As the recent Michigan Student Assembly elections showed, student enthusiasm about student government is nearly nonexistent. The demand for accountability is equally low; the majority of students treat MSA with skepticism and doubt. This distance between student governments and the students they are supposed to represent is not exclusive to the University – it is evident across the state and the nation. Nonetheless, the majority of student governments control vast funds derived solely from mandatory student fees. Student governments should thus be held accountable to their sponsors and constituency – the students.
A few dozen miles away in East Lansing, the Associated Students of Michigan State University (the school’s equivalent of MSA) is trying to avoid that accountability; ASMSU last week elected its chairs and co-chairs behind closed doors. A reporter for the campus daily, The State News, was barred from entering and reporting on the proceedings, and 10 other observers were removed from the room. The ASMSU comptroller defended the body by arguing that the closed-door proceedings allowed members to express their views more freely, without fear of being on the public record. In his words, as quoted by The State News, the problem with open meetings is that they are “impeding on the democratic process” by preventing representatives from “freely speaking their minds without it being printed in the newspaper.”
It is evident, however, that the only threat to the democratic process comes from barring open access to assembly proceedings. The comment by the ASMSU comptroller – that open meetings keep members from talking freely for fear of being quoted – begs the question: What are they saying that they do not want students to know about? This closed-door policy violates the right of Michigan State students to know what their representative body is doing. The ASMSU is an organization that is directly funded, elected and supported by the students at Michigan State. As a result, it is an incontrovertible right of Michigan State students to demand accountability and explanations for what ASMSU does. When the assembly discussed, voted and elected their officers behind closed doors, Michigan State students received no rationale or explanation for the decision, and as a result, were barred from holding ASMSU members accountable for their actions.
A similar situation is arising at the University, even though the degree of severity pales in comparison. While the debate surrounding MSA chair and co-chair elections is open to the general public, the voting is conducted by secret ballot. This secret ballot method fails to hold representatives accountable for their voting record, as no one ever knows who cast which votes. It is commendable that MSA keeps its doors open. However, they must do more, and change the way these elections are run.
Ultimately, it is true that most students do not care about holding student government responsible for its actions. Most do not pay much attention to chair elections, policy debates or fund allocations. Nonetheless, student governments must be accountable to students when demand arises.