Last week, University of Michigan’s Central Student Government unveiled the latest in a series of controversial proposals this school year. Their Campus Affordability Guide sparked a fierce backlash from students for providing advice that was deeply irresponsible, negligent and out of touch. The guide, which has since been taken down and is in the process of being remade, reveals the larger problem within CSG: the lack of true representation of the student body.
The Affordability Guide had the purpose of supporting students, but, while with good intentions, it greatly missed the mark by including tips that were incompatible with the reality of being a student of low socioeconomic status. One tip included the suggestion that students pay off their credit card debt with another credit card. This is reckless advice that could lead to more financial difficulties and is highly discouraged by banking services such as Discover Bank. Other advice seemed to come from a place of outright privilege, exhibiting just how removed from campus life they were by issuing out “budgeting” tips such as firing one’s gardener or to stop using a laundry service.
While the guide offered some very useful information on using campus resources, much of it was overshadowed by the condescension of the problematic sections. The guide could have been an effective resource for students, but soon after its release, the out-of-touch sections and tone robbed it of any legitimacy.
Instead of prioritizing the quality of the information they provided, the authors seemed to have aimed to create a daunting, 84-page document. The lost time and effort in creating a visually impressive guide could have been spent on any number of other beneficial CSG programs or, more pertinently, on refining the information in the original product.
The tone and information in the CSG Affordability Guide is also indicative of a larger institutional problem: the body's lack of diversity. CSG’s problem with diversity is well documented in their own 2016-2017 Diversity Report. The information shows the organization is not reflective of the University’s population demographics, especially in the socioeconomic status category. Over 35 percent of CSG members come from a household income of over $250,000, whereas the median family income at the University is $154,000.
The evidence of the problems that arise when a group is overly homogenous is clear in the out-of-touch advice given in the Affordability Guide. The CSG environment runs the risk of becoming an echo chamber in which ideas, while good intentioned, are not evaluated in a way that ensures all of their projects will be substantially adding to the welfare of the students they represent.
An easy way to avoid similar problems from arising in the near future is by actively seeking out the help of students who come from different backgrounds in every step of a project’s process, including analyzing the finished product before publishing it. In a recent Facebook post, CSG Vice President Nadine Jawad, the director of the guide, wrote CSG was “taking student concerns and criticisms to the guide very seriously” in the process of recreating the guide. She also shared the opportunity for students to voice their concerns at a discussion Monday night. This is a step in the right direction to ensure that resources for students are created with all students in mind. However, on a more long-term scale, CSG needs to confront their problems with homogeny and find ways to make membership easier and more appealing to students of low socioeconomic status.
In its current state, CSG is perceived as an organization with a revolving door of members who put enormous effort into gaining the position but end up dropping the ball on the projects they start. This results in members serving their tenure and leaving without creating much lasting change. While there is no doubt that the endeavors they undertake are worthwhile and come from a place of kindness and support, the picture they have painted of themselves recently is that of a student group whose members prioritize their position in the organization as a résumé builder rather than their service to the University community. If efforts aren’t taken to rectify the perception of CSG in the upcoming semester, they could lose credibility with the students, which, as a representative body, will significantly decrease the clout they need in pursuing any future projects.
But all is not lost. With CSG elections on the horizon, there is room for change and improvement. We hope the upcoming candidates, when choosing their party, make a notable effort to include students of all backgrounds on their ticket. This will require the new candidates to be cognizant of the barriers to running for CSG that many low socioeconomic students will face, including the time commitment and campaign fees that some parties request from their members. We ask for candidates to accommodate students who may not be able to dedicate as much to the party as others due to these external factors. Oftentimes, these students' voices are the most reflective of the experience of the majority on campus.
CSG is a powerful organization with the resources to make lasting change on the student experience at the University. It would be of great service to the University community if they would take effort to confront the problems within their institution, which have caused the recent string of unpopular projects, and prioritize rectifying these issues in the near future.