Illustration by Shenuka Corea/The Gazelle

An Open Letter to the Incoming Student Government

Dear Incoming Executive Board, First of all, I would like to congratulate you on winning the recent elections. I mean this wholeheartedly: although ...

Apr 30, 2016

Illustration by Shenuka Corea/The Gazelle
Dear Incoming Executive Board,
First of all, I would like to congratulate you on winning the recent elections. I mean this wholeheartedly: although some of you ran unopposed, your willingness to stand for public office is in itself commendable. Thank you for taking on this thankless task.
You have a lot of work to do. As recent articles have highlighted, the NYU Abu Dhabi Student Government is increasingly being seen as irrelevant and unhelpful. If Gallup were to track our Student Government’s approval rating, it would probably be lower than the U.S Congress’s 17% — that is, if students even felt informed enough to answer. You have inherited an institution with many problems, and it's your job to find solutions.
Toward that end, I would like to offer some unsolicited advice. Though I have never served in our Student Government, during my four years here I have carefully followed the failings and successes of different administrations. You are of course free to ignore my ideas — I’m just a cranky old senior, after all — but I hope you will consider taking these steps to form an effective Student Government.

Act transparently

Nearly all of you put transparency somewhere in your platform — just like every student government candidate before you. Instead of talking about transparency, make it a natural byproduct of the way your government functions. For example, private executive board meetings should be the exception—not the norm, as they are today. Though attendance might be low, opening executive meetings up to The Gazelle would at least demonstrate your commitment to public scrutiny. Executive session should only be entered when circumstances demand it, not as a reflexive shield from your constituents.

Abandon bureaucracy; embrace action

Our current Constitution is not the problem. In fact, the constant effort to reform it is the problem. When the majority of General Assemblies are devoted merely to debating the internal structures and policies of Student Government, nobody should be surprised that attendance is low. Reforming the structure of Student Government is, at best, tangential to fulfilling the government's duties. Great leaders can be effective in poor structures, and poor leaders can be ineffective in the best of structures. For example, it is not the structure of the dining committee which has led to effective reforms in the dining hall — it is Firas Ashraf’s relentless advocacy for student concerns and continual openness to feedback. Instead of taking up issues at the forefront of the student body's concerns, like summer funding, Student Government has spent an egregious amount of time debating whether students on a leave of absence should be allowed to vote. Leave restructuring and reform until after you have earned credibility through acting on more important issues.

Establish independence

Student Government is not a branch of Student Life and it shouldn’t act like it. The fact that administrators are routinely invited to executive board meetings, while students are not, delegitimizes the government's credibility. Yes, you need to work with administration — but you also need to defy them when the circumstances demand it. For example, administration should have no say in who gets to run for office; the fact that they want such control is itself suspicious. You represent students to administration, not administration to students. When administration acts contrary to student interests, like when they introduce a new meal plan with zero student feedback or involvement, you need to call them out on it. Your legitimacy as a student government stems not from the budget you’re allocated, but from the votes we cast to elect you. In fact, speaking of your budget, you should be working to establish a fixed formula for its allocation, as a reflection of the overall university budget and the student body size. Student Life should not be able to slash your budget capriciously, especially because part of your job is to occasionally disagree with them.

Reach out to students on their terms

If students aren’t coming to General Assembly, don’t spend months arguing over solutions and reforms. Just engage with students where conversations are happening, such as on Facebook. When students voice concerns, address those concerns directly instead of stalling by scheduling committee meetings and General Assemblies. Personal conversations can also do wonders — many concerns about the new Core have been allayed not just through town halls and public forums, but through direct conversations with Bryan Waterman. Don’t limit yourself to formal institutions in seeking to accomplish your goals — sometimes the best way to effect change isn’t through an OrgSync report but through an article in The Gazelle.

Reject defeatism

Just because things aren’t easy doesn’t mean they’re impossible. If an administrator rejects a proposal, find another administrator or try to find a solution which doesn’t require administration at all. For example, REACH’s creation of The Nook as an innovative response to mental health problems at our university is laudable. Try to come up with more ideas and innovations which draw on the collective talents and resources of our student body. Don’t listen to those who use our privileges as an argument against hoping for more. Yes, the school has provided generous scholarships to many students — but that doesn’t, in fact, make it unique in the world. Yes, we do have many resources and certain luxuries — but we’re also living on a desert island which is, for most of us, thousands of miles away from home. When students demand change, you shouldn’t settle for easy rejections.

Embrace responsibility

One of your first tasks as a new executive board should be to agree on a platform and a set of measurable goals for your administration. You should then share those goals publicly and continue to share your progress towards them — including the inevitable changes in the goals themselves. No student should be left wondering what Student Government is doing for them or how well they’re doing it. Criticism and setbacks should be opportunities for reflection, not reasons to abandon transparency.

Demand accountability

Just as the student body holds you accountable to your campaign platforms, you should hold administration accountable to its promises and advertising. Despite what some might say, coming here was not inevitable. Many of us had a choice, sometimes a difficult one, and that choice was predicated on marketing from the university. Personally, the fact that the university promised abundant study away opportunities, generous funding for programs and internships and unrestricted internet all factored into my decision to come here. Where the university fails to live up to its promises you should demand explanations beyond hand-waving about oil prices and government regulations. At the very least, administration needs to keep our marketing in touch with reality.

Remember your predecessors

Though I feel like an old man writing that, you shouldn’t forget that this university is now six years old. Many of the issues you’re confronting have been tackled by former administrations, and they could be an invaluable source of advice and ideas. Though I’ve disagreed with some of their decisions, all of our governments have invariably been filled with friendly people who I am sure would be happy to talk with you. If you need connections, I would be happy to introduce you on Facebook. Let me also use this as an opportunity to remind you of the importance of good record-keeping — future administrations will doubtlessly discuss and debate the results of your decisions, so it will be helpful for them to at least know why you made them.

Accept your duties

You chose to run for office, and part of entering public office is giving up certain rights and privileges which individual students have. Your decisions will be second-guessed and your track record will be publicly reviewed. Of course, nobody should be gratuitously cruel — but you all chose this position, and most of you defeated others to get it. It’s important not to forget that, or to forget that the student body placed our trust in you.

Have fun

You have the chance to work with many different people on many different projects and there will be plenty of opportunities for making new friends and enjoying new experiences. Meetings need not be somber affairs and you should feel free to laugh and smile. This might seem out of place in this list, but sometimes a joke is the best way to overcome political tension, and sometimes the best thing you can do for students is merely to brighten their day through a fun event.
Regardless of whether you reject all of these ideas, I wish you good luck with your administration. Also be sure to thank the outgoing Student Government — their job hasn’t been easy, and neither will be yours.
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