Is UConn a democracy?

A protestor at Shimer College holds a sign that reads, “No Tuition Without Representation.” Like other universities across the country, the University of Connecticut does not consider the student body when it comes to tuition costs. Courtesy of Wikimedia

For students crossing the Rubicon between high school and college life, there’s one word at the top of their minds: Autonomy. 

Eating whatever and whenever you want, keeping your space as you please, going out no matter how late — this picture of unlimited individual choice is the stuff of dreams for young people, especially those whose pre-college lives were characterized by strict routines and suburban or rural social isolation. The autonomy to make the midnight trek to Insomnia Cookies, aimlessly explore the outdoors or, if you’re less anxious than I am, experiment with different majors and career paths is sold as an integral part of college life and culture. 

Although you are afforded a fair deal of the freedom of association — the right to freely join and exit organized groups of like-minded people — and movement on a college campus with a vibrant downtown and overactive nightlife, there is an entire universe of freedoms that are actively being smuggled away from our view, and they’re without a doubt more important than your choice of which cramped dorm party to go to. At the University of Connecticut, as well as universities under capitalism as a whole, you are deliberately denied access to the decision-making processes governing social, economic and political life. As such, UConn’s perceived “community” members are subjects of a regime — yes, a regime — that rejects democracy in favor of the top-down exploitation of working class students and workers.  

Have you ever wondered why you don’t have the opportunity to inform the cost of your tuition? What about the ability to add your perspective to our school’s COVID-19 safety precautions, or the student body’s ability to create precautions against gendered and racialized harassment?  

UConn’s hierarchical structure begins at the office of the President, which oversees UConn’s various departments, from athletics to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. As advertised on UConn’s official human resources site, one of the hallmark tasks of the President is to build a “sustainable economic model for UConn,” posing the question of who determines what constitutes economic sustainability. A brief consultation of UConn’s organizational structure will ascertain that the students and families whose huge financial sacrifices sustain our school have no official representation in decisions that inform the price of tuition, housing or facility fees.  

This political structure is hugely consequential to the student body, as our most powerful complaints about prohibitive costs or lack of access to university resources play only a marginal role in steering the university that will determine our future careers and paths. Undergraduate Student Government (USG), which is a seemingly decisive kingmaker in the politics we are supposed to have access to, is merely an olive branch to students who want a greater say in how our university is administered. USG is otherwise powerless to determine the financial and political reality of UConn; USG resolutions declaring mere intent to accomplish something can only make so much progress when it comes to the affordability of education. Without the explicit consent of the Board of Trustees, University Senate, Graduate Faculty Council and more, major decisions with respect to university administration are impossible to push through.  

This structure should encourage members of the UConn community to question their role in the social life of our university — this does not simply include the leisure and recreation aspects of college, but the general ability of students and workers to steer the institution that sustains them. Only through the creation of alternative structures such as labor unions can the power of the student body be realized; otherwise, we are not represented in the decision making process at our school.  

UConn’s constituents — students, staff members and their families — lack any and all ability to influence prices, public health policies, and the student code of conduct. To address this fundamental lack of popular representation in university affairs, we need more than a town hall or a task force; rather, an independent organization of students, staff, and faculty evaluating how UConn’s tuition and policies affect marginalized members of our community is needed to begin a mere spot treatment of the classist, racialized, and ableist state of affairs at UConn, being a representative of capitalist universities around the country.  

The answer to UConn’s democratic street credentials is, for now, a negative. This is just the reality of our situation, while we are managed by a Board of Trustees including only two members of the student body among business executives, politicians and established attorneys. If our community values democratic decision-making to any extent, the future of higher education administration lies in the stewardship of students and campus workers who have an intimate understanding of the prohibitive nature of tuition; racist, sexist and ableist barriers to educational access, and the severe disconnect between student government policies and the rest of the student body.  

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