Why NYU’s Student Government Fails to Represent You
November 26, 2018
NYU’s Student Government Assembly is soon poised to vote on a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions resolution. If passed by the University Senate, the resolution would cause NYU to cut all ties with companies that work with the Israeli government, including General Electric, Caterpillar Inc. and Lockheed Martin, the latter of which is a corporate partner of the Tandon School of Engineering. As this is a fairly momentous decision for Student Government to take, one would hope that those making it were transparently elected and representative of the student body. Actually understanding how the byzantine structure of SGA works is no simple process; however, when one looks into the mechanisms, it quickly becomes clear that this structure is barely democratic and about as transparent as mud.
The first obstacle to this government being useful is that a large chunk of those claiming to represent you as students were never elected by you. Of the 79 people able to vote in the Student Government Assembly, 14 are “Senators at Large,” who are elected by the previous year’s Student Senators in a closed ballot. As such, the NYU student body does not have a say on who makes up over 17 percent of SGA, making the structure akin to an oligarchy that appoints its own members. This makes SGA’s claim to be fully representative of NYU flatly ridiculous.
Secondly, the Student Government election results are not publicly released. It is impossible, therefore, to know how many people voted for the elected senators or what the student body’s voter turnout was. With no way of knowing the details of how a candidate won an election, there is a major transparency problem. This information is crucial as it would allow us to assess whether students are actually engaged in the electoral process and to what degree those in SGA can claim to represent them.
There is also the problem that even for the positions where the representatives are elected, the amount of people they represent wildly varies. Each of NYU’s undergraduate programs gets one senator despite the fact that the populations of these programs are significantly different. For instance, the undergraduate population of the Stern School of Business is 2,705 while the undergraduate enrollment of the Silver School of Social Work is likely under 200 — estimated from the 2017 graduating class for 40 undergraduates. With this figure, an undergraduate at the Silver School of Social Work is 13.5 times more represented than an undergraduate at Stern, exemplifying the disparity in representation.
Finally, there is the issue of secret votes, which will be used to decide upon the upcoming resolution. A representative democracy works on the premise that you can keep your representative accountable by telling them what you think of their actions. Secret voting makes this completely impossible. While it is understandable that members of SGA are keen on not receiving criticism for passing resolutions that people don’t support, this measure makes it impossible for students to keep their representatives accountable. It allows members of SGA to be entirely deceitful and vote directly against their constituents’ interests with no way of anyone knowing.
It seems obvious to me that the job of SGA is to represent the interests of students, but when its membership is so unrepresentative of the student body, it is impossible for them to do this. A potential solution could be to create an online poll that all NYU students could use to vote on measures, thereby eliminating the need for representatives chosen in such a questionable way to vote on proposals. This would allow for a better picture of what sort of support the proposals have. The poll could also record the school from which each vote originated, allowing SGA to see if their proposals lacked support from a particular student body. And implementing a procedure like this one would resolve the democratic deficit and lack of transparency that characterizes our current student government.
As long as the structure of SGA remains so deeply flawed, it cannot be seen as representative of student interests. We ought to question why these people need to have the ability to vote on their own proposals, especially since they fall short of adequately representing our student body.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 26 print edition.
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Email Finlay McIntosh at [email protected]