Today at noon, the voting period for the University of Connecticut 2023 Joint Elections will conclude. The elections include ballot initiatives surrounding a number of issues from fee increases supporting Tier-III organizations such as The Daily Campus and the Student Union Board of Governors to constitutional referenda for student governments on multiple campuses. The main draw of elections, however, is undoubtedly student campaigns for Undergraduate Student Government, the UConn Foundation Student Director and the Student Trustee.
The UConn election season is distinguished by posters bearing well-curated slogans propagated throughout campus, as well as vigorous social media pushes to spread candidates’ names, faces and platforms to anyone who is and is not willing to listen — all for a chance to represent the student body and the many communities within.
Cultivating leadership skills is important, but a much more attractive aspect of leadership positions at UConn is the nebulous idea of “making change.” UConn hosts manifold institutional problems including rampant food insecurity; dwindling support for students who experience sexual violence; continued reliance on fossil fuels; numerous ties to a violent military-industrial complex; and a rapidly increasing cost of attendance. These issues serve as obstacles to making higher education freely available to all and harm our global impact as a university. Thus, USG and other leadership positions are sold as the most accessible avenues through which to solve these issues and advance conditions for students and workers at UConn.
But in the aftermath of the recent #SaveUConn campaign, which The Daily Campus Editorial Board has covered comprehensively, the glaring deficiencies in student advocacy done by university-sanctioned organizations such as USG have been highlighted more than in recent years. Based on candidate platforms and Daily Campus coverage of the debates between USG and Student Trustee hopefuls, it is patently clear that, pending dramatic changes to the culture of campus activism, student representatives will remain unequipped to combat tuition hikes, undermining of undergraduate and graduate student labor and underfunding of student services like SHaW Mental Health and university cultural centers and programs.
Narratives about USG candidates’ respective backgrounds and qualifications pair with vague and inoffensive rhetoric about organizing for change at UConn. Optimistic references to student “stories” and “fighting” for their constituents dot the constellation of public relations language displayed on Trustee Student Organization Support’s ballot information page. Either because they are unfamiliar with the administration’s structural rigidity or precisely because they are aware of it, few candidates offer concrete solutions for the problems that they do choose to name. No candidates identify the many real conflicts between the interest of the campus community and the administration.
A slate of candidates who rally around rhetoric as opposed to material interests — a trend common in larger-scale electoral politics — is anathema to an enthusiastic, informed and, most importantly, politically active electorate. Consequently, elected student leaders have no base or mass movement to grant political power to their demands of the administration and board of trustees, rendering them mere individuals against an institutional machine whose primary interest is maximizing revenue and attracting academic and athletic faculty through tremendous salaries — largely at the expense of students and Connecticut taxpayers.
The student body does share some responsibility to inform themselves of university politics when it comes to their interest; however, the distillation of what could be a mass, autonomous student movement against exploitation and social inequality into a single election period — as well as a number of committees constrained by the university’s financial and political limitations — obscures the potential of what we can achieve by and for students. Student leaders also have an obligation to make their specialized knowledge of university operations accessible to the unelected majority. Without this, students do not have the tools to make informed decisions about what they should advocate for — a problem illustrated well by the stranglehold on information by USG and the administration leading up to the Feb. 15 #SaveUConn rally. This applies equally to politically active students in and outside of USG.
Before a pacified student body, reupped university finance limitations are also threatening to end programs like Husky Market, which, according to The Connecticut Mirror, “is likely to be in its final year at UConn.” So long as programs like these are funded through USG, whose expenditures are all approved through the Department of Student Activities, the administration and not the students will define the scope and content of student initiatives. Grassroots student movements need strength so solutions to systemic issues like food insecurity are made permanent and accountable to those they are intended to serve.
This demands that students organize autonomously — that is, free of administrative control — in order to build and apply pressure on an institution that insists on financial exploitation. As such, organized student labor and cohesive mass movements with concrete demands offer strong alternatives to the current investments student leaders make in the administration via USG. Students who do decide to run for office need to abandon people-pleasing language that does little to inform constituents or challenge administrators and trustees responsible for undermining academic affordability, accessibility and sustainability, thereby making their “fight” a meaningful one.