Earlier this month, I met hundreds of student leaders from the Ivy League and other top universities at a leadership summit in Boston. The two-day event organized by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee encouraged us to show off.
The first few hours involved a battle of egos. We compared notes on spring fling artists and tried to decipher which school had the best social scene. While Penn reigned champion over the others, I was a little reserved when it came to discussing what our student leaders do for their constituents.
At other colleges, student government leaders take stances on everything from smoking to breast cancer. But it seemed like elected student officials across the Ivy League were a little reluctant to follow suit. Their excuses sounded a little like this:
“I’m not sure if student government should be involved in things beyond campus life.”
“Of course we’re not going to take a stance on that. This might come back to haunt me when I run for office.”
But somewhere between the Ivy towers, students think otherwise.
“Student government is a necessary force to govern and protect every student,” according to Chris Camire, a junior and the student senate chair at the University of Southern Maine.
During his term as student body president last year, Camire mobilized USM students to take part in town hall forums. Students had a chance to pose questions to a panel of staff members that represent a wide spectrum of university services. The whole event was moderated by student government leaders like Camire.
This got me thinking: why haven’t we had a grand old-fashioned town hall meeting? With rising tuition costs and dramatic changes to campus facilities — it would seem relevant and fair to host a meeting like this.
There are several reasons why Penn hasn’t seen anything like this. Part of it has to do with our sense of pride.
College senior and Undergraduate Assembly representative Erich Reimer, who transferred from Johns Hopkins University, told me a little about student government at Hopkins. “Our student government often focused primarily on school spirit and administrating student services rather than advocating for student causes to the administration,” he said.
Reimer added that Penn’s student government is “far more effective because of its division of labor and system of checks and balances between the branches.”
But is that really the case? Do students really feel that our student government has been doing the best that it can? As someone who has recently been appointed public relations director for the UA, I can honestly convey my feelings through Steve Harvey’s words from “Family Feud” — Survey says: * berp * try again.
Penn Student Government has been hit with the Ivy League Curse.
Student government leaders feel burdened by the need to uphold Penn’s prestigious reputation. The curse is then compounded by Quakers’ political aspirations. Every year, a handful of student government leaders have hopes of following the footsteps of local and national politicians who walked on Locust before them. As a result, they’re less likely to take a stance on controversial issues outside of Penn’s scope in case it jeopardizes their careers.
This theory explains why student government hasn’t told you to wear pink to support breast cancer research this month or urged you to vote in the upcoming election. It would be ludicrous to argue that these issues don’t impact the student body just as much as creating more study spaces and Penn-centric mobile apps.
So to all Ivy League student government leaders out there: stop plotting for tomorrow and start caring for your campus constituents. It’s fine to fantasize about a picture-perfect career. But if that’s going to stop you from serving your community, please pass your position to someone else.
The only way we’ll break this curse is if we give students what they really want — if we give them what they voted for.
Ernest Owens is a College junior from Chicago, Ill. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “The Ernest Opinion” appears every Friday. Toss him a tweet @MrErnestOwens.
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