The value of involvement

Student government is a learning experience, but only if you participate

Last semester in these pages, I implored the student body to participate in, or at least care about, student government. In the wake of last week’s Undergraduate Association election results, it’s again time to talk about the worth of the UA and student government in general. Freshmen may still be unfamiliar with the workings of the various student policy-making organizations — the UA, Dormitory Council, the Interfraternity Council — just to name a few, but that’s all the more reason why new MIT students should start this year with an open mind about student government.

Students are often skeptical of the UA’s ability to enact real change, and rightly so. The MIT administration has, time and again, proven that it will consider student input — often quite seriously — but the final call on policy can be made irrespective of student opinion. So why should we concern ourselves with what the UA does? Doesn’t it seem like the significant time and effort we would put in to student government will only pay off as “recommendations” to the real policymakers? Perhaps. But that’s okay. Because the real value in student government is the process, not the result.

The key is in what the UA, and other student organizations, can teach you about managing power differentials. The UA is in a unique position — it must somehow represent student interests faced with MIT massive administrative bureaucracy (which provides for the existence of the UA in the first place). And MIT’s administration often has interests which clash with what students might consider “best.” Consequently, UA officials are tasked with the challenge of getting what they want from a position with virtually no leverage. And that’s not a bad thing — like everything else at MIT, being faced with a challenge is an enormous opportunity to learn.

So, it might be helpful to think of student government at MIT like an experimental sandbox. You, either as an active participant in the UA structure itself, or in a more passive role as a voter, or just somebody who cares about and thinks about ways MIT could be made better, can experiment with different modes of participation and see what works best (refer to the “Campaign for Students” movement versus the UA Senate as different experiments in reaching the same outcome). At worst, you don’t get what you want, and varsity sports get cut or the dining program gets completely revamped. At the end of the day, you’re still going to one of the world’s best universities. You haven’t lost your right to health care coverage and you haven’t been shipped off to war. You can afford failure.

Learning how to try and climb the “power mountain” between your position as a student and the positions of those making the decisions at the top is an extremely valuable lesson. Definitely one of those things that will help you out later in life, no matter what you end up doing. But the only way you can start to learn these things is by putting in a little bit of energy to get involved in some way or another. You can be sure it will pay off tremendously.