Towards a Real Student Union (2011)

An editorial by SDS Organizer Garrett Graham.

Published April 15 2011 in the Grassroots Gazette; the independent, student-run paper of the University of North Texas.

Graphics produced by Garrett Graham.

The University of North Texas chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) held “A Public Forum to Organize for Student Power,” in Wooten Hall Thursday (4-1-11). SDS organized the forum to educate the campus community about who really makes the important policy decisions at UNT and how those decisions are not made democratically.

More than a dozen students and campus workers came to listen to SDS member Annalisa Vargas give a presentation about the bureaucracies at UNT which hold the real decision-making power. SDS hopes to see more democracy on campus by forming an independent student union with the power to collectively bargain with the UNT administration on policy decisions.

“Basically, the president of UNT is more like a CEO than an elected official,” Vargas said. “Nobody votes for the president of UNT, and nobody votes for the Board of Regents, but they make pretty much all of the major decisions at UNT.”

The presentation focused on positions of power, such as the UNT System Board of Regents, an un-elected body of nine people appointed by the Gov. Rick Perry, as well as UNT President V. Lane Rawlins, who is also un-elected. Instead, the president of UNT is appointed by the UNT System Chancellor Lee F. Jackson who is appointed by the Board of Regents.

SDS member Will Wooten wrote an article about the UNT Board of Regents where he chronicles the business ties and professional history of the current Board of Regents who are mostly white Republican business men with the exception of one female, one black male, and one Latino male. None have a background in the education field.

“They’re mainly investment bankers and industrial capitalists with ties to things like defense contracting, factory farms, nuclear energy, corporate tax firms, and railroad commissions,” Wooten said. “Our problem with them isn’t that they’re Republicans, our problem with them is that they’re not educators, they’re not teachers and they don’t live and work on this campus. Their office is in Austin.”

Students in attendance expressed concern over having their public higher education decided by the logic of private business. Many expressed outrage over the building of an expensive new football stadium while student services and teacher benefits are in danger of being cut.

SDS contends that the UNT System Board of Regents responded to the current economic crisis, which was caused by private corporations, by shifting the financial burden onto the individual student. Their decisions have disproportionally affected lower income students at a time when the average student debt after graduation is $40,000. This has resulted in the tuition increases students are seeing now on top of the additional tuition increases approved by President V. Lane Rawlins.

A hiring-freeze at UNT is already in effect, and professors and faculty remain unsure about their job security. Meanwhile the Texas Legislature is already set to cut UNT’s budget by at least ten percent. All of these decisions take place without any effective student participation.

“The problem with student representation on this campus is that there just isn’t any at all,” Vargas said.

The mission of SDS is “to achieve democratic student, staff, and faculty self-management of all university functions,” according to the SDS constitution. We believe the current policy-making process does not live up to those standards. Therefore, the UNT chapter of SDS seeks to change an un-democratic and illegitimate hierarchy, making decisions for students, faculty and workers without their consent or participation.

SDS believes that universities are a public good, and should be academic communities for collective liberation, not factory farms for producing middle-class wage slaves.

Student Debt Cartoon by Mike Keefe (Denver Post 5/12/07)

 What About the SGA? 

The UNT Student Government Association’s (SGA) purpose is to “serve as the student connection to the university,” according to the SGA’s Web site. “We are here to serve students wants and needs.”

The SGA claims that their job is to serve as the intermediary between students and the administration. When it comes to making policy however, the SGA is very limited in what they can actually accomplish. They do not have the power to vote on policies like tuition and budget cuts, but they do have the power to put together opinion polls and referendums.

“The problem with the SGA isn’t that their anti-democratic, but their very weak democratic,” Vargas said. “They don’t have any power to actually change things at the policy level.”

Among the participants in Thursday’s forum were two SGA Senators, Laura Ulmet and Valerie Gonzalez, who is currently running for student body president with Jacob Moore as vice-president.

“It’s really a matter of who you vote for,” Gonzales said. “Depending on who’s student body president, you can actually exert a lot of pressure if you vote for someone willing to do that.”

Gonzales described her efforts along with the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML) UNT chapter to reform the zero-tolerance drug policies in the dormitories. Currently students caught with marijuana are automatically ejected from housing and become ineligible for financial aid at UNT. The penalties for illegal possession of alcohol are a far less severe “three-strikes-and-your-out” policy. Gonzalez said she sees this as an unfair double-standard.

Although many in attendance applauded her efforts, some were skeptical of how much power she would have if elected president to do anything about these policies. Students expressed concern over the lack of real decision-making power on issues that matter to them. SDS wants more than just advocacy, we want students to have real power to shape the policies that affect them.

The senators explained that the SGA had been instrumental in making positive changes on campus, such as the recent referendum on homecoming reform, passed Wednesday (3-30-11). Unless vetoed by current Student Body President Kevin Sanders, this referendum would end the practice of discrimination against non-heterosexual and gender-queer participants in the Homecoming Court. This has been seen as a major victory by the LGBTQA community.

“I think the reason that those struggles were successful had more to do with people organizing independently to pressure the SGA and demand a change,” International Socialist Organization member Liz Clinton said. “Without that, I don’t think the SGA would have done anything.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

After identifying and discussing the problem, students and faculty began to brainstorm different ideas for how to make UNT more democratic. SDS members facilitated the discussion and recorded the ideas mentioned. Some of the proposed solutions included encouraging students to get involved in local politics, especially at the city council level, and voting against Republican Gov. Rick Perry in the future.

Although most agreed, many students wanted to take a more direct approach to their problems by organizing coalitions to fight for students rights as many student organizations on campus already do. Students could also demand that certain members of the Board of Regents resign due to their questionable donations and conflicts of interest as revealed in Wooten’s previous article.

The strategy that animated the most people was the proposal to build an independent student union and to demand that the university recognize that union. This has been SDS’s plan of action, and this forum was meant to be an opportunity to see what students thought about it. Many felt that until we build real democratic institutions with real power we will continue to be taken advantage of. SDS members proposed putting together a detailed proposal for how a student union would function and then getting coalitions of student groups to sign-on to that proposal.

One of the goals listed in the SDS constitution is “to establish a new, separate organization for the democratic representation of student/faculty/staff interests on campus. This organization must have real bargaining power and be able to challenge power in the university administration in order to be legitimate. It must also meet the same standards for democratic representation that Students for a Democratic Society has set for itself.”

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