For the Michigan Student Assembly, 2008 is not just a new year – it’s practically a brand new start. After a year defined by scandals and resignations, most of the assembly’s skeletons are out of the closetand a talented new president and a fresh group of recently elected representatives are moving in to fill the void. This can’t be an opportunity that goes to waste. If MSA wants to be a representative student government that can stand up for students against our increasingly incompetent University administration, it must first be an institution that communicates better with its constituents and gets rid of its internal problems.
Atop the list of major changes in MSA this semester, several old faces won’t be around. Earlier this month, MSA Rep. Anton Vuljaj pleaded guilty to felony charges for his denial-of-service attack on the Michigan Progressive Party’s website during the 2006 MSA elections. He also resigned from his representative position in MSA. Similarly, before winter break MSA president Zack Yost and Rep. Kenny Baker resigned from their positions after it was revealed that the two were members of a controversial Facebook group created by Yost mocking MSA Rep. Tim Hull’s Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism.
Replacing Yost as president is former Vice President Mohammad Dar, whose position was filled last week by the former MSA Chief of Staff Nate Fink. Both are experienced and qualified candidates, particularly Dar. With a group of new representatives elected in November, these two have the talent to transform the assembly – now it’s time to put it to good use.
The assembly should start by improving its communication with students. When the assembly completes projects, it’s usually because it demonstrates to the administration that its demands reflect mass student concern. But students have no reliable way of knowing what is happening in MSA or how they can help. The website is infrequently updated. The campus-wide e-mails that are occasionally sent out usually address trivial issues like the “Go Blue, Beat OSU Pep Rally”, which was the subject of the last e-mail to be sent out. And even if students attend MSA meetings, which few do, those aren’t much of a help either: Most of MSA’s work is done in committees and only discussed briefly before the whole assembly.
These are easy problems to fix. As Dar told the Daily’s Editorial Board on Thursday, the website is currently under construction after a change in webmasters. That’s a good start. But the changes need to go beyond aesthetics, like adding a blog with updates on what MSA, committees and individual representatives are currently working on. The assembly already produces monthly committee reports – it wouldn’t be hard to eliminate the jargon and post them online. Similarly, the assembly should make better use of its limited campus-wide e-mails, informing students about issues requiring a mass response to spur action.
Intertwined with improving communication, MSA needs to be more transparent and its members need to be more accountable for their actions. Although the assembly has been promising election reform since 2006, not much has changed: candidates still spam students during elections, needlessly post obnoxious flyers around campus and bend unenforced campaign rules. More importantly, candidates still make promises that they don’t keep.
Measurable standards would be one way to change this. Dar himself proposed such standards, suggesting that representatives give monthly reports on the progress of their projects. In order to increase the impact of these standards, MSA should make these reports public, either on their website or in a monthly publication. The assembly should also post representatives’ attendance records online along with their major roll-call votes.
Lastly, for many students, MSA seems more like an “in-club” than a representative government. After the recent scandals, breaking this image will be even more difficult. But if MSA is more transparent, accountable and accessible, building students’ trust and interest should follow shortly behind.
Students may only contribute $7.19 each semester to MSA, but they deserve to have an assembly that is productive and responsive to their concerns.