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Brandeis is not a model democracy

By Matthew Kowalyk

Section: Opinions

September 8, 2017

Brandeis isn’t the model of inclusive and effective governance we think we want it to be. Our university claims to have social justice embedded in its doctrine. We want a united campus spirit celebrating differing opinions.
Brandeis’ students should want to create a community that is truly inclusive, active and dangerous in a good way. Our community is good and does good in ways that should not be downplayed: We have a campus culture of activism, since its foundation as an example of inclusion contrary to the practices of the Ivy League in the 1930s and 40s. That ethic continues through the Civil Rights movement in the 60s, resistance to Apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, the myriad interest groups and clubs we have, and is always present in Waltham Group. This ethic has been present for most of its (relatively short) history, only beaten out in recent rankings by five other schools in the US. That is nothing at all to shake a stick at.
However, when it comes to our own community, we fall short. When you review participation in campus elections, for example, our participation only breaks with the national average in class president elections, the ones that require speeches and minor controversies among candidates that some mistake to be evidence of the periphery of larger political conflicts in our country. In short, they are the elections with the most personality.
The smaller elections, which take place in the winter, spring and fall tell a different story. Many fewer votes are cast among the minority who remember to check their emails. For example, take my own election. I ran my campaign for Class Senator from a laptop while I travelled on my abroad program last spring, and was elected with fewer than 100 votes to represent the 800+ member senior class that, when I was a first-year in 2014, was called at convocation “the largest class Brandeis has ever had.” Worse, the two senators representing the Class of 2018, my friend and I, ran unopposed.
What makes the situation with our student representation seem more undemocratic is the fact that most people who run are from a group of around 100-200 people who have been active in Student Events, with the Union for a long time, who are heads of other clubs, or who work in campus journalism. It is almost as if Brandeis has its own political or cultural elite.
It is natural for such things to arise in any organized society. Societies form hierarchies of power and admiration, and I do not think it is an elitist thought to believe that we should have the most active and informed people in charge of our tuition and to represent our interests to Brandeis board members and administration.
Despite the good it does with many good people heading it, our Student Union does not have the power that similar organizations have at other schools. From such large schools as Penn State to smaller ones like the College of Wooster, their Student Union-equivalent organizations make much more consequential decisions, sometimes involving the construction of new buildings and actual policy pertaining to campus operations.
What keeps young people from making mistakes in these cases is the large amount of faculty support they receive in decision-making. Often faculty or administration members will advise decisions. Their hands are somewhat guided by their advisors, but the students make the final votes.
Does Brandeis have a student body ready to elect the best and most qualified among its classmates to make such big decisions with the school’s endowment? I could sympathize with an administration that would want to keep a student government’s powers limited.
So what can be done to bring more students into the fold? I believe that a more active student body working to better the life of its fellow members in a tangible way on campus would be a great way to create an example system for its students to create once they leave for the real world. It would help create bonds that would form important professional contacts and fulfilling friendships. It could give students agency in a world where so many people feel that they do not. Of course, there would be a steep learning curve to achieve this, but it is not impossible. It is true that one has to start with a vision, but the attainment of that vision by individual action is what matters most.

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