The Dearth of Democracy (aka: Why Innermost Parts exists) Part 1

Brandeis University is not structured to be a democracy, but the individuals inside believe strongly in that ethic. This contradiction produces tension and problems of Social Justice on campus.

As a private University, all power theoretically flows downwards from the Board of Trustees, but the picture is more complicated. They hire the president, he hires faculty and staff, and the admissions staff chooses students. At the same time, as consumers of the Brandeis product, students have the implicit power to boycott or complain about the product. Faculty, meanwhile, have over the years built themselves institutions and safeguards that magnify the implicit power they have as “producers of knowledge”. Low-ranked staff, such custodians, have none of these protections.

Yes, Brandeis is not a totalitarian dictatorship – as it would be quick to remind you, there is some history of students dramatically asserting their power over the ruling administration. However, the lack of a clear, agreed-upon democratic process for resolving disputes, and the (de jure and pretty much de facto) rule of the agents of the Board of Trustees leaves students and low-ranked staff with less power than they ought to have, and creates conditions for conflict every time there is disagreement.

This lack of democracy is manifested in more than just a decision-making flow chart. A large underlying challenge is the weak civil society among students. Our civil institutions are prone to being unaccountable or unreasonable, and our clubs (our standard organizational unit) are fragmented and balkanized.

Student civil society, (through a political/democratic lens), can be conceptualized as only a few large poles – the Student Union and the newspapers – with some large clubs and organizations (the different Chaplaincies, or the ICC) surrounding them. Too much power is vested in both the Student Union and the papers. I say the Student Union has too much power because it frequently squanders what it does have. The newspapers are treated by faculty and staff as representing the “authentic student voice,” and have a power to set or shape the agenda for the school through their coverage, yet they are hierarchical organizations ruled by an executive editor not chosen by their members, much less the public at large.

Student civil society consists of more than institutions – individuals must also be involved and active: staying informed and raising their voices regarding issues of concern to themselves. Many do so. Many others are content to stay apathetic, or to outsource their critical and constructive energy to the dysfunctional Student Union.

The Student Union (government) is not a monolith but a loose collection of bodies, some which run quite effectively and well. Often, the Senate is not. Year in and year out, the Senate spends excruciating hours every week debating endlessly and pointlessly. Egos clash with egos, and the possibility for constructive work is buried under power plays, procedural debates, or other factors. In my freshman year, the administration unilaterally decided to arm the private police force on campus. Many students were outraged – not only was the student body not consulted, this was a pretty poor idea on the merits. When they presented the Student Union with a meek and toothless resolution, recommending the administration to seek more student input the next time around, the Senate erupted in a debate over the relative merits of Athenian democracy, the beneficent wisdom of the administration, and the dangers of the specter of student power. The Senate wastes so much time and serves to preen so many egos that many students, after visiting once, are disgusted by the whole enterprise and want nothing to do with the Union again.

Since the Senate has bickered itself into irrelevance, power in the Union in practice is concentrated in the executive branch, and more specifically to the President and his close confidants on the (mostly unelected) Executive Board. Student Representatives to important University committees are, again, chosen by the President. The lack of elections may be worrisome, but a look at the Senate gives us a view of an outcome the election process creates.

We need a Student Union that acts like a real Union and advocates strongly for our interests. Unhappily, that isn’t happening, and the traditional media is doing little to pick up the slack, or to help reform the dysfunctional Union.





3 responses to “The Dearth of Democracy (aka: Why Innermost Parts exists) Part 1”

  1. Great post, Sahar. Were you perhaps prompted by my comment a few posts ago, where I suggested it would be interesting if the university was run as a co-op? I eagerly anticipate the reboot of IP.

  2. Your analysis of the campus’s problems is largely good.
    Your solutions are probably less so. “[B]ickering itself into irrelevance” was a hallmark of Athenian democracy, as is the tendency to degenerate into either an oligarchic clique or short-sighted mob rule. Sometimes even a short-sighted oligarchic clique, which would actually describe the Student Union fairly well.

    Certainly, students need to be more involved in decision making on campus, but the solution isn’t a more democratic process. I happen to think it’s consistent representation and a lot of streamlining. The Student Union has a lot of power over student organizations because they hold the money, which means they get to be petty tyrants and most political effort is wasted on student infighting.

    The Student Union has almost no power over the university as a whole, hence the tendency to squander what it does. As long as its decisions don’t really matter and most students don’t care about the process or the outcome, it will continue to be Pretend Government Club. The administration will continue to make the decisions, the papers will continue to lambaste one or both parties, and if the average student has any inkling of concern, it’ll be squashed by all the petty, useless politics.

  3. Art

    Very interesting, Sahar. I think your Athenian Democracy mention credits some debate. Is such a system optimal? We’d expect at an institution of higher learning, all Brandeisians be well and capable of forming their own decisions. I agree with that notion but qualify it to merely include matters of personal well being and destiny. I have no doubt you and many others, Sahar, want what is best for Brandeis. My own views are decidedly less invested in the place, but certainly I have a conception of what I believe the path that universities ought to follow is. But can we extend this to others? Many Brandeisians may make shortsighted decisions when offered the opportunity. You may ask, then, why all citizens over 18 are allowed to vote. I extend the same query-voting, right that it may be, is diluted when extended to any and all. Of course factors like race, ethnicity,etc have no place in this determination, but ideally, a name/demographic blinded essay system to “earn” this right would be great.