Duke Student Government has recently concluded two successful advocacy campaigns, convincing the administration to repeal the statute of limitations for sexual misconduct and expand the size of the future LGBT center. DSG, though sometimes derided for its ineffectiveness, has proven that it is capable of identifying issues that matter to students and crafting efficacious campaigns to pursue them.
Effective leaders played a central role in ensuring the success of these campaigns. They were able to facilitate collaboration among various organizations, marshal research and heighten the visibility of the issues, approaching administrators with well-formulated demands and strong arguments. Instead of relying simply on student pressure, they appealed to the cost-benefit analysis that administrators often defer to and convinced them that adopting DSG’s proposals would best serve the interests of the University.
Given the importance of strong leaders in the recent policy changes, there is a risk that, once these leaders move on, DSG will become less effective. In order to mitigate against this possibility, DSG should work to collect and institutionalize the knowledge it has gained from its recent successes so that, once its current leaders have graduated, a new generation of student activists is equipped with tools and techniques that have been tried and tested. Each new batch of student leaders should not be forced to start fresh.
The perennial, and seemingly intractable, problem with activism on college campuses is that students only have four years to pursue an issue. These short college careers, studded with long summers, significantly limit the efficacy of student advocacy. This means that effective communication across generations, along with diligent recording and preservation of acquired knowledge, is crucial in ensuring that student advocacy can build on itself over time.
DSG has also revealed that the most effective advocacy originates with students. What distinguishes the recent DSG successes from past campaigns is that the issues did not originate in the senate chamber but in student organizations and conversations on campus. DSG, when it trades toothless resolutions for meaningful advocacy, can accomplish a lot, and we hope that DSG will continue to actively seek out issues that resonate with students and work with them to lobby administrators. DSG should view itself as an organization whose primary duty is to identify issues that students find meaningful and facilitate interactions between student groups and administrators to address those issues.
The success of the statue of limitations and LGBT center campaigns not only points to DSG’s latent power, but also illustrates the administration’s amenability to proposals that are well-crafted and deftly articulated. Many students incorrectly perceive that the administration clings to beliefs about campus culture that fundamentally differ from those of students. This is rarely the case. Administrators often have the same desires and goals as students, but are wary of change either because they feel it affords the University no identifiable benefit or exposes it to unnecessary risks. Administrators are concerned with rules and liability, not with quashing student freedom. Campaigns that understand this, and craft their proposals accordingly, meet with the greatest success.
We applaud DSG’s accomplishments and hope they will achieve equal success in future campaigns.
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