I was the Vice-President of my class at Michigan State University. Thatís what I put on my resume. In truth, I was the Vice-Chairman of the MSU Freshman Class Council, the twenty-member body created to represent the freshman interest--as if there were one freshman interest--to the Associated Students of Michigan State University. The only real reason to participate in FCC or ASMSU--and letís be real here--is because after graduation, you can put it on your resume.
Collegiate student governments only have one significant power: the power to allocate funding to student groups. A single administrator or a tiny group of motivated students (I'm talking three or four) could accomplish this task a couple of weeks. How is this possible? Because most students groups ask for and receive roughly the same amount of money they received the previous school year. True, new student groups are always forming, but this is more or less offset by the breaking apart of old student groups.
All of us involved with FCC and ASMSU wanted to feel important, so we rationalized: we told ourselves that the task of allocating funds was formidable because we were dealing with more than a million dollars. We loved throwing that figure around. (The money came from a tax on tuition.) The unnecessarily complicated fund allocation process gave us something to argue about, which made us feel like real politicians, which (and hereís the sad truth of the matter) pacified us. Among other things, the student government should stand up to the Board of Regents when they get out of hand. This, though, isnít possible when all of ASMSUís time is consumed by frivolous funding issues. (The University of Michiganís student government actually spends its time doing something even more futile: debating national and international issues, and then passing resolutions saying which policies they like and dislike.)
It took a few months of student government participation for me to figure all that stuff out. When I interviewed for the FCC and ran for the position of Vice-Chairman, I campaigned on the platform that I wasnít just looking for resume fodder; I actually wanted to do something with the office, and hereís what it was: I wanted to dissolve the ridiculous Freshman Orientation program into the schoolís Welcome Week (officially: the week before classes start, when most students move into their dorms, apartments, and houses; unofficially: a week of twenty-four hour/day intoxication.) Kids fly in from across the country (which, for some people, costs a lot of money) for their Freshman Orientation. They fly in to sit through condescending presentations and fill out paperwork that could easily be done by mail. Attending the orientation program isnít required, but most students do it.
Hereís what went on during the fall 2000 orientation: I sat through three lectures about how I shouldnít do drugs. I felt like a nine-year-old. Along with these lectures, I was made to attend a motivational talk given by the MSU Alumni Director (or President, I forgot which), who encouraged/forced 200 of us to stand up and sing the MSU fight song. Singing the fight song once is great. Without musical accompaniment (and we had none), twice is overkill. Three times is really pushing it. Iím pretty sure we sang the fight song four times that night.
After the final substance abuse lecture ended, all 200 of us were quarantined in Case Hall. We werenít even allowed to take a stroll outside. (I specifically asked if I could do this. I couldn't--for insurance reasons, I was told.)
No student, student government representative, faculty member, or administrator could give me a single good reason why the Freshman Orientation lectures and paperwork couldn't be done during Welcome Week. But in practice, dissolving the former into the latter was impossible because the Freshman Orientation program provided jobs for MSU employees and students who wanted to earn some extra cash over the summer without leaving the campus. As it turns out, make-work projects are hard to halt once theyíve picked up momentum, and as far as higher education goes, the MSU Freshman Orientation program was a juggernaut.
As I said, the ASMSU had a million dollar budget, but the FCC only had a thousand. I felt this money should be put towards our effort to dissolve the Freshman Orientation program into Welcome Week, and initially, I found some support for this. But when the other FCC representatives realized just how much work, lobbying, student surveying, and antagonism the effort would require, they started to look for other ways to spend the thousand bucks. One girl suggested an "Adopt-a-Family" program, which basically amounted to showering a disadvantaged family with Christmas presents. (Was I the only one on the FCC who found the term "Adopt-a-Family" a little condescending? I mean, do fully grown adults--even if theyíre impoverished--really want to be "adopted"? I donĎt think so.) The Adopt-a-Family program is the kind of thing thatís hard to oppose once itís been put on the table. Still, I took the floor and said that while adopting a family was noble, we were appointed to the FCC to serve the Ďinterestí of the freshman class. I said that dissolving Freshman Orientation into Welcome Week did this, and that adopting a family did not. I said that weíd need the thousand bucks for our surveying and lobbying efforts. Then I was called a rude name and voted down.
The FCC spent a few hundred dollars on toys and clothes (but mostly toys), and gave them to two poor black families. By "gave them to two poor black families," I mean "gave them to two poor black families in what may have been the longest, most awkward photo-op in the history of American politics." All photo-ops are uncomfortable, but this one was brutal. Dozens and dozens of pictures were taken of white FCC members giving presents to black children, who hadnít been properly coached on how to fake like they were grateful. They wanted the gifts, sure, but they didnít want to go through the gauntlet of FCC ego to get them These kids were smart; they knew they were being exploited and that if the FCCís charitable efforts were pure of heart, we wouldnít have taken so many photos. After the fifth FCC camera appeared, I left in disgust. I wasn't trying to make a statement; I just couldn't take any more.
Halfway through the school year, the FCC grew fully exhausted of the Freshman Orientation issue, so it became a personal quest of mine. I talked with a few administrators who all told me that it was impossible. I asked every one of them, point blank, What goes on during the Freshman Orientation program that couldnít be done during Welcome Week? Like before, nobody could give me a valid answer. And like before, nobody budged. I have no future as a lobbyist.
Nothing came of my effort, and at the end of the year, I transferred to the University of Michigan. And only thing I have to show for my student government participation is resume fodder.
But Iím not fully corrupted and not fully jaded yet. I still think that itís possible to do big, important stuff. Next time, Iíll work harder. Next time, Iíll make more friends and fewer enemies. But if you ever catch me using those Adopt-a-Family photos in a future political campaign, well, thatís your cue to vote for the other candidate.