In recent years, undergraduate student governments around the country have become the focal point of the free expression crisis on college campuses. These governing bodies have moved away from student concerns and toward partisan politics, a dangerous combination that threatens the academic and civic mission of the American university and the student government. The focus on partisan politics has taken resources away from student concerns and alienated those on the other side of the political spectrum.
One does not need to look very far to see the incoming consequences of partisan student governance. In 2021, a group of students at the University of Connecticut was shut down by the student government after proposing a measure to adopt the Chicago Statement — a free speech policy that has set the standard in the higher education industry and has subsequently been adopted by 82 colleges and universities. Adopting the Chicago Statement is a commendable institutional effort to protect civil liberties, but ultimately it is up to students to adopt a nonpartisan form of student government to make sure all students are represented and included.
The debate over partisan politics and free expression on college campuses has been grossly misunderstood as an outcry from the right, but it is evident from cases documented by the Bipartisan Policy Center that partisanship and censorship come from all sides of the political spectrum. It is worth noting that right-wing groups have been more vocal about the free speech crisis and partisanship, but plenty of universities have disinvited left-leaning speakers and some student governments have refused to fund liberal-leaning student groups. Partisanship and censorship are manifested in other ways as well —from so-called “cancel culture” to the “heckler’s veto.” More recently, student governments have made partisan statements on political issues that are beyond the scope of any student government.
It is clear that there are institutional and cultural challenges to student governments and freedom of expression, but the cultural challenge is most alarming. This was recognized in 2014 by the University of Chicago through its adoption of the Chicago Statement and in 2018 by Claremont McKenna College, after the Board of Trustees reaffirmed its commitment to free expression by creating the Open Academy program. The Board also issued a statement that captured the current moment: Students are looking at the national political context and expecting their universities to take a side. As the nation has become more polarized, students have reflected that change on campus. Thus, the partisan form of student government is a product of its time.
A majority of college students probably prefer a partisan form of student government, even if it alienates some students, because they think that in order to be inclusive and in sync with the times, they must be political. However, the most inclusive form of student government is the one that does not take a political side and instead takes the side of students. Partisan politics do not have a place in student government because their place is in municipal governments, state legislatures and Washington, D.C.
The only politics student governments should be engaged in are university politics. Instead of making statements about an impeachment or a SCOTUS decision, student governments should be making statements about parking fees, library hours, mental health services and any other issue that affects their constituents in their role as students. If a member of the student government wants to be partisan, they should be kindly directed to the political groups on campus.
A university can reaffirm its commitment to remain nonpartisan and protect the freedom of expression, but only students can adopt a nonpartisan form of student government. The first step is already done: On paper the student government is already nonpartisan. The next step is to put into practice a culture of nonpartisanship that turns its back on the polarization of the nation and moves toward an inclusive space where all student voices are heard and represented.