What student self-governance?

By Amelia Meyer

Students at the University are just large children, incapable of comprehending class readings and PowerPoint slides, practically devoid of the ability to write an essay — let alone a thesis — and, most obviously, utterly incapable of governing themselves at an institution of higher learning. When are we going to face up to the fact that in order to thrive at this prestigious institution, we as immature students need the guiding, paternalistic hand of the University’s administration to save us from ourselves?

If only the above paragraph could be found in the University’s latest Prospectus. That way, prospective and incoming students would know exactly what they’re getting themselves into and wouldn’t be surprised when they find that student self-governance is just a catchy slogan, nothing more.

Recent events at the University have made the hollow nature of the University’s promise of student self-governance crystal clear. First, there was the lack of student input regarding the choice of this year’s commencement speaker, which has caused a lot of tension among students, faculty, and administrators as a result. Henna Ayub, outgoing President of the Afghan Student Association, forwarded the petition expressing opposition to the selections process to a class president, only to be told that such a petition was too divisive and anti-administration to be sent out. “It’s disappointing that our student leaders feel bound to the administration and not to the student body,” Ayub said in an interview. “If they won’t even listen to us and help us pass around a simple announcement about a petition, how are they supposed to represent our views?”

There was also the administration’s refusal to allow nationally renowned artist Mel Ziegler to paint a number of the University’s columns as a way of challenging us all to think about the ideas and values our architecture symbolizes. The Arts Board was not even granted the dignity of an explanation for the proposal’s rejection. Finally, the Pep Band felt the oppressive weight of the administration’s overbearing hand when its desire to be allowed to perform at Olympic sports once again was unapologetically disregarded.

The idea of student self-governance sure sounds good in theory, though, especially when the University is trying to attract the best and brightest students to Grounds. The problem with all of this arises after students actually get here, when they realize that student self-governance is severely checked by an administration who expects its pupils, especially its student leaders, to adhere to the party line.

A 2001 draft by the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs outlines what the student experience should look like in the year 2020. The report highlights student self-governance as one of four core values. One section reads, “For [student self-governance] to be successful, students must be allowed to test their own ideas and take responsibility for the consequences.” Furthermore, “If we do not feel the tension which student self-governance creates . . . then we are resting on a pat definition instead of relying on an organic process.”

Instead of following through on this promise, however, the administration has short-changed students by preventing them from making some of the most important decisions at the University. It seems we are allowed to decide who our Student Council President is, but we are forbidden to take on the responsibility of selecting someone to address the Class of 2009 on one of the most important days of the year. We can decide what the focus of next year’s University Unity Project should be, but we are treated with disrespect when we issue a proposal for an art project meant to challenge the assumptions of tradition by transforming Grounds into a thought-provoking art exhibit. Arts Board Co-Chair Ashley Lefew put it this way: “The whole thing was just so negative. Rather than feeling like I had resources at my disposal to help me make something amazing happen, I felt like I was constantly confronting negativity and obstacles.”

If student self-governance is so abhorred by members of the University’s administration, if the thought of students taking responsibility for difficult decisions is so terrifying, then the least the University could do is to stop advertising itself as a bastion of self-government. For many students, it has only made their experience here more frustrating. The online Prospectus states, “The U.Va. tradition of student self-governance gives students a remarkable level of autonomy.” What it doesn’t state is that such autonomy only applies to minor decisions, if it really applies at all.

It is time for the administration to admit that the people who truly govern the University are those who are most removed from student life, who sit in board rooms and live on top of Carr’s Hill rather than those who sit in classrooms and live in dorms. It is time to stop force-feeding students a lie.

Amelia Meyer’s column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at a.meyer@cavalierdaily.com.

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