Protect Our Autonomy, Protect Our Voice

"The admin says jump and the Student Government E-Board says, how high?” When I heard these words from a member of Student Government, I knew we had ...

Apr 18, 2015

"The admin says jump and the Student Government E-Board says, how high?” When I heard these words from a member of Student Government, I knew we had lost too much in our right to self-governance. It's time to do something about it.
The mission of the Student Government as stated in the constitution is as follows: "The  Student Government serves as the voice of students within the New York University Abu  Dhabi community and upholds the right of all students therein." I believe that in order for Student Government to serve this purpose it must maintain its autonomy. It was the degree of autonomy I encountered when first entering Student Government that gave me hope that, as students, we were part of something bigger than ourselves. Now, it is the lack of autonomy that I am hearing about from students in Abu Dhabi that frightens me.
Why do I consider autonomy so important? Consider The Gazelle. In the beginning, administration repeatedly demanded that all articles pass through their review process before being published. The original editors absolutely refused and staked their autonomy. If they did not claim that autonomy, this article, which speaks critically of a system within the school, would probably never have been able to be published. It is only because The Gazelle is not accountable to another power that we have faith in it to provide an uncensored and true representation of our voices.
When I was elected Class Representative in Fall 2012, it struck me what autonomy was afforded us. I was promised that students, staff and faculty are to be equal partners in building the NYU Abu Dhabi project. In our Executive Board meetings, we would raise ongoing issues and, as a board, decide how to act. We were enacting policy from conception to implementation. Our primary consideration was always what the student body would want and what was best for them. When pressure came from administration, we discussed how to act. There were times we cooperated but there were also times we opposed requests because we felt they were not in the best interests of the students. The Student Government also had a sense of respect and recognition. This was because we were elected to represent the voice of the students and, back then, we made sure our voices mattered. Our autonomy made us faithful to the student body.
A couple of days ago, a member of Student Government privately shared with me several episodes that suggest our autonomy has become systematically compromised. Regarding the recent Library Committee issue, the person told me that "the admin instituted a gag order on anything related to the Library Committee." Beyond the fact our elected representatives do not feel free to speak their own thoughts, they’ve also felt pressured to directly lie to us. Recounting another episode, Student Government was instructed by administration to have the General Assembly adopt a motion, and when asked by a member of the GA why this issue was being raised, the reply given was only a cover to hide the fact that it was the will of an outside party. A Student Government member told me the reply was “a flat out lie, given we were requested to do it by admin.”
The person’s message to me ended unfortunately with a sense of powerlessness: “I didn’t join StuGov for someone to hold my hand. I wanted to learn and grow ... part of that is making mistakes and staking my own pathway. That sort of experience is not possible in the current environment wherein admin intervenes at all of the sensitive moments.” When the students who are elected to represent the voice of the student body feel themselves powerless, it indicates that the illness in the system has become endemic and we need to intervene.
This, however, is not a sudden turn of events. In fact, I’ve seen it coming for a long time.
In September 2013, I began to fear that Student Government’s autonomy was becoming comprised. I wrote the article Progress Hinges on Self-Governance for The Gazelle. In it, I said: “Central to the principle of shared governance is autonomy. As a student body, if we do not have authority over our own expression and structure, how are we to formulate the ideas that will drive the future of the greater institution? It is in these two inseparably intertwined notions, shared governance and self-governance, that I am most fearful of compromise.” I was at the time both worried and frustrated about the sense of the slow decline of Executive Board’s autonomy.
One line from my first year in Student Government always stuck with me. Brett Bolton, the president of Student Government in Fall 2012, told me “even if administration pulled all their support for us and took away our funding, we would still be relevant. We would still be the elected representatives for the Student Body, and we will still be their voice.” The power of Student Government comes not from the fact that they attend meetings or wade through administrivia for us. It comes from the fact they are constitutionally bound to only answer to the student body. The constitution states: "The Student Body is the highest decision-making body in the Student Government. The Student Government is accountable solely to the Student Body." Their ability to be our voice and hand, their relevance and their power all hinge upon this principle, which is being called into question by recent events.
I must make it clear that in no way am I advocating for factioning between students, staff and faculty. Students, staff and faculty have all put a lot of themselves into this school. We’ve all given it years of our hard work, and have all bet part of our futures on it. I truly respect and appreciate what everyone has done to make this project possible, and I'm extremely grateful for how much staff and faculty have helped me out personally. I think an us-versus-them divide is the last thing our community needs. After all, we all share the same end goal: a successful university. But this absolutely isn't personal. Finger pointing or finding fault in the actions of individuals is unproductive and hurtful. This is not about individuals, it is about the system we foster.
Student, staff and faculty all look at NYUAD from different points of views, and we have fundamentally different interests. We were brought in on the vision of equal partners. As partners, it is our goal to work together harmoniously, through cooperation and compromise, to reach a consensus on the way forward that is best for all parties. We should not think of each other as customers and providers, nor as superiors and subordinates. We are partners, we own the NYUAD project together. For this, we need to have our voices and interests faithfully represented by an autonomous and unfettered Student Government.
So what do we do now? In my opinion, we need to reclaim our status as partners and have it formally adopted by the institution. We should ensure there exist physical and digital safe spaces where students can freely and openly discuss and debate anything on their mind. We need to draw a concrete line between what is considered cooperation and what is considered interference with our autonomy. Students need to have the tools to meaningfully express their thoughts. Student Government needs mechanisms to meaningfully act on these motions. We need rules such that all parties have their interests fairly considered in all upcoming policy changes. Also, we need to hold those we elect to a higher status of accountability and transparency. Ask the hard questions. Use the elections to press the issue. It is our burden alone to uphold our right to self-governance.
At the same time, students must not move beyond the equal partnership or display unreasonable defiance of administration. Administration is made up of people who are both our partners and our friends. They have a lot of wisdom and have our best interests at heart. We are striving for a cooperation, not a battle. Rights come with duty.
What I present now is not a complaint on how things have been. What I present is simply my vision for what Student Government should be. Student Government is not an association of bureaucrats or some ornamental committee to give the illusion of student participation. It is the most fundamental mechanism through which we students have a hand in shaping NYUAD. It is the voice of the student body.
In my opinion, in order for us to have a meaningful voice, autonomy must be at the core of Student Government.
Lingliang Zhang is a contributing writer. Email him at
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