Op-Ed: Who will lead Your Michigan?

Monday, March 21, 2016 - 4:36pm

“Your Time, Your Voice, Your Michigan”

Election season is in high gear on campus as we take to our annual tradition of deciding who will lead the student body in the upcoming school year. The six words quoted at the beginning of this article have no doubt been seen by a significant portion of our campus. These six words are the words being used by one party, Your Michigan, to campaign on a platform of unity on our campus. These six words, I fear, are a campaign promise by this party’s leaders that will go unfulfilled.

Last week, Central Student Government hosted its presidential and vice presidential debate. As the School of Education representative on CSG and as a concerned student, I attended to see if the debate would sway my vote in the election. Both parties, after all, offer solid platforms based on real changes needed to improve our University. From safety and mental health to minority representation, both mainstream parties are represented by a presidential and vice presidential candidate who have done amazing work to make the University of Michigan better. This article, I hope, is seen not as an attack of their character, but rather a discussion of their ideas. After hearing their ideas in the debate, I now believe that only one party’s leadership has a conception of leadership that will truly let it represent Michigan in full, and that leadership is David Schafer and Micah Griggs of newMICH.

Now, mine is an opinion that is but one voice. However, after being on this campus for five years, being a student leader for three of those years, having worked in and with University administration, and now looking forward to becoming an alum in just a little over a month, I believe I have gathered a perspective that can be viewed as valuable. Over my time at Michigan, I’ve learned how to think about the narratives people use to discuss issues facing communities — including our community of Michigan — and it is precisely those narratives that, for me, distinguish the groups most.

Take the narrative on working with administration. At the debate, Thomas Hislop, presidential candidate for Your Michigan, made a clear distinction between how he would “work with” the administration instead of just “demanding” things as newMICH planned to do. Where I believe this narrative fails is that the history of our own University demonstrates that the changes that have most greatly affected students on campus have only come when students demanded them. Some prime examples are female students working to build the league and the Black Action Movements only a few short decades ago and even the #BBUM movement currently.

Demand does not have to be combative — in fact, it can be cooperative — but what demand does is hold our University accountable to a student body that changes every year. Student leaders can have demands and still be cooperative and accomplish many great things, which the #BBUM campaign has surely demonstrated. Surely, many — if not most — of the great things about this university have come from such demands on the parts of students. Michigan's students make Michigan great.  

Then there were the narratives concerning representation on campus. In terms of discussing identity, I honestly believe both party’s leaders have a long way to go, but I do believe David and Micah are much better equipped to handle this topic from their first day in office than Thomas and Cam.

One way these narratives were demonstrated in the debate was the discussion about increasing minority enrollment. Thomas and Cam both discussed their plans of outreach to “urban” or “inner-city” schools. While these outreach programs may certainly be helpful, they do ignore the fact that a student being from an urban city implies nothing about their race or other identities. Their narratives also spoke of these students in very privileged ways, assuming that they merely lack motivation to succeed and decide to come to a place like Michigan. As a future educator in the city of Detroit, a narrative like this is not one I would want my students exposed to from college leaders they would otherwise admire.

Rather, I would elevate the narrative both David and Micah discussed of improving the environment on campus where students from all backgrounds would feel welcomed, a theory the administration would do well to consider in addendum to its current initiatives. Minority students do not come to this university to appease our ideals or bolster our image, they come for an education. The conversations on campus sorely need to shift from what we can do to get students from different backgrounds here to what we can do to make them want to come and stay and be proud to become a Michigan alum. Schafer and Griggs made it clear to me that they understand that. Hislop and Dotson made it clear that they did not.

This lack of true reflection on identity was apparent numerous other times in the debate as well. When discussing Greek life, all those debating generalized our Greek life community in problematic ways. Both parties seemed to forget that numerous identities are present within and between Greek life organizations.

For instance, Schafer and Griggs made the point of CSG not seeming representative because of its heavy Greek life presence; however, the issue is significantly more complex, as there are plenty of Greek life students who most likely don't feel represented by the Greek life students on CSG. While CSG does need diversification, looking solely to lower the proportion of Greek life students present is an essentialist rhetoric that does little to solve the true problem of representation.

The same issue of missing the true problem was present in the discussion on mental health. All four candidates wanted to discuss increasing resources — something truly and definitely needed — but only the Defend Affirmative Action Party candidates discussed working past these reactive measures and finding proactive ways to improve mental health on campus, in addition to working to figure out what on our campus is causing our mental health to worsen.

So while Your Michigan’s leaders may want their campaign to be based on your voice, the narratives they use to describe the University's students and their experiences make me question whether that voice is simply one of a majority or one that is truly inclusive of all the University’s students. Who would be leading if they were to be elected: the leaders who think all voices should be heard or the ones who actively silenced some voices during our last assembly meeting? If we want our fellow Wolverines to feel “heard, protected and empowered” — as Hislop and Dotson have claimed they want to — erasing their experiences in a guise of unity is merely a negative peace which removes contention instead of a positive peace which promotes inclusion. So as we take to the polls, I ask our student body, who will lead your Michigan?

Michael Chrzan is a graduating senior in LSA and the School of Education.