The Office of the Student Body President Is Powerless
CORRECTION: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that the Student Body President holds an ex-officio seat on the Board of Governors — this is instead occupied by the President of the UNC Association of Student Governments. The article also did not properly distinguish between the roles of the Student Body President and the Graduate and Professional Students Federation President. In addition, the article implied the Student Body President simply appoints individuals of their choosing to student government positions in the Cabinet or elsewhere. This is incorrect; the Student Body President only installs candidates after a thorough application and interview process handled by selection committees. The Carolina Political Review apologizes for these errors.
On many occasions, Dean of Students for Student Affairs Jonathan Sauls has referred to student self-governance at UNC as a “leadership laboratory.” To first-years and parents attending orientation, this proclamation is a lovely platitude, even inspirational: the idea that those who serve as leaders at Carolina will go forth and lead the world is a lovely one. True as it may be that students can draw on lessons learned pursuing their interests on our campus, perhaps the more appropriate word to describe student leadership at UNC is “laboratory”: on this campus, student governance is treated as a trivial experiment, to be done in an isolated, heavily controlled setting, with no real impact or bearing on the course of this University.
Every February, we are treated to a hyper-focus on the Student Body President election and the selection of our “new leader.” A-frame signs, websites, and funny videos (all costing less than 150 dollars) inundate the weeks before Valentine’s Day. The Daily Tar Heel reviews the candidates. Campus groups host debates. For all of the fanfare given to this race, it would seem that the SBP is destined to be the strongest voice in campus policy for the next twelve months.
What does the SBP do? More than you might think. They appoint an entire executive board and cabinet and are responsible for staffing an entire branch of student government. They select a student to be the primary lobbyist for the “student voice” to the North Carolina legislature. They install a Vice President, who chairs committees that make direct, succinct recommendations to the Chancellor (should we have one). They appoint students to various committees, some of which hold a real impact, like altering requirements for majors and revising clauses in student conduct codes. They get one vote on the Board of Trustees and even an ex-officio position on the Board of Governors. We choose one person to do all of this, and they, in turn, onboard a scourge of first-year Morehead-Cain and Robertson Scholars to help execute their vision.
So, you might wonder: what doesn’t the SBP do? Well, for starters, have any measurable impact on the state of UNC or the outcomes of its students. They are able to have an outsized impact on selecting who they want to work with, but their team, no matter how skilled, cannot make the University take students seriously. For example, last fall, the Senate and Executive Branch both relayed the general sentiment of students to vehemently reject the proposals on Silent Sam more than once. We all remember how that turned out. Despite the best efforts of the good people in leadership, they were ignored. The student voice was given a platform to placate the masses and then ignored as the token student on the BoT attempted to elevate our concerns through her tokenized spot.
This phenomenon is not limited to the executive branch of student government. The Undergraduate Senate and student-run Honor System are (mostly) full of students who want to make the University a better place. If one attends public meetings, these student leaders bring forward progressive proposals and points of discussion. However, these often get shot down by faculty, staff, and administrators. Perhaps the ideas are unrealistic, or over-budget, or simply too challenging to the status quo. Whatever the reason, too many progressive proposals from student leaders never see the light of day, let alone serious consideration.
Admittedly, some administrative oversight is important. It would be vain of any student or student group to claim that at 22 years old they have the secret to running a huge, public university better than administrators who have made it their profession for years. However, student self-governance, a value this University claims to laude, should actually be given the ability to make real change. As it stands, these administrators have veto power over much of what students are able to do. If UNC really values student self-governance, we need better systems in place to privilege that voice.
So what are we to do? As students, we ought to continue voting for SBP — the misdeeds of an administration set on quashing your voice are no reason to disenfranchise yourself. We need to do more to make our voice heard. Individual students and the activist community have done an incredible job of being “loud” and getting the ears of administrators. Their visible calls to action have changed things. We ought to ask our student leaders to do the same: publicly release proposals and make loud requests for change. Closed-door negotiations have their place, but this administration has ignored the wishes of students and their leaders for too long operating under that guise. It is time to make some noise.