Referendum on RUSA
Since its inception about two years ago I've been baffled as to precisely what the Rutgers University Student Assembly does here on campus. Occasionally — and sometimes just for kicks — I would ask someone from the organization what it is they do. Their face would light up. "What a wonderful question!" they must have been thinking. "At last, an opportunity to enlighten an interested constituent."
They would begin their statement quite confidently and be sure to hit all the talking points. There would invariably be some mention of representing students' voices on campus and passing resolutions to make positive changes. But this never seemed to clarify the issue for me. I'm just a layperson, I would try to explain, and it is unreasonable to expect me to understand what such abstract terms actually mean. And so they would backpedal and attempt to reconstruct what it is that RUSA does. It was no use. It seemed I was too dense.
In fact, it wasn't until the current debate about RUSA's retreat that I finally understood what the organization actually does. It's simple you see: They conjure up creative ways to waste our student funding! I can rest peacefully.
Yesterday's letter "RUSA stands united despite disagreements on retreat," coauthored by University Affairs Chair Ben West and RUSA Chair Werner Born, only reassured me of how out of touch RUSA is. I expected to hear some compelling reasons why we should no longer be upset that RUSA was spending up to $20,000 to tell ghost stories and toast marshmallows. What was published instead was a heartfelt letter, assuring us that West and Born are working out their disagreements and overcoming their differences. The student body should have no qualms, the duo exclaimed, since the balance of student government no longer hangs on their precarious relationship. We'll live another day, with or without the REXL Quads bus stop.
But seriously, the letter was a microcosm of RUSA's inability to prove its own self worth. In countering the barrage of criticism hurled its way this past week, the letter proclaimed that it will be passing not one but three resolutions. The first to open up the idea of a future retreat to public debate, the second to reenact a code of ethics in order to maintain decorum during this debate and a third to mandate community service projects by members. Born and West added this third resolution as a response to "the biggest criticism with the retreat's merits … that it is not community-service oriented." Is that really the biggest criticism? Would we be OK with up to $20,000 being squandered if it somehow involved RUSA members "painting at local schools" or helping with "gardening projects" as they suggest?
The very line of reasoning behind the resolutions is problematic. It suggests that RUSA has a romanticized image of itself. We're led to believe that any problem faced by the organization can instantly be fixed by its own internal mechanisms. A few "Whereas" and "Be it hereby resolved" statements and poof, problem solved. The above three resolutions would be unnecessary if they took the simple step of not having the retreat ever again. The very notion of opening the idea up for future debate misses the point entirely. Students have already expressed their dissatisfaction. Moreover, they are unlikely to waste their time attending meetings to remind the organization of their position a second or third time.
This idea of student apathy speaks directly to the larger issue: Only the individuals within student government actually care about student government. The barriers to entry for joining RUSA have more to do with the patience involved with acquiring a particular amount of signatures than it does with anything that makes our representatives inherently qualified. Beyond this, the turnout of campus elections is dismally low. Most authoritarian dictators have a more credible election mandate than our RUSA representatives. Even more alarming, despite the low barriers to entry students overwhelmingly opt not to participate in running for student government; elections continue to feature candidates running unopposed and seats often remain unfilled.
It follows that only the individuals who truly wish to be in student government are joining in the first place. Are these self-selecting students really the types who need a team building retreat to inspire them toward a common cause? But even more pertinent, what is this common cause, and is it essential to the point that student funds should be displaced from more productive usage in order to fund it?
Last spring RUSA passed 20 resolutions. Of these, six dealt with matters pertaining to itself. These included impeachment, election guidelines, standing rules and various internal restructuring. The remaining resolutions ranged from banning advertisements in classrooms, approving meal sign-aways and offering symbolic gestures commending the University for cutting its contract with Russell Apparel and supporting the Day of Silence rally. Let's be honest, there are middle school class councils passing more impactful resolutions.
In retrospect, the question I posed at the beginning of this article remains valid. I don't understand what RUSA does and have never heard a valid justification for why it should be funded beyond what is absolutely necessary. I've never even heard a cogent argument for its existence. Essentially it has one very meaningful purpose — to judiciously allocate funding across student groups.
Mr. Born, your letter seemed to avoid the issue. If you can't clearly articulate the purposes of this retreat, why should it even be open for discussion? Why should money that could potentially boost severely underfunded organizations be instead spent on a student government powwow? That is what your letter was supposed to address, but I'm happy for you and Mr. West, really.
Eric Knecht is a Rutgers College senior majoring in economics and history. His column, "Unfair and Unbalanced," runs on alternate Tuesdays. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.