Taking action with Student Government

My time on Student Government over the past four years has been productive and rewarding, but as it comes to a close, I am concerned for the future of ...

May 2, 2015

My time on Student Government over the past four years has been productive and rewarding, but as it comes to a close, I am concerned for the future of student governance here at NYU Abu Dhabi. The key to self and shared governance is student engagement. More than just voting for preferred candidates each election cycle, this means taking personal responsibility for decision-making and change. I believe this ownership of decision-making and action is now threatened not by administration, as some have argued, but by us ourselves.
It is easy to identify a problem, but it is not usually easy to identify and implement a solution. All of us must seek these solutions. Not just Student Government, Inter-Residence Hall Council or the university administration, but all of us. I have been surprised, especially this year, to see many smart, talented people at our university spend their energy complaining instead of thinking creatively and taking action to overcome the problems and challenges we face.
This reluctance to step forward and take action intersects with a student governance system that is dysfunctional. I’ve worked inside this system for years, so it seems second nature. Yet I still ask myself if our model is the best way to improve the student experience at NYUAD.
Ours is a model in which a few students who are very passionate about serving the student body do a massive amount of work but cannot accomplish everything that they and their constituents hope for. It is a model in which students blame Student Government or the administration when they do not get what they want, with very little commitment or effort expected from their own part. It is a model in which, on average, five percent of the student body comes together to make important decisions at General Assembly every week. Is this what we want student governance to look like?
There are real reasons why students do not engage. I’ve heard complaints that Student Government spends too much time talking about Student Government instead of about real issues. I’ve heard that the rules it is governed by, though written to keep the system fair and to hold Student Government accountable to the student body, fail in their intentions.
Many of the students who ran for Student Government in the recent elections had the idea of reducing bureaucracy in some shape or form as part of their platform. Many candidates have little experience navigating these rules and are not primarily interested in serving them. They are interested in serving students and making NYUAD a better place. How many candidates do not run at all because of the needless complexity of the system?
We need to fundamentally rethink how Student Government works to invite more students into university change. We need to have a conversation about why these rules are important or not important, as well as whom they serve and do not serve. I am not convinced that they do any of us justice. I would be disappointed if we could not really trust our representatives, students we elected for their experience and credit, to do the best job they can. I would be even more disappointed if we could not trust ourselves enough to pay attention and hold them accountable.
The GA, a potentially very powerful forum, is now a rule-driven space that needs a how-to guide. Let’s make it a more welcoming space for anyone to speak their mind. Let’s go one step further, even, and make it not just a discussion forum, but an action forum.
This year, I have become more involved with IRHC to address suggestions posted on Ideascale, and have been impressed by the way it handles projects and meetings. When ideas are introduced, someone takes the lead on making progress, takes ownership of a task and sets a deadline for when they will complete it. This format requires everyone at the meeting to come away with some responsibility for what has been agreed on by the group. I would like to see the GA become a body and a space that expects this of its attendees.
I imagine that, for some students who prefer passivity to participation, this is a terrifying notion. It is a more difficult way. It demands more of all students, not just those that run for office. But I know it is also a way for NYUAD students to create and succeed if they want.
I encourage next year’s Executive Board and the student body at large to take a critical look at Student Government and whether it truly serves and empowers students. Ultimately, it is we who must decide what we want our governance structures to look like and do for us. We need never take anything for granted. We need not be afraid to try something new. That is what NYUAD is all about.
Olivia Bergen is a contributing writer. Email her at
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