.
4. Stop focusing on the paperwork and instead focus on making the student voice heard.
How does widespread change occur outside of the SGA? Urueta said just getting SGA approval isn’t enough. The problem, she said, is that many people stop as working as soon as they get it.
“If it’s something that’s not something controversial, (the university) will gladly fulfill it,” Urueta said. “But if it’s something controversial, that’s when it’s not up to the SGA, it’s up to the people who wrote it. It’s up to that senator to do whatever they think is next. Is that President Ross? Is that the Board of Directors?
If I’m a good House member, and I advocate for my change, and I educate people, and I get the legislation passed, and marched up to President Ross, and he says, ‘Thank you for your time,’ it’s not done. There needs to be so much student support around it.”
Students putting pressure on the administration and on SGA to pass policies important to them is the only way to make CMU a campus focused on fulfilling student needs, Urueta said. SGA should be a vehicle for that change, she said.
“Yelling at empty buildings doesn’t do much,” Urueta said. “Neither does a piece of paper. We need to create real momentum.”
If the SGA is only focused on passing legislation but not following it up with real student support, she said the organization is failing to meet its obligation to the student body.
“Once SGA gets something passed, we’re like, ‘That’s it, we’ve done our job,’” Urueta said. “Talking about how the university uses the SGA to create the illusion of democracy. That’s it, we don’t feel we’re accountable anymore when legislation has been passed.”