One of the most storied institutions at the University of Michigan is the Central Student Government. First founded under a different name in 1906, CSG has overseen immense change at the University, advocating for student rights, serving at the forefront of student activism and shaping campus life. In the past century, CSG has coordinated Vietnam War protests at the University, established the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities, created the fall study break and pushed for desegregation. Despite the power it has historically wielded, however, CSG is now a mostly ignored organization that has fallen in prominence.
In the last election, the majority of those elected to CSG received under 50 votes, with many receiving totals in the single digits. Turnout was low across the board, including in LSA, which saw 1,264 votes from its 18,322 undergraduate population. Despite the low turnout, CSG still controls an immense annual budget of around $800,000, giving it the potential power to shape the U-M community and have a significant impact on students. With student body participation and investment near historic lows, however, it’s worth examining the current priorities and structure of CSG to understand what is and isn’t working and how CSG can once again connect with U-M students.
Perhaps the most important question to ask when evaluating CSG is what role it should play at the University. At other large public institutions like UC Berkeley and UCLA, student government has historically had a large voice on campus, with the UC Board of Regents having a much smaller soapbox when compared to our active regents. At the UCs, executive administration is the only other major campus voice that their student governments must contend with. As opposed to other colleges, which face a power structure centered around university administration, the University of Michigan has a unique distribution of authority.
Both the Board of Regents and U-M executives play significant roles on campus, often working at odds with one another. With this diffuse power structure, it is harder for CSG to negotiate on behalf of students; it is more difficult to negotiate with nine agents (eight regents and the president) than just one. Because of this, CSG’s primary opportunity for influence lies in improving the day-to-day lives of students in powerful yet inexpensive ways that are overlooked by the broader administration.
In the past few years, CSG has made strong contributions to student life through programs like AirBus, free news subscriptions, an emerging test prep program and high spending on student organization funding. An area where they have mostly failed, however, is activist attempts to influence politics. Today, CSG devotes a significant amount of its time and resources towards commissions that focus on activist efforts, with their most recent budget allocating $2,500 to the Clean Campus Commission and the fall 2021 budget appropriating $5,000 to a COVID-19 POC Impact Task Force and $10,000 towards grants for organizations involved in anti-racism projects.
While those are all good causes, CSG’s lack of a focused agenda has ultimately led to high spending and significant manpower devoted to programs with few tangible outcomes. With the U-M Regents and University administration’s outsize influence on campus, CSG faces steep obstacles that make the success of their initiatives virtually impossible.
In addition, CSG has dedicated time to passing several resolutions and statements throughout the past year that have had limited impact and seem performative in nature. One of the more notable instances of this came last year when CSG chose to dip its toes into international politics by issuing a controversial statement on the Israel-Palestine conflict, expressing solidarity with the Palestinians. While issues like these are certainly important at a national and international level, commenting on them often serves to ignite controversy and damage the reputation of CSG with no productive outcome in return.
Another area that lacks coordination is the allocation of CSG’s budget. Today, CSG spends $81,650 per term in payroll & need based compensation; these items makeup a significant portion of their overhead. This includes a program manager, who is on CSG’s payroll despite only spending part of their time on CSG related tasks.
With a large staff consisting of 18 people in the Executive Branch, over 45 available positions in the Legislative Branch, a Cabinet and even a recent class of 9 interns, CSG has become a large bureaucratic institution that is at times costly to maintain.
Despite the significant number of people in leadership, however, the primary components of CSG’s expenditures — student organization funding and student event planning — are controlled by a small group — the Student Organization Funding Committee — within the organization. Because of this, many of the commissions within student government seem to exist for the purpose of providing resume filler for the remaining members of CSG, rather than serving to advance a focused agenda.
As the Zimmerman administration ushers us into a new school year, it has an opportunity to bring back credibility and prominence to CSG. While it’s easy to dismiss the need for a strong student government, as our primary student representatives at the University, it’s paramount that CSG reconnects with students and focuses on improving everyday life on campus. Although CSG President Noah Zimmerman began his State of the Students address by declaring that his administration’s key objective was to institute “pragmatic policies,” his list of priorities left much to be desired.
His goals for the coming year included “advancing anti-racism,” “building a sustainable campus,” “lowering barriers to accessibility” and “creating an affordable Michigan.” While these lofty goals are important in guiding campus conversations, if CSG hopes to have tangible success, it should shift its attention toward student events and benefits, which have broad popular appeal and are easier to achieve.
When asked about the Zimmerman administration’s balance of smaller, easily achievable goals and long-term objectives, Communications Director Kareem Rifai stated that the “administration continues to build a strong team of dedicated students devoted to ensuring our short-term and long-term goals for the student body are fulfilled. That, in conjunction with robust funding for CSG this semester, make the president and vice president confident that we’ll deliver on our ‘Hail to the Victors’ framework.” While confidence in leadership and a robust budget are certainly important components of a strong student government, CSG’s lack of defined authority on campus makes progress towards their “Hail to the Victors” framework incredibly difficult.
Instead, CSG likely has a greater chance of impact by utilizing its budget to expand existing programs like student subscriptions, student organization funding and student event planning. By reinforcing its commitment to students through events that engage the student body and perks for individuals and organizations that improve student life, CSG’s policies can make an immediate difference at the University. For the sake of all students, let’s hope that CSG can narrow its priorities and regain focus.
Nikhil Sharma is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached at email@example.com
Have thoughts about our pieces? The Michigan Daily is committed to publishing a diversity of Op-Eds & Letters to the Editor. Submission instructions can be found here.