Student government officials deserve a little credit

by Hayden Wright / Beacon Staff • February 9, 2012

The editorial board of this newspaper, myself included, has held Emerson’s Student Government Association to task for repeated resignations since the beginning of the school year. From premature departures to an initial negligence to post minutes to the SGA website, a growing number of our student representatives have shirked and abandoned the duties we, the student body, charged them with. 

Despite this — and actually, in light of this — I believe members of SGA deserve a little credit. 

According to the college’s eCommon website, Emerson grants non-tuition credits to 37 student organizations. From film groups like Women in Motion to publications like the Beacon, students who meet the standards an organization sets for a whole semester are eligible to receive one credit in addition to those covered by tuition dollars. SGA is not one of those organizations. 

And it ought to be. SGA officials convene on a weekly basis in the service of our student body — allocating funds, setting an agenda, and ostensibly, delivering results. SGA advocates for particular causes on campus spend additional time meeting with their constituents, members of the administration, and one another to help advance those goals. 

Sharon Duffy, the associate dean of students and SGA advisor, explained in an email that non-tuition credits can only be granted by a faculty advisor appointed by a department chair. As SGA has no departmental affiliation, the organization exists differently than those that receive credit from departments like journalism or marketing communication. The skills and practices student government develops are most consistent with political communication, though SGA remains its own entity. 

Without a specific department to call home, Emerson’s SGA falls into a minority of collegiate student governing bodies that go uncompensated for their service. According to a survey by The American Student Government Association — a network of 1,105 student governments across the country — 71 percent of its member organizations compensate officials in some way. 

From salaries to course vouchers, the type of compensation varies by school size and whether a college is private or public. A student government representative at a large public school, for example, is more likely to receive payment of any kind than one at a small, private school. In 2010, WFTF News in Orlando reported that the president of the University of Central Florida (UCF) SGA received as much as $20,000 in a yearly salary.  

“It is a job that takes 40, I would say more than 40 hours a week of my time,” then-president Mike Kilbride told the local station. However, according to the Knight News, the UCF student newspaper, Kilbride was later impeached for an alleged misuse of $8,000 in student funds to furnish a weekend at a five-star resort.

This is an extreme example of how dangling carrots in front of opportunistic students might foster corruption. Emerson SGA President Tau Zaman said that offering credit as an incentive to pursue student government positions might court the wrong kinds of candidates. 

“There is, of course, the risk that people would run for SGA positions just to receive the credit,” the junior political communication major told me. “And we obviously wouldn’t want that.”

From my experience editing two student publications that grant non-tuition credits, I don’t see this as a problem. I’ve observed that Emerson students gravitate toward their passions and by and large commit themselves to their chosen activities. Furthermore, a student starving for a credit could just as easily pursue a campus political office as a resume booster. There are always cynical reasons to get involved. 

I’ve found that receiving academic credit goes hand-in-hand with committing to an activity. A motivation to receive compensation often indicates a motivation to do something worthy of compensation. Viewing an activity as more than just a club or volunteer project enhances a sense of professional development and academic enrichment. Non-tuition credits reinforce the feeling that there is a real-world application of the skills we learn in extracurriculars. 

Furthermore, holding representatives accountable to quantifiable standards at the risk of missing out on a non-tuition credit might be just the motivation certain officials need to fulfill their obligations. Associate Dean Duffy said that identifying those standards would be challenging. 

“I think the tricky piece could be who would be eligible for credit and what is tangibly produced in an academic exercise that could be evaluated and graded,” she wrote. 

An easy place to start, like the framework of receiving credit for a class, is attendance and completion of a semester. From there, as with any credited organization — or subjectively-graded class — a perfect formula for evaluation is always elusive. 

Whether an official’s performance can ever be measured exactly, it would behoove SGA to determine a way to receive credit where credit is due. 

Hayden Wright is a junior writing, literature, and publishing major, and the opinion editor of the Beacon. Wright can be reached at frederick_wright@emerson.edu. Follow him on Twitter @HaydenWright.