Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Student Government: An Insider’s Perspective

An insightful e-mail from Vinnie Bergl gives an insider’s view of Marquette student government.
Dr. McAdams,

Having just now caught up on the last week or so of MU blogging, I felt the need to comment on one entry in particular (although I could comment on many; so much of your nickname content is nearly identical to my diatribes to family members and arrogant p.c. friends).

As an MUSG senator, your entry about MUSG’s role in the nickname issue hit a nerve--but to be sure, I’m not writing in defense of our student government. I think Tim Smith (one of the more talented senators, without a doubt) covered any valid defenses there were. Rather, I think the criticisms of the senate that have appeared on these blogs don’t quite tell the whole story or at least don’t go far enough in articulating it.

To be blunt, the last four or five senate meetings this year were a disgrace (some would say they all were), and the final one (in which we voted on the nickname legislation) was the ultimate letdown. First of all, I think it’s important to point out that we had another piece of legislation on the table that night--a $10,000 reserve fund bill to help fund a six-figure plan to install LCD video screens around campus to advertise events. I was personally against this legislation, believing it to be an awful investment and nothing more than needless window dressing to impress tuition paying parents. But this is beside the point (for now).

My problem that night was not with the people who opposed the nickname legislation or favored the LCD bill per se--ironically, I since learned that my own brother helped to initiate and push the LCD idea. Indeed, there were a few passionate and well-framed arguments for both positions that night. What burned me was the frightening lack of independent thought from the body as a whole.

This was nothing new; in fact, it epitomized the entire year and my entire experience so far on senate.

We had just spent the three previous meetings (yes, three) filling two committee appointments and electing a president pro temp. Much of this had to do with poor attendance (another embarrassment altogether), but the way we conducted this process was farcical--and incidentally, quite typical. For three meetings, we did our little dance--the nominations, followed by the talking-up of the candidates, complete with its silly flattery, and the requisite splitting of hairs. All the while, we lowered our voices, used official-sounding words, and called each other “Senator ____” so that we could pretend we were conducting something really really really important. The body language of a few senators was priceless. I particularly recall the look of disgust on the face of Jamaul Webster, an off-campus senator who quit one meeting short of vacating his seat. I can’t say I blame him.

Somewhere between installments of “Senator ____ is the greatest because...,” we received a ridiculous demonstration/sales pitch on the LCD screens from Todd Vicker and a rep from the LCD vendor (who was obnoxiously piped in by speaker phone) during the second to last meeting. So basically MUSG had arranged a senate floor presentation with a salesman and an administrator acting as a salesman--I say it as if there’s a difference--on the week before this same senate was supposed to “represent their constituents” in a vote on the issue. Hmmmm...

So what happened? We passed the bill the next week with little opposition and in almost no time at all--less time than a round of debate for a single budget committee appointment, at least. I would imagine that the senate usually rushes to pass such things because it’s something that we can staple our name to, and that, after all, is what we seem to want primarily.

But I guess our haste was just out of courtesy; after all, we had another sales pitch to listen to before our next vote. Our guests, of course, were Rana Altenberg and Ann Zizzo, who had come to defend the BOT’s decision the day before.

Again, this is not a simple criticism of those who opposed the “Reconsider Gold” legislation that Danny Manson and Brian Baranowski (two non-MUSGers) authored. It’s a criticism of how readily some senators lapped up Zizzo’s arguments and regurgitated them in debate--even admitting they’d done a one-eighty based on Rana and Zizzo’s remarks. Schroeder Hall senator C.J. Hoffman was one who notably argued against the legislation but who had clearly come to an independent conclusion and gave some very intriguing arguments--I respected his opinion and still do. But he was the exception; most senators who were made wishy washy by Ann Zizzo’s pitch only carried out that “tool of the administration” image that MUSG has earned. Not surprisingly, a round of hard debate from the bill’s supporters brought the decision back to a rather convincing margin, even if it wasn’t convincing enough for some. I always say that minds should change during senate meetings; otherwise debate would be pointless.

