If you read my columns from last year, you could probably tell I’m not the biggest fan of our Undergraduate Student Government (USG). Generally I’ve made the argument that they don’t actually represent the student body, but rather the under 5% of it that actually votes for them. I’ve also made the argument that because USG legislation’s destination is usually the desk of an administrator, the only real powers it has are the power of suggestion and some control of public opinion. Today, we’re going to look into a time when the student government flew too close to the sun. I say “student government” and not USG because the organization in question was the Federation of Students and Service Organizations (FSSO), the direct predecessor of USG.
In the mid-1970s, the FSSO voted unanimously to hire legal counsel for the organization. In the March 16, 1976 issue of The Daily Campus, FSSO Chairman Robert Woodard explained some reasons for why this was important: “The need to interpret state statutes for FSSO along with the FSSO constitution and bylaws, to help FSSO in any contracts it might enter into with UConn or other groups, and to advise FSSO on publication laws.” In other words, the organization needed a professional eye to look at their documents. College kids are great, and can accomplish an amazing amount of work when they band together, but it is undeniable how valuable this would have been. The lawyer also could have been made available to UConn students, which would have been fair, as the $1000 dollars designated for the hire would have come out of their pockets.
Unfortunately, this is where the story gets frustrating. The biggest opponent of the idea was none other than UConn’s then-President Glenn Ferguson. Ferguson stopped the hiring, and the FSSO responded by taking the university to court. By the end of 1976, the Connecticut Attorney General’s office had thrown out any chance of the FSSO being able to hire their own counsel for the students, on the grounds that the organization was a branch of UConn, and therefore already received legal counsel from the UConn lawyer’s office. The person who ran that office was none other than John G. Hill, who said in 1975, during the controversy, “We’ll meet FSSO in court.”
It doesn’t take a legal genius to realize there’s a conflict of interest when a singular lawyer is told he is representing two clients that had literally just spent two years battling in court, especially when he is on the record referring to himself as part of one organization (the “we” obviously being UConn) during the proceedings against the other. Add to the situation that almost all of FSSO’s negotiations would be with UConn, and the stupidity of it shines through quite brightly.
Coming back to the present, it’s pretty easy to see how this still affects UConn. Even though the FSSO is long gone, its rebrand USG still operates in the same environment. And sure, things do get done, but the leash that was established with the legal precedent of this ‘70s’ lawyer dispute still enforces the rigid hierarchy that exists at this school. For as long as USG remains a UConn organization, it will have no legal way to seek outside legal help for itself, nor for the student body. Additionally, there’s no logical reason for USG to completely separate itself from UConn, as then it would lose the little authority it actually has.
In the end, what we have is a static system that promotes more of the same. Any political organization or activist group that exists in the UConn sphere of influence is allowed to do all kinds of things as long as they don’t tug too hard on UConn’s leash.
Oh, and one last thing: Right smack in the middle of the legal counsel case, on Sept. 8, 1975, The Daily Campus announced that two students would be elected to the UConn Board of Trustees, and that they would be the first students elected by the students on the board in UConn’s then 94-year history. That’s great, until you realize, if you’re keeping score, that we currently only have one student seat on the Board of Trustees. So there you have it, not only has the UConn administration worked actively to suppress student power on campus throughout history, but the trend of progress is not in our favor.