It would be hard to argue that the UC having better information about its constituent’s desires would be a bad thing. Without such information the UC flails in the dark. To wit, the most frustrating part of last semester’s UC resolution to support the Student Labor Action Movement’s (SLAM) living-wage campaign, was that it presumed to speak for a student body that it had yet to consult. In that vein, we certainly support UC initiatives to better ascertain the pulse of the student body. But we do so with significant caveats. The UC should tread cautiously to avoid several perils of polling.
First, there is the troubling issue of burnout. Students have already proven, in many instances, apathetic about the UC. Despite massive campaigning outside the Science Center, only about 60 percent of the student body voted in December’s presidential election, and 40 percent voted in September’s general election. To think that there would be significant turnout for frequent polls would be unrealistic, and the UC should be careful not to inundate students with solicitations.
Second, and more importantly, polling should not be used to excuse UC members from acting as leaders. That means that individual UC members should stand at the forefront of debates leading up to polls, articulating their views and informing students. Otherwise, polls risk simply aggregating the ignorance of students on most UC issues. We elect UC representatives to be both experts and representatives. While we do not want a UC out of tune with students, we would be more concerned by a student government run entirely by referenda.
Specifically, we hope, except in rare circumstances, that the UC avoids polling directly on legislative items. Doing so would allow the UC to use referenda as a crutch when it feels like avoiding particularly divisive or hairy issues. Moreover, such polling might endow a false sense of legitimacy for the UC to take stands on political issues like foreign policy, domestic policy, or janitor wages—a distraction we have repeatedly lambasted the UC in the past.
On a similar note, we hope the UC does not act on suggestions of holding a campus referendum of student confidence in University President Lawrence H. Summers. Setting aside our opposition to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ (FAS) upcoming vote, conducting a student poll would have a highly tenuous basis. The relationship between Summers and students is often ambiguous and students’ understanding of that relationship far from adequate. These problems are compounded by the fact that any phrasing of the question would have undue influence over the outcome of a binary poll. Finally, we are concerned that such a poll would only be public posturing that would not aid the crisis the University appears to be on the brink of.
We hope, instead, that when possible, the UC limits its polling to data collection for policy analysis rather than direct decision-making. The UC’s greatest recent successes—for instance the creation 24-hour library—have been backed by data mined from student polls. Such polls are also crucial if the UC is to be successful on its top advocacy priorities—which include improving social programming, lowering the price of course packs, and enhancing financial aid.
If polls are to be effective, they should be infrequent and should be yoked to massive publicity campaign. We suggest that the UC consider institutionalizing an annual or biannual poll that covers a wide swath of issues. Establishing such a tradition could be a boon to student’s sense of civic participation. If the UC concentrates its efforts of organizing forums, e-mailing house lists, and publicizing position papers to a short drum-up to such an annual event, students will be more apt to listen.
Institutionalizing UC polling could turn out to be a tremendous legacy that the current UC could leave to its successors, and we wish the UC success in this process.