This year’s spring elections are coming up in early April, and positions are open in all four undergraduate student councils. If past years are anything to go by, the races in the Columbia College and Engineering Student Councils will probably be dominated by unopposed incumbents—students who’ve been involved in student government for one, two, or in some cases, even three years who do not face any democratic challenges.
Last spring, only 14 out of the 60 ESC and CCSC races were contested. Furthermore, 70 percent of CC/SEAS members serving on executive boards, upper-class councils, and the Columbia University Senate last semester had also served on council the previous year. While experience is helpful in navigating the school’s complex bureaucracy, limiting the pool of candidates on this basis alone bars potential representatives from offering different and potentially better representation. Despite the fact that this has been a historic problem, there’s no reason why we can’t do better.
While I am no longer affiliated with Spectator, I covered student government for almost two years at Spec as a news reporter, and I got to see, firsthand, the power and access that these student council members have. Although their direct influence over school policy is limited, they oversee the management of more than 1 million dollars and hold regular meetings with top-level University administrators. Just this year, the four undergraduate councils, alongside with the six student governing boards, divided up $1,108,574.00 from student life fees—a portion of the tuition we pay as students.
Individual council members also develop working relationships with Columbia deans, administrators, and faculty through regular meetings. While this doesn’t mean that council members get to tell administrators what actions to take, it does mean that for many Columbia officials, the student council is the first (and sometimes only) vehicle through which they learn about student perspectives, complaints, and demands. Clearly, there is power in their ability to communicate firsthand with administrators.
Student councils, as University-sanctioned bodies, also provide a platform for the formulation and expression of student opinion. Councils weigh in on campus issues and debates, release statements and, from time to time, are approached by campus organizations to either take a stance, call for a referendum or poll to gauge student opinion; this was the case last year in SGA and more recently in CCSC, both of which generated significant debate on campus, indicating the potential power that student councils can hold.
Students of color have already worked to ensure that councils are reflective of the student body, although there is always room for improving the representation of various identities on our campus. Additionally, council members have done important work to attend to the needs of all students, working to provide free pads and tampons, and subsidize MetroCards for low-income students. However, this change does not happen overnight. All of these initiatives take more than one year, or one council, to come into effect. This is why it is important to build on the work of past members and forge a new, more inclusive path for our undergraduate student body.
Although council members have done important work, they come from a very limited pool of mostly incumbent students. You can be a part of the solution to fix this.
If you feel like a portion of your tuition could be spent in a better way, if there’s a particular issue you care about and wish was addressed, if you believe your community, identity, or opinion is not being represented, or if you simply find fulfilment in building community on campus, I urge you to run for student council.
The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in History and a former Spectator news reporter who covered student government. Feel free to reach out to him at email@example.com.
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