Correction appended: This article incorrectly called Melton Lee a former MSA representative. Lee is currently a representative. Also, this article incorrectly stated that Jesse Levine won with 57 percent of the vote in the Michigan Student Assembly presidential elections last winter. It should have said he won with 75 percent of the vote.
Trudging from residence hall to residence hall last March, Jesse Levine shook hands, talked shop and maybe even kissed some babies during his quest for the student government presidency. Levine spent $400 out of pocket on posters and flyers and dedicated more than 90 hours to his campaign. After all was said and done, Levine, who impressively took 75 percent of the vote, was also part of one of the most unimpressive student government elections in recent memory, with only 9.4 percent of the eligible student body participating.
While a lack of competition contributed to the sobering numbers, percentages from the past five years have rarely exceeded 20 percent and usually hover around 15.
But for all the complaints of student apathy, it’s not as if this university’s student government election is a nationwide bottom feeder. Almost every school contacted – Michigan State, Northwestern, Ohio State and others – had comparable election numbers for their respective student governments. A common sentiment from student government leaders was that students could really care less about the whole operation.
“For the average student, there’s no reason to vote,” said Stuart Wagner, a former MSA representative. “In order to get a student to vote, they need a reason.”
But election numbers don’t tell the whole story. There’s nothing that says that higher percentages will create a more effective student government, and, conversely, that a more effective MSA would make students care more. But Matt Nolan, MSA president from 2001-02 and a current law student, thinks that once MSA effectively tackles the everyday issues, then students will start to “buy into” the idea that MSA will affect things that really matter. Impressive voting percentage numbers are a result of a strong student government – not the cause, Nolan said.
Not surprisingly, making students care is easier said than done, and Wagner, a self-professed cynic when it comes to “fixing” MSA, sees a difficult path ahead for those dedicated to revamping student government.
Creating a brand
Stroll into a crowded University building at any given time and ask random students about MSA. For the most part, you’ll get blank stares.
For instance, on a recent Thursday night at the Michigan Union, 28 students were asked, “What Is MSA?” Seventeen had no idea, eight said either “Michigan Student Assembly” or the “Michigan Student Association” with little else to add, while three had an intimate knowledge of the institution. Hardly an official survey or even a good one, but telling nonetheless.
If MSA can’t muster up enough public relations to get even 50 percent of the student body to recognize its name, then it can hardly be a representative body for students to voice their concerns to. Under this system, most students don’t know where to go even if they had concerns.
Levine downplays this lack of exposure, but the fact is, there is still room for improvement.
Events like Diag Day, where MSA members stand outside for hours talking and handing out goodies, and the omnipresent flyering and chalking on campus, do indeed put a dent in the relative anonymity that MSA operates under.
But to take it a step further, Nolan suggests investing more time and money into communicating with students. “I think the rewards would be huge,” Nolan said. “Government doesn’t work unless candidates can communicate with its constituents.”
While Nolan speculates that MSA’s hesitation to invest in PR has to do with its reluctance to annoy the student organizations that might otherwise receive the funds, student government has also been taking positive strides toward visibility.
To make change and get noticed, Levine said, “we need to do something big.”
“Big” is the Ludacris concert that, rumor has it, will be at Hill Auditorium this semester.
And whether there are some grumblings that MSA should be deciding between the likes of John Stewart or Ann Coulter, rather than Kanye West and Ludacris, for who to bring to campus, the fact remains that either choice or all could be the big flashy publicity that MSA needs.
“It’s going to give people more of a mainstream understanding of what MSA does,” said Melton Lee, a MSA representative and current NAACP political action committee chair.
As MSA plays with its image, or lack thereof, it also has as many hurdles to overcome internally. Every student group deals with constant turnover – its members and leaders graduate, usually after one, sometimes two, years. This problem is especially acute in relation to MSA’s effectiveness.
When campaign season starts, both in October for mid-term elections and in March for the presidential one, platform promises are thrown out left and right, and many never come to fruition. And if they do ever happen, it’s not usually until after the promise-maker (or makers) have since graduated and left.
