National Student Association: Old Criticisms Take New Turn

The National Student Association has come in for a good deal of criticism in recent years, from a variety of sources and for a number of reasons. Critics ranging from Indiana Young Americans for Freedom to Smith College student government presidents have accused the Association of being "unrepresentative" of American students. In recent months the charge of unrepresentativeness has taken on a new meaning. Understanding this change is important to understanding the past and present problems of the Association.

At the time of the so-called "conservative revival" in national student politics, in 1961, "unrepresentative" meant "further left than most American students." Both the Young Republicans and YAF charged that resolutions passed by the NSA Congresses were too liberal to be an accurate reflection of student opinion. Since the NSA Congress in the summer of 1961 the student right has proposed a series of reforms in the administrative and procedural structure of the Association. At the same time it has fought vigorously for the conservative positions on the floor of the Congress. The clear intention of the right has been to change both the manner in which resolutions are passed and the resolutions themselves. Their concern has been to further the accurate representation of student opinion--which they deem to be conservative.

MARC J. ROBERTS '64 is chairman of the National Executive Committee of NSA. His views in this article are strictly his own and do not necessarily represent those of the CRIMSON.

New Criticisms

Today much of the antagonism toward NSA no longer comes from those who disagree with the politics of its resolutions. Many now object to the Association simply on the grounds that it takes stands on "political issues" in the first place. "Unrepresentative" has come more and more to mean takes positions on issues on which students "have no opinions" or even "...should have no opinions." This trend is only a change in emphasis. Both views have been advanced regularly in the past, and no doubt will be expressed at the Congress this summer. And both criticisms need to be understood and answered.


The older criticisms of NSA--that the structure of the Association made opinion unsure--were to an extent valid. The structure of the Association through which a given school, or individual is represented is complex and often chaotic.

The 400 member student governments have three kinds of links to NSA as a whole: regional structures, the annual Congress, and national elections. The eleven-day National Congress each summer, is where elections take place, and resolutions are written. As such, the Congress has been the focus of a good many of the older criticisms of NSA's "representativeness."

Delegates to the summer Congress form the legislative body of NSA. Each member school sends a certain number of voting delegates according to its enrollment (up to seven). Each student government is left free to select delegates as it sees fit. Clearly there are many instances when the students have little control over the eventual make-up of their school's delegation. Structurally at least, it would seem that NSA is fatally unrepresentative.

One apparent solution to the problem that delegates are often not directly responsible to the students of a member school is to have delegates chosen in campus-wide elections. This plan has been pushed recently by both the right and the left within the Association.

Yet there are many different kinds of schools which are members of NSA. It is debatable whether a hard and fast rule demanding direct election would bring about better representation in such a variety of situations; not to mention the overwhelming problems it might create on a few campuses. The current resolution "strongly urging" direct election seems to be as far as the Association should go in this direction.

The precept underlying much of what happens at NSA Congresses is that debate and discussion are worthwhile ends in themselves. The theory has been that it is a good idea for future citizens of a democracy to become concerned with the larger problems of their society. This perspective developed gradually during the 15 years NSA has been in existence, and has only become fully conscious in recent years. The hope of those who introduced "politics" into NSA was that by bringing students of widely-differing opinions together, the easy answers of the traditional wisdom would come under critical examination. NSA insisted that although it took positions, it was "non-partisan" in an important way. The point was not to discredit any particular political view-point. It was rather to encourage students to think for themselves in a systematic way about the goals and methods of politics.

NSA's success in pursuing its noble aims has been less than its leaders hoped for. But in light of these aims it is clear that the passing of resolutions at the Congresses is not primarily intended to merely record, as accurately as possible, student opinion on various issues.

Purpose of Resolutions

Resolutions have a dual function. First they serve as a stimulus to debate at the Congress and throughout the year. Second, they indicate to the national and regional staffs the areas with which students are most concerned. These staffs then set up conferences and programs on topics of current interest. Often resolutions contain a mandate to the national staff for a particular program: a conference on the aims of education or circulation of the film, Operation Abolition.

To be valuable for these educational purposes Congress resolutions do not have to be simply a reflection of the thinking of the students at member schools. Where most students have only a dim consciousness of an important issue, let alone an opinion, to be "representative" is meaningless. Yet a resolution on such an issue is warranted as the first step in helping to end such indifference.