Dining. Skateboarding. Alcohol on campus.
These issues come up nearly every year, but the ability of Associated Students, Inc. (ASI) officials to carry out the demands of students doesn’t get any easier. And when push comes to shove, candidates’ promises to carry out what students want can be difficult to deliver.
“The key is when someone’s running for office, not to promise the world,” said Butch Oxendine, the executive director of the American Student Government Association. “They ultimately don’t have authority, and they’ll look stupid. And ultimately, they’ll lie.”
At Cal Poly, the middle ground between what students want and what ASI can do lies in a concept called “shared governance.” Because of this doctrine, the voice of the students is at least represented in all high-level discussions through ASI representatives.
Oxendine, who is a former student body president and editor-in-chief of two campus publications, said students often make the mistake of using stories from individual students to demonstrate what an entire student body wants.
This strategy, Oxendine said, has little persuasive power.
“If I were a university president, to your face I’m going to be, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea. Thank you for sharing that,’” Oxendine said. “Behind the scenes I’m saying, ‘They have not done their homework. I want proof. I want data.’”
Instead of using anecdotes to prove a point, statistically valid surveys and studies are more effective at convincing administrators to reconsider or change campus rules, Oxendine said.
These surveys often have predictable results. For example, nearly 90 percent of students voted to stay on quarters in a campus advisory vote held by ASI in 2013. But having that backing can lead to more concrete actions, such as official resolutions and advisory documents that can help hold administrators accountable to what students want.
If student governments conduct surveys to back up their claims, Oxendine said, “then they’ll find out that it’s something students really want or are demanding. Then they have a right to speak.”
This reality is something newly elected student government officials might not understand, civil engineering junior and ASI presidential candidate Connor Paquin said.
Paquin, the only candidate for president who’s won an ASI election before, said it’s easy for enthusiastic student representatives to take on issues that might not be in student government’s jurisdiction during the beginning of their terms. Doing this blindly doesn’t guarantee results.
“We come in thinking we have the avenue to really voice our concerns and make changes early and fast,” Paquin said. “But the way the university is set up, ASI doesn’t actually have power over those types of things.”
Instead, representatives sit on committees, which formalize the process of getting information to administrators.
ASI’s website lists 35 committees that students serve on. Some of the most widely recognized are:
- Campus Dining Advisory Committee
- Campus Fee Advisory Committee
- Student Success Fee Allocation Advisory Committee
- Sustainability Advisory Committee
Committees such as the Student Success Fee Allocation Advisory Committee have a majority of students, while others, such as the Substances Use and Abuse Advisory Committee, have as few as one student representative.
The committees with the most students on them are:
- Student Success Fee Allocation Advisory Committee (7)
- Instructionally Related Activities Advisory Committee (4)
- Campus Fee Advisory Committee (4)
- Athletics Governing Board (4)
On several university committees, however, Cal Poly employees outnumber students. The power of the student representatives comes not from a majority voting bloc on these committees, but from the representatives’ ability to effectively argue the students’ position to administrators.
“If you don’t sit on that committee, it’s harder for you to voice your concerns,” Paquin said.
Paquin said during his time in ASI, he’s seen Cal Poly administrators put forward a genuine effort to listen to student input on these committees.
It’s not always the same, he said, at other universities.
But even at Cal Poly, student representatives have to make an effort to make their voices heard. Pushing for what students want can be a difficult task when they so often have less knowledge than administrators about campus issues.
“They (administrators) say, ‘Oh, there’s a reason students are thinking that way, and it’s because there’s information they don’t have access to,’” Paquin said. “And when that happens, things just die.”