Why Dumb Things Happen Around Smart Students

What we can learn from the Carleton/Shinerama debacle

I don’t tend to blog on student politics. That’s Joey’s beat and I don’t have time to hunt up hard news stories. But I do have an extensive background in student politics and I maintain a strong interest in the subject. I really try hard not to be that old “student leader” who looks over everyone’s shoulders and goes on about how I used to do it better. That’s just obnoxious. But when I see things going off the rails as they did just recently in the whole CUSA/Shinerama debacle, I can’t help but think about why. So I’ll share a theory.

It’s too easy and reductive to suggest CUSA simply elected a board this year that’s stupid or ignorant. I don’t know anyone on that board but I’ve rarely met any student leader who is truly stupid or ignorant, much less twenty of them in a room together.

Sarcastically, people have been asking how university educated students could do anything so bone-headed. But that’s actually a good question. Rather than use it to imply these university students aren’t really as smart as you might expect, I’d rather assume they are pretty smart and try to answer the question from that perspective: Why do dumb things happen around smart students?

Student unions are big organizations and multi-million dollar corporations. Student media is also often quite large, as are some residence groups, athletic associations, and a variety of miscellaneous organizations that may develop into major players on campus. Students who step into leadership roles in these organizations may well not have a lot of experience doing similar things, and may be surprised at how quickly and easily they find they’ve occupied major positions. They may also lack a full sense of their real obligations – especially when they serve as directors of incorporated entities. But that’s another issue.

Despite the fact that these organizations count their membership in the thousands or tens of thousands, it typically requires only the support of a small minority to get voted into office – or hired or appointed or whatever. And over time, as organizations seem to be uninteresting or inactive or simply invisible, student participation tends to decline. Much as I might wish every student would care about their union, the fact is they don’t. As long as the union stays quiet most people won’t even notice it’s there. So participation declines, and the small minority it took to elect someone last year gets even smaller the next year.

In a small circle of opinions, all kinds of things may sound good that would never survive wider discussion. People get comfortable with their ideas and come to imagine they must be more widely held. Either that, or representative organizations lose sight of the fact that they contain thousands of members and not just the couple dozen people who are in the room.

Either way, once the circle of participants has shrunk the positions of the organization tend to become even more marginal, and divorced from the views of the majority. This contributes to a cycle of disengagement until something dramatic finally happens, that wakes people up and causes them to start paying attention again.

Now, when students do wake up and realize that there are student organizations out there doing stuff in their name and which have a big effect on their lives, there’s actually a silver lining to the problem of disengagement I just described. The active support base in these organizations is often so small that even a contained counter-movement can take control if there’s motive to do so.

In the example of CUSA, well, I’m not advocating their overthrow. But if anyone on campus wanted to offer students something better, and could harness even a portion of this pro-Shinerama energy to do so, it wouldn’t be hard to offer students new leadership.

What I think is most critical at a moment such as this is that everyone realize the essential problem isn’t this one motion. A student organization got so far out of touch with reality that something obviously wrong, on its face, wasn’t obviously wrong when it mattered. That can only happen when students have stopped participating and paying appropriate attention to their organization. The fault is widespread.

If there’s going to be a counter-movement here, I hope students will take this opportunity to expand the tent and bring as many people to the table as possible. It’s hard to do that, I know, which is why participation shrinks over time. But right now, while this issue has generated some attention, is the opportunity to remind many students how and why their participation matters. It can’t end with simply biting the heads off of the students currently elected and then everyone going back to sleep.

Well, it can end that way, but then you’ve also got to expect it’ll probably happen again pretty soon.

Force your student organizations to respond to the widest possible base of students and they can’t go far wrong. Leave them in the hands of small groups of people and you risk that they’ll begin to represent only a fringe opinion or else might simply come up with a really bad idea with no one around to point it out.

In one sense, this event is more the fault of all the students who’ve neglected to ever participate in the past, rather than the fault of those that did and simply screwed up. Hey, at least the students who are there are trying. Hopefully, participation at Carleton will swell in response, and it’ll be a long while before history repeats itself.

Questions are welcome at [email protected]. I use them for the advising content of this blog. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.