The Editorial Board authored an excellent piece on ASUCD’s uncontested election and the lack of student engagement. Having one political party controlling both the legislative and executive branches is potentially dangerous and the Board is correct in calling attention to this. But I think that the Board’s suggestion, that ASUCD could be improved by adding student protests and demonstrations to the discourse, misunderstands the reason why voter turnout and ASUCD competitiveness is at an all time low and I want to offer an alternative hypothesis.
Let’s begin by considering the composition of Senate following this election. Nine of the 12 senators and the executive office belong to the SMART slate, whose members were heavily involved in protests (i.e., Black Lives Matter) and movements (i.e., Divestment from Israel). While ASUCD and those discourses don’t coincide perfectly, there’s substantial overlap. Recall that SMART is a relatively new slate and has grown from nothing to dominance in the past two years. If the key to student engagement is adding those discussions to ASUCD, then we would expect to see student participation rise. But exactly the opposite has happened. Why?
I think the answer is reflected in the composition of ASUCD leadership. Between the 12 senators, President and Vice President, only one and a half senators are not from Letters and Sciences, and the student leaders that are from L&S are from a small subset of departments with the college. Not one comes from Engineering or Agricultural/Environmental Sciences.
If we think about why, ASUCD is really two separate entities. The majority of ASUCD is like Campus Rec and Unions, in that Unitrans, the Coffee House, the Bike Barn and other units provide services for students. The other side of ASUCD is the student government. They are superfluous with respect to the operating of these services, which raises the question of what the purpose of student government is.
When we think about other governments, like Davis City Council or the state of California, both work to craft policies that benefit their constituents. What’s critical to note is that these governments focus on the common features of their constituents. What I mean by this is that even though many of Davis’ residents are from the Bay or SoCal, the City of Davis limits itself to issues relevant to Davis residents. Likewise, many Californians are from other states and from other countries, but the state limits itself to issues relevant to California residents. You’d never hear of City Council or California attempting to dictate Russia’s policies in Ukraine. The best way of summarizing this is that governments serve their denizens qua denizens.
When we apply the same logic to ASUCD, the government of UC Davis undergraduates, we must first ask the question of what it means to be an undergraduate at UC Davis. Students care primarily about how the quality of the education they receive and how much they pay for that education. These are the defining characteristics of students, and both are subjects that ASUCD is silent on. The only action ASUCD has taken relevant to tuition is attempting to join the University of California Student Association, which is not a very effective move considering that Sean Connelly, UCSA’s professional capital staff, has no evidence regarding the impact UCSA has had on student-related issues, let alone the issue of tuition.
If ASUCD wants to be relevant to more than a small subset of students, it needs to tackle issues that concern all students. ASUCD needs to fight for student representation in the Academic Senate, not just in the Administration, and fight for policies that improve the quality of our education. Here’s one suggestion – require professors to learn how to teach. Currently (at least in my department and a few others I can name) professors are not required to demonstrate teaching competency or take classes on how to teach. Here’s another suggestion – incorporate instructional quality in the Academic Senate’s rules regarding hiring, retention and promotion of faculty.
I will not imply that changes like these will be easily accomplished, or that these changes will be accomplished at all. But so long as the only work that ASUCD does is dictating Middle East policy and editing their bylaws to correct grammatical errors, ASUCD will continue to fall toward irrelevance.
Graphic by Jennifer Wu