At a University with a rich academic and athletic history, 1976 was a momentous year. Michigan’s football team had a 10-2 season, placed first in the conference and went to the Rose Bowl. While it may be remembered for its infamous football season, few may remember that the year also marked the establishment of the Michigan Student Assembly.
MSA is one of several names that have been adopted by the University’s central student government, but its establishment signified a new era of student government and an opportunity to resolve the shortcomings of the preceding student governing body, the Student Government Association.
Since 1906, the University has relied on a student governing organization to act as a leading force for student representation. Throughout the last century, student government presidents have tackled campus issues like affirmative action and the creation of a fall study break. More recently, MSA has advocated for an open housing in University residence halls, which would allow students to live with a student of a different gender, and it has aimed to bolster student relations with the assembly.
After Donald House unexpectedly inherited the position of first MSA president in 1976, he soon realized that creating a new and effective student government was not a task that would be easily accomplished.
House, now 57 and a resident of Chelsea, Mich., became involved with SGA when he took the position of SGA treasurer during his first year of graduate school at the University. According to House, he was looking for a way to become involved on campus after managing the student radio station at Vanderbilt University, where he had received his undergraduate degree.
After a lawsuit involving the SGA president and vice president, student government members decided to remove both officials from their executive positions. This made the treasurer next in line for the presidency.
“I was in shock because I got the notice under my dorm room door that the president and vice president had been removed from office,” House said. “I (had seen) myself as an accountant or business manager, clearly not a politician.”
The first matter House faced as MSA president dealt with a referendum from the fall of 1975 that proposed changing the name Student Government Association to the Michigan Student Assembly. House said he wasn’t prepared for the immediate name change or the overhaul of student government positions and regulations that he thought would occur at the end of the school year in response to the lawsuit.
“I think we naively assumed that we had several months to put it together and get it set up,” he said.
As the new MSA president, House had a lot of work to do to establish a stable student government, given SGA’s history of lawsuits and proceedings that were debilitating to the organization.
SGA left little foundation for MSA to build off, and House’s main goal was to create a new structure for student government, which included drafting a new constitution and compiled code.
“At the first meeting … everybody recognized that we didn’t have a constitution, we didn’t have compiled code … we just had Robert’s Rules of Order,” House said, referring to a reference guide on parliamentary procedure. “I think that was the biggest issue that we dealt with the first couple weeks, just so that we would know what the rules were and how we were going to work.”
According to House, the preceding SGA administration spent an unnecessary amount of time arguing over and dealing with inconsequential matters. Members of the newly-founded MSA sought to remedy these practices by using time more effectively. The members also decided to appoint representatives from each of the University’s colleges to serve in the governing body.
“Having a representative from (every) school or college government changed the mix of who was in the assembly room at any given time, compared to SGA,” House said. “They came with a bit more sense of responsibility.”
Despite his success, about two or three weeks after settling into his position as president, House decided to resume his position as treasurer.
“I learned that I didn’t want to go into politics. That was clear to me probably even before I (became) president,” House said.
In the final MSA officer’s report of December 1976, House was called “an unsung, apolitical hero whose efforts (were) greatly appreciated.”
After House stepped down, the assembly voted on the next president.
Exercising a Voice
Throughout the last four decades, MSA has remained an essential means for students to bridge the gap between the student body and the administration.
Scott Page, the University’s Director of the Center for the Study of Complex Systems and professor of complex systems, political science and economics, served as MSA president beginning in the fall of 1984.
At the time of his presidency, one of the most controversial issues on campus was the Code of Non-Academic Conduct proposed by the University. According to Page, the code outlined rules for what students were allowed to do outside the classroom and also formed boards of University students to determine the guilt and innocence of student crimes.
“Most of the students were vehemently against this, so the main reason to (run for president) was … to stop the code,” Page said.
Though the administration did not successfully pass the code while Page was MSA president due to veto power reserved for the student government, there was concern among MSA members that the University would find a back-door way to approve the code.
“We had to make the University feel that the students were not going to accept this,” Page said. “I think we did an OK job of this.”
Despite the efforts of Page and other students, the University implemented the code in the late 1980s, after Page’s term as president had ended. The code still exists today, but is called the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities.
Two years ago, Page served as a moderator for the MSA presidential debate. As a faculty member at the University, Page has continued to follow the trends and variations of student activism on campus, especially the ebb and flow of issues that spark the interests of undergraduate students.
One of the key differences in activism on campus since he was an undergraduate student, Page observed, is the decline in the number of political rallies held on campus, which were prevalent during the Reagan administration.
Page said there was a “slightly stronger sense of activism” 25 years ago but students are still getting involved in hot-button issues like the environment, education and fundraising for disaster relief efforts.