What galls me is how easily an administrator’s sales pitch can change our thinking.

Perhaps the worst part of it all is the notion that we do, or for that matter, are even remotely able to speak for our “constituents.” How many senators that night truly understood the perspective of diehard athletics fans within their “constituencies?” If constituents are those with a similar common interest and a like mind to those who represent them, I would say that the only legitimate constituents of most senators are their fellow MUSG members. I hope none truly believe themselves to be the refined, enlightened voice of their colleges or residences, as the idea of constituency would imply.

But I think many do, and I blame this on the gratuitous back-patting from the administration. No matter how complacent or insular we get, we’ll always have our student development people pumping us up as “leaders” doing a “great service.” What a sham. Real cynics would say that we’re only buttered up like that so that we will kindly play along with the administration.

Cynical as I am, I am not quite that cynical--yet. But I think anyone outside MUSG would vomit if they were to attend our recognition reception at the end of the year. If the praise-fest alone couldn’t spill their stomachs, the sappy, silly video montage of the year-that-was in MUSG would have. Lord knows I wouldn’t have gone this year if not for the ritzy catering that our budget buys for the event. (Even out of principle, I couldn’t pass up the exorbitant amounts of free pies and hors d’oeuvres.)

The feel-good atmosphere that all of this creates kills almost any chance for real thinking to take place. There is such a reluctance to create any productive tension among the senate. When we appointed our new Legislative Vice President (guy who runs the meetings) and president pro temp (his right-hand man) recently, the overriding criterion for so many senators was likability (or “he makes us feel comfortable”) in selecting a candidate. While this should be a consideration, the emphasis on it made me cringe. They spoke as if the MUSG office is a life-sapping pressure cooker if not for a calming presence at the top. We were lucky enough to select very capable people for the positions, but this fact alone does not justify the means.

As the chair of our standing senate committee on academics this past year, I grew more and more aware of this emphasis on attaching our name to something tangible and a reluctance to think deeply or independently about core issues. It makes perfect sense then that we would try to leach credit off both the selection and the abolition of the Gold nickname. It’s so predictable.

I can’t speak fairly for myself, but I give credit to the other standing committee chairs and a few other senators this year who really tried to challenge their colleagues, but still, they can’t change the fact that MUSG is the best-funded social club on campus. When I think of the sheer amount of resources (union space, energy, etc.) used on MUSG, it makes my head hurt. And for what? I don’t blame new members for not seeing the organization in this light; they eat up the atmosphere so quickly, and the constant reinforcement hardly lets them get past the honeymoon.

Unfortunately, my nearly two years on MUSG has mostly proven my preconceived assumptions from my pre-senate days. Yes, we are an insular group of cohorts that would much rather do than think and would rather be told how great we are than how much better we could do. We buy into the lie that we are somehow elevated members of the university; we most certainly are, of course, if we choose to put our individual role within a centralized university community over the role of our university within society. In the latter sense, we may in fact come in last. We become as proficient in university-speak as our administrators, and this is partly why they love us so much.

But the reality is that, like nearly all other college students, we’re just kids. Some kids get off on reckless thrills or money or high grades; some get off on the warm feelings of achievement and recognition. And the latter are those that join student government--not because we’re privileged or enlightened or want to serve our Marquette brethren. We do it for these warm feelings, or as the cynics would say, a line on our resume.

This may all seem too harsh, but I think it’s time for members of MUSG to be honest with ourselves in the face of critics. If us “insiders” don’t stop acting like insiders, that is all we will ever be. It’s time to let the defenses down, to stop worrying what our friends (that is, our MUSG colleagues) think, and to prove we have minds of our own. And for these reasons, I for one welcome the challenges and harshest criticisms of you or anyone that would like to present them.

Vinnie Bergl
We’ll have some comments on Bergl’s essay shortly, but for the moment we ask our readers “is he right, and if he’s right what follows from that?”

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