Kevin Mersol-Barg: Keeping CSG progressive

By Kevin Mersol-Barg, Columnist
Published February 13, 2013

Like most students, I’m a bit cynical when it comes to student government. Year after year we vote to put our peers into office, never to hear back from them again. However, with so many resources at their disposal, our elected representatives can potentially serve students in a way no other student organization can. The Central Student Government commands a budget of more than $700,000 each year and wields significant influence when dealing with the University’s top decision-makers.

Historically, it has played a critical role in everything from holding University administrators accountable to funding important programs. According to a document submitted to the Board of Regents, CSG investigated University policies as a community watchdog and in 1978 “spearheaded a student-led referendum to bring (Student Legal Services) to campus.”And just last year, CSG helped realize initiatives to expand access to childcare subsidies for students with children and install more water-bottle refill stations around campus. To achieve this, CSG provided funds that incentivized the University to act, which helped resolve intractable talks between students and administrators.

Next month, we have an opportunity to shape the future of CSG and our University. CSG will hold elections for offices such as student body president and representatives. I encourage prospective candidates to embrace progressive issues in their platforms and, if elected, act on them.

I call upon them to leave their mark on the University — to address issues of accessibility and campus climate.

More than ever, students are struggling to meet the cost of a higher education. According to the Record Update, students’ “tuition bill … has gone up an average of 5.56 percent in each of the last 10 years.” In other words: in-state, lower-division LSA undergraduate students in 2002 paid about $7,500 and now pay nearly $13,000 per year. Tuition increased dramatically more for out-of-state students. Of course, students must cut checks for more than tuition — they have to pay for books, housing and other sundries.

The cost of a university education has long been prohibitive for bright students in Michigan and beyond. For those of us fortunate enough to afford it, it poses a great financial burden — in the form of student loans — that will haunt us for decades. CSG has the power to lobby decision-makers and fund initiatives that can reduce this burden to great effect.

And while the state of affirmative action in Michigan remains in flux, the University needs all hands on deck to recruit and retain students from minority communities. First generation students, low-income students and students of color enhance diversity on campus. Greater diversity on campus assures greater diversity in other areas of society, exposing and sensitizing more people to others with different identities and experiences. The University plays a key role in transforming our world for the better, and, as part of the University, CSG can do this too.

More than just concerns of accessibility weigh heavy on the minds of many students on campus. Another widely held concern looms: How can we, as a University community, confront bias incidents and create a healthy campus climate? Incidents arise all too often, such the torn down flyers in Haven Hall last October. As a nexus of communities on campus, CSG is uniquely positioned to provide a forum for students to dialogue about bias incidents, exploring the underlying issues while creating safe spaces for minority students.

As a former candidate for student body president and a student government veteran, I ask this year’s candidates to heed my advice. Look beyond small tangible projects and promote an ambitious vision for what campus life could look like five or ten years from now. Rather than campaign on ‘making student government relevant,’ promote solutions that are more relevant to students. Gauging student input is important, yes, but you should confront issues proactively because we’ve already identified some large ones and they’re becoming worse with time.

As a concerned student, I intend to support candidates who champion progressive causes. Of course, this requires that progressive candidates join the race. When eyeing a run for elective office, consider ways to tackle social inequities at the University. Break the mold traditionally cast for student government. Dare to envision a progressive future and act on it.

Kevin Mersol-Barg can be reached at kmersolb@umich.edu.