Two years ago, I listened to some bright young juniors, then a year older than me, voice the opportunities of their new student union group, which they named the SUM. Speaking through microphones from the top of a wall, they advocated for alternate student leadership that would better satisfy the needs of the students. At the time, I thought it was humorous. Standing in the Milken quad with a heavy book bag, I couldn’t envision myself as a hard hat mine worker in need of labor representation or a czarist peasant readying for a coup d’état.
I began to see signs about the SUM posted in the bathroom and hanging near some lockers, but my understanding was incomplete. Later, I learned that the SUM was meant to implement a student voice in school rulemaking and discussions. The idea of a student union is not completely original. In fact, in 1964 and 1965 at Berkeley, a large student coalition banded together during the free speech crisis, challenging authority for the right to advocate for political and social action. Still, at a private institution it seemed awkward and unfitting to promote dissension and new student leadership.
As with many new groups, the SUM failed to do anything. Ironically, the school had no bearing in their failure. Actually, the SUM was given freedom. The SUM was able to meet, and even used the school paper and Wildcat weekly to reach a student audience. The failure of the SUM was due to the lack of any follow through from the members and an intrinsically flawed purpose.
First of all, SUM members were hypocritical in much of their criticism of student government. They often spoke about how elected leaders did not care much about their peers and were really only interested in boosting their college accomplishment sheets. Most student government members will honestly admit that an aspect of their position is for their resume, but they will also say that they genuinely enjoy holding a leadership role at their school. On the other hand, SUM members trumpeted their lack of affiliation and complete altruism in initiating their group. Nevertheless, the SUM’s undermining of student government was unnecessary because they did not address the needs of the students. Instead, it merely disbanded after some initial fervor.
Another immediate problem of the SUM was that it could not fairly represent the needs of the students. Like any other student organization, the SUM had leaders who could in no way accommodate the needs of each individual student. The SUM would really only be able to bring to the fore a few pointed issues, many of which were already being addressed by other student leaders. Among those two were cell phone and dress code reform, which were passed at the end of the year as part of a project that dated back for two years.
Students have a lot of positive energy and are often willing to commit to a cause. However, in the case of the SUM, students became caught up in a cause without forethought or follow through. They ended up offending a group of existing student leaders without making a meaningful contribution to the community. Although many of the members behind the SUM were extremely bright and exceptional academic students, their organization was not indicative of good judgment or positive leadership.
Our recent initiation of the Roar online made me think about constructive uses of freedom of speech. One of the goals of the online Roar is to provide students with a voice in their community. The Roar will allow students to express meaningful opinions and share their views how our school community can be improved. Please feel free to send in articles that reflect your voice and goals for our school. All submissions will be considered for publishing.