I’m not a fan of student government. As someone who has always been interested in politics, I’ve looked into participating at various times since elementary school. I served on my third grade class council and really can’t recall doing much of anything. While there is certainly a large degree of difference between that and Duke Student Government, I don’t think much has changed. The idea of student government is nice but equates to nothing more than pats on the back in practice. Far from being representative of the interests of the students, DSG is a bastion of a select group of individuals that is able to convince a very small segment of the undergraduate population to vote for them. Sometimes they don’t even need to be elected. Appointed candidates are a common occurrence because not enough people even care to run. Last year, our big presidential DSG election had a paltry turnout of 33 percent. Not much of a mandate there. That’s even worse than the turnout for the 2012 presidential election, which sat at a meager 58 percent. I can excuse those figures, though. It’s hard to get excited about student government when what they do has so little of an impact on our lives. The tagline for The Chronicle’s DSG Series column is “we're relevant, we promise.” Most likely, if you’re trying to convince somebody that you are relevant, you probably aren’t.
One major way, though, in which DSG does exercise some power and relevancy is through the allocation of funding for student events. That’s why I find it particularly disturbing that attempts have been made by our “elected” officials to silence and misrepresent policy that actually deserves some attention on this campus. I’m speaking of The 40 Percent Plan, which proposes giving students a greater share of the choice for where their money goes. Under their plan, students would determine where 40 percent of their activities fee is allocated. While the exact percentage may need some work, it’s a sound starting point. Currently, students have zero say in how a mandatory student activities fee is utilized, unless they are one of the unelected members of the Students Organization Finance Committee—in which case they get to decide which groups do and do not receive funding in a series of deliberations that occur obscured from public view. An unelected committee of students is currently in charge of a budget of over $667,000 in nearly complete secrecy. This is beyond ridiculous. Our peer institutions like Harvard, Yale and Stanford allow their students to waive the activities fee if they find it offensive. The progressive policy proposed by The 40 Percent Plan would allow students to drive the amount of funding received by university clubs while still providing a cushion that is larger than Harvard’s entire budget for student affairs.
Complaints have been raised about the impact that this may have on minority groups, yet these claims do not stand up to close scrutiny. In fact, it is far more conceivable that The 40 Percent Plan would benefit small and new groups who lack the established connections and means to connect with the finance committee. The SOFC is a bureaucracy that has to be navigated, and, while it’s smaller than many, it still poses a disadvantage to groups without institutional connection. By allowing their members to designate a proportion of their activities fee to the organization, each group would be guaranteed a steady stream of income regardless of the whims of various committees. The 40 Percent Plan would allow groups to prove their own viability rather than having their survival dictated by a random and unelected committee. Smalls clubs would benefit from The 40 Percent Plan as it would give them greater control over their financial resources and ensure them a basic operational budget. Furthermore The 40 Percent Plan website has a very persuasive response to the small group objection, and I encourage anyone not satisfied with this response to read it.
DSG might not like The 40 Percent Plan because it places limits on their ability to control student funding, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea. The student body deserves to have a say in where money that is spent in our name goes. There are instances in which more choice is a bad thing, but this isn’t one of those times. We pay the fee, and we should have a role in deciding how it is spent. It’s a powerful but simple concept that will positively impact student life on this campus. We shouldn’t shirk away from the chance to allow Duke students to make decisions for themselves. We are a community of incredibly bright and talented people whose individual intuition of our own needs is, I suspect, more accurate than a bloated bureaucracy’s. I urge everyone reading to sign the petition.
Colin Scott is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Wednesday.