This post was updated March 13 at 3:30 p.m.
Little known secret: the undergraduate student government has a bit of an outreach problem.
Okay, I misspoke. The 14-member council actually has a big outreach problem.
Despite an ad hoc committee’s attempts to get broader student input on how to reform the council or the general council meetings themselves, few students attend USAC events and meetings, besides members of the Daily Bruin and those who give public comments – of which there are pitifully few, most of whom promptly leave after they speak.
In the eternal words of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Amy Shao, “The majority of this campus has no idea what USAC is.” This should trouble students – and the council – since many of us pay more than $200 a year towards the student government, but very few of us, save for members of student activist groups, get a return on that investment – besides maybe incessant flying during spring quarter elections.
This failure in outreach demonstrates not only the disconnect between council members and the student body, but also the limitations of the council structure itself in bringing new faces into the fold.
In order to truly address this problem and represent the interests of the entire student body – not just those who are politically active – the council should change its bylaws to convert one of its general representative offices to a purely outreach-focused position. This position’s sole job should be to bring in those who are not knowledgeable about or not interested in USAC back into the student government fold, and provide crucial support when promoting other offices’ initiatives.
Of course, the issue of student outreach runs deeper than just student disinterest towards USAC. When promoting its initiatives, most of the council is complicit with just staging “online campaigns” – a fancy term Zoe Borden, the council’s general representative one, used to describe posting on Facebook.
And when it comes to outreach, few groups besides those housed within the Community Programs Office or those deeply involved in student activism know of USAC’s actions and services.
Don’t take it from me, though. Ruchit Majmudar, the council’s general representative two, said he believes USAC is centered around groups such as CPO and the mother organizations, or cultural groups within the CPO, because members of those groups are most likely to vote in student government elections and ultimately care about the council’s actions. And that fact is reflected in the council’s student group funding allocations report, which tells the tale of a USAC exclusively catering to these politically active groups.
This limited audience has hurt the council in many ways. For instance, the council’s ad hoc committee, put together by Transfer Student Representative Divya Sharma, has been having quite a tough time. Despite its noble goal of reforming the council to better serve the student body, the committee’s meetings this quarter have often had dismal turnout, and the committee members – all officers on the council – have gathered little feedback from their outreach tactic of sharing a Google form around on Facebook.
And this demonstrates the larger problem of the council structure: Council members are so wound up in their own platforms and duties that collaborative efforts to bring more students into the equation – what should arguably be one of the council’s foremost goals – has unfortunately taken a backseat.
It’s clear then that USAC needs to dedicate one of its general representative offices to focus purely on providing outreach services to the rest of the council. This more focused office can pass out fliers on Bruin Walk or keep in close contact with student groups that historically haven’t been on the council’s radar – in other words, groups outside of CPO and the mother organizations.
Some council members have already had success with this broader outreach. For example, Majmudar’s office hosted the first-ever meeting of around 30 entrepreneurial student groups and came up with a comprehensive list of what the organizations want from the student government and the administration. Moreover, Majmudar reached out to a whole host of faith groups on campus by personally attending the various groups’ meetings or requesting several lengthy email lists from the Student Organizations, Leaders and Engagement office. And he was able to bring together groups that would otherwise have not even lifted an eyebrow for USAC in an interfaith dialogue event Friday.
Dedicating an office purely for this sort of outreach would open up opportunities for other offices to engage themselves more directly with the student body and take on the difficult issues facing this campus. Certainly, changing the bylaws and sinking a general representative seat is not easy, and may not seem appealing to the council. But that mindset is what perpetuates a USAC that is disconnected from the student body.
And sure, when council members take extensive measures to increase their offices’ visibility, effective outreach happens – as shown with Majmudar’s office. But taking into account the day-to-day duties of council members and their unconvincing Facebook outreach, that’s a bit of a pipe dream.
USAC needs to determine whether it is serving the needs of the student body at large or the needs of itself. Considering council members like Borden think students are in dire need of lawn blankets and hammocks, it’s abundantly clear, at least for the time being, that it’s still the latter.