The language requirement change is one example of this. For some time now, the LSA student government has been trying to push through alternations to the language requirement. LSA-SG has pushed to allow students to take two semesters of two different languages, instead of four semesters for one. The change was presented to the curriculum committee more than two years ago and has yet to be voted on. On top of that, the research for the language requirement change, which included looking into the curricula of other schools, was done more than eight years ago.
“You’re dealing with the difficulty of students not being here long enough to see their projects be fulfilled,” Wagner said. “That’s discouraging from our end and that’s even more discouraging to the constituency because they see a broken promise.”
Another problem of turnover is the hardship in forging relationships with the administration. The easiest way to wade through the bureaucracy is, as consensus of those interviewed suggests, to foster communication with the University’s higher-ups. “Relationships with the administrators is, I would argue, the most important part of speeding up the process,” Wagner said.
“There are a lot of hoops you need to jump through,” Wagner said. “There’s a lot of bureaucracy here.”
Not necessarily a fan of the former Blue Party, Wagner still points to it as an impressive example of getting things done. “I didn’t like the idea of the Blue Party at all,” he said, “but in the end of the day, they got fall break.”
But connections alone don’t lead to effectiveness. A singular voice for students throughout the years is also helpful. Lasting parties that maintain similar goals as officers enter and exit MSA’s revolving door would assist in the process, but Nolan believes continuity also lies in the individual initiative of officers.
“Way too little time is spent going back reading Daily archives, understanding previous administrations,” he said.
There was a time, not too long ago, that MSA was in the habit of passing resolutions along the lines of telling President Bush not go to war in Iraq. These resolutions, invariably, go nowhere and take away time that could be going toward projects where change can realistically be made.
Following the footsteps of more recent presidents, Levine has focused on his more local work, both with the city and with the University, and has yielded some results.
All of the most notable changes are ones accomplished on the local level. Nolan, the leader of the Blue Party that helped to implement the first fall break, attributes the party’s success to its ability to hone in on where practical changes could be made.
This, for all intents and purposes, is at city council and working with student services. Levine’s push for representation in the city’s decisions is one important step, but also being attuned to and ready to fix the little annoyances of everyday student life.
Once things start getting done, even on a small scale, MSA will be able to cure the “perception that student government doesn’t do a lot of stuff that affects people,” as Lee puts it.
Don’t forget grad students
At the University of Iowa, voter participation jumped up 11 percentage points for its student government’s presidential election last year to 24.9 percent. Iowa’s student government system runs remarkably similarly to MSA’s, UISG distributes a similar amount of money to student groups -$800,000 to our $700,000 – to a similarly sized student body. Even the election process is near-identical – two days of online voting deciding the president and vice president on a single-party ticket. So what did Iowa do that we could do here for an immediate increase in voting?
Mark Kresowik, the UISG president, attributes the jump to a campaign aimed at the school’s graduate students. According to Kresowik, his platform was not especially graduate student-centric, but he was one of the few candidates in the past years to take the simple step of going out and talking to non-undergrads.
If Kresowik’s experience is any indication, there is great untapped potential living in the Northwood apartments and far off-campus. In terms of MSA, there are several vacancies in representative positions, notably two in Rackham. Levine even admits that participation from the graduate programs hasn’t been maximized.
But stepping up the campaigning isn’t enough. Student government shouldn’t just talk to grad students, but actually think about ways to accommodate their needs. Several years ago, Levine said, MSA made strides in providing child care for students and has been working to increase legal services for international students – the majority of whom are studying at the graduate level.
Whether its keeping tabs on the Graduate Employees’ Organization or just lending an open ear to Rackham students, engaging grad students can only help MSA’s performance.
In the end, there is no golden number or percentage that election committees should strive to. If student government is supposed to “engage the campus community,” as Levine describes it, but can’t get a significant number of the student body to sit at their computer for five minutes to vote, then the engagement hasn’t gone far enough.
MSA does an acceptable job at doling out funds to student groups, but few students vote for a candidate based on his ability to pass out money. MSA has taken the first steps to more visibility and, eventually, broader relevance. By looking at the bigger picture, MSA can eventually establish itself as a force of long-term, consistent change.