“I don’t think that we had the tools at the time … to do the sort of things that students do now,” Page said. “So in some ways it’s more impressive what happens now.”
Page’s tenure as president also marked the beginning of the University’s first major capital campaign to raise funds and the start of student-organized campaigns for emergency phones around campus.
With help from the Women’s Issues Committee and other student groups, MSA helped organize a sit-in in the office of the Vice President for Student Affairs to advocate for the installation of security phones around campus, which are still in place today.
“I deserve absolutely zero credit for that, but the people in the government that took ownership on that issue did an amazing job and pushed that through,” Page said.
Matt Nolan, a 29-year-old Bay City, Mich., resident, served as MSA president from 2001 to 2002. He strove to increase the level of professionalism of the assembly, which he said consequently made MSA more effective.
MSA President Ron Elias’s speech at the University’s New Student Convocation in 1999 influenced Nolan’s decision to become involved with the assembly.
“I became convinced that, while MSA is not always successful at achieving positive change on campus, it’s definitely a place where that’s possible,” Nolan said. “I dove in with both feet right off the bat.”
Nolan was first elected as a representative in the fall 1999 election and later served as the external relations committee vice chair and communications committee chair. He was re-elected to the assembly in fall 2000, and in March, he was elected MSA President.
Nolan said he and then-MSA Vice President Jessica Cash focused on “fixing and upgrading” the work of the assembly.
“It was something that I think varies year to year from administration to administration a lot,” Nolan said. “I think it has a huge impact on the ability of MSA to get anything done.”
Some of the changes made by the MSA administration during Nolan’s presidency included setting deadlines for when resolutions needed to be presented to the assembly in order to make it on the agenda and implementing stricter enforcement of Robert’s Rules of Order.
“It made people realize that if you were going to come and try to do something in MSA, that we were going to make sure that you took it seriously, and by doing that, we were able to … focus more on doing the real work of MSA, which I always thought was representing the student body to the administration and trying to make positive change on campus,” Nolan said.
One of the lasting effects of Nolan’s administration is the fall study break that MSA negotiated with the University over a series of about 70 meetings with professors and administrators.
“It was something that they had said couldn’t happen and that the students, I think, thought was a pipe dream … but to us it was one of those things that could really make life on campus better for students and improve the place for everybody involved,” Nolan said.
According to Nolan, the first fall study break took place in 2002. The break was intended to give students a four-day weekend to study for midterms.
Jason Mironov, who served as MSA president from 2004 to 2005, feels that student government serves as an opportunity to improve the campus for students by giving them a voice at the University.
“I was inspired by the passion of Michigan’s student body and motivated by the energy and diversity of our community,” Mironov said.
Mironov and then-MSA Vice President Anita Leung faced many significant University matters, including Israeli divestment and the University’s alleged ties to companies that do business with Israel. They also dealt with affirmative action issues and a human rights violation lawsuit brought against Coca-Cola, which had a contract with the University to sell soft drinks on campus. Other matters included tenant legal issues with students living off campus and a proposal to begin a University chapter of the Public Interest Research Group.
For Mironov, the most memorable of these issues was Israeli divestment, which sparked great interest from the student body during a time when Israeli-Palestinian relations were a constant topic of debate between student groups on campus.
According to a March 16, 2005 article in The Michigan Daily, MSA proposed to create a committee that would investigate the University’s ties to businesses operating in the Middle East countries, where human rights violations were allegedly occurring. The proposal created a fervent debate between University students with opposing views of the University’s divestments in Israel. The article reported that MSA surprisingly voted against the resolution.
The structure of MSA has been changed and adapted since 1976, allowing the assembly to concentrate on the most prevalent issues at the University.
Current MSA President Chris Armstrong said his experiences as a member of student government have impacted his time at the University, and he has seen the resilience of the University community.
“We uphold certain values and we’re a big activist campus, we’re the leaders and best,” Armstrong said. “I think what I’ve really learned about this campus is that … no matter what’s happening, whether the football team is doing badly or if certain students are being targeted, there’s always a reaffirmation and understanding of what Michigan is and students are willing to fight for that.”
Armstrong became an active member of student government during his first semester on campus and has spent his time as president working to ensure that MSA properly represents the voice of the student body.
“I think one thing that student government has done is it’s really tried to channel leadership from around campus … (MSA) has started representing more communities, more leaders of communities and more different student perspectives than it necessarily did when I was a freshman,” Armstrong said.
Despite shifts in the University’s political climate that have transpired since 1976, one quality that prevails in the central student government is the dedication of members to their role.
“As MSA president, I was lucky enough to engage incredible people across campus — from students to faculty, from regents to coaches,” Mironov said. “I was honored to represent the University locally and nationally and have a deep love for Michigan. The University set me on a path that has paid incredible dividends, and for that, I will forever be grateful.”