From The BCSG President's Desk: The Reality of Student Government
When I hear that phrase, I think of young people in an academic institution making choices, creating programming and forming resolutions with and on behalf of their fellow students. I think of students’ ideas brought to life; I think of clubs getting funding. I cannot be the only one who associates the words “student government” in this way.
From afar, it may look as though that is exactly what goes on inside Yeshiva University. One might be right that there was a time when student governments had a checkbook. Students had the ability to vote, elect and budget at their discretion. The students were the ones whose fees were taken, and so officials elected by the students were the ones who called the shots.
Today, the system looks completely different.
Over and in partnership with the student government is the Office of Student Life (OSL). OSL is an administrative office which works on behalf of the student experience — from holidays to clubs to trips. This is not to be confused with the Office of Torah and Spiritual Life or the office of Undergraduate Torah Studies, both of which also work with student council and OSL from time to time.
The Office of Student Life is currently comprised of four members. These four administrators are the magic and power behind what goes on in Yeshiva University — from the simple like booking a room for a movie night, to the complex like renting out American Dream amusement park. They do it all. It is them whom we must thank for all that happens in our school.
However, it is also because of this issue that it is them whom we must defer to in order to make anything happen. And by “anything,” I really mean anything.
Universities across America have been slowly creating systems that restrict the autonomy of student governments. I would like to specify that Yeshiva University is not alone in having this issue. Practically speaking, holding the hands of student leaders as they adjust to a new job and to the expected bureaucracy of an institution is a positive thing. However, it is when that hand-holding does not end that the concerns arise and the impediments develop.
Last year, I was on the Stern College Student Council as the VP of Academic Affairs. My fellow council members and I often felt that there was a lack of communication between the administration, student council and the general student body. This year, I entered as the first president of the newly created Beren Campus Student Government (BCSG) with the primary goal of bridging that gap. However, the more time I have spent on planning and overseeing ideas and events, the more I have seen firsthand where the breakdowns happen.
It is within mine and my council’s capacity to be transparent with the student body about what goes on behind closed doors. I have the unique ability to explain to people why they are being told “no,” why YU’s Marketing and Communications department won’t allow a flier or why the Values in Action Committee might not allow the Wilf councils to sponsor a Broadway show — just to name a few examples. I can help my peers so that planning and creating events is a smoother process in the future. However, the question is, why is there this process? Why are there so many hoops to jump through and approvals to receive? I would understand if an event was officially run by a department, but an event pioneered by students for students?
To be honest, I don’t have the answer. I can speculate and throw multiple departments under the bus, but as with all functional institutions, the root of any good or bad decisions is never just a single person or office.
In Fall 2023, the Broadway club was approved by both campuses' student governments but was approved administratively to only be funded on Beren. Thus, BCSG, a council whose funds belong to the constituents of Beren Campus, funds a club that serves not just the Beren Campus but both campuses. Other issues this semester included LGBTQ clubs being approved by some offices but not by others, and simply, student leaders not being allowed to book rooms for their own events. These are but a few examples of a broader problem.
Personally, when trying to organize a vigil for fallen soldiers and civilians after October 7th, I received no after no. I was told that ‘even if students in other universities can hold memorials, it is too dangerous for Yeshiva University students to do so,’ that ‘we cannot hire security for outside during this time,’ and that ‘it would be too dangerous for YU to advertise events such as this one.’ All the while, I was receiving harsh criticisms from departments asking me and my council ‘why do the students of Yeshiva University lack political action?’ ‘Why aren’t you on the streets demonstrating what you believe?’ ‘Students in other universities are showing up and creating events. This is the flagship Jewish university! If anyone should be standing up for Israel, it is our students!’
And to that I answer: We are crippled.
We are crippled by the very departments that ask us to do more and guilt us over our inaction. We are crippled because when we try and try again, sometimes being told no over and over just becomes too painful.
Despite all of this, I do not wish any readers or students to feel jaded. I know firsthand that when you jump through enough hoops, you land on your feet on the other side. The very vigil I mentioned before, AZKARA, came about through arduous efforts but was a wonderful success. Because of the university bureaucracy, there have been events where I was forced to contact multiple departments, ask for funding, negotiate and make decisions — sometimes decisions that students or administrators are not happy with. However, as president, one needs to make hard decisions in order to keep things functioning. There is no way to make everyone happy, but making these tough calls has had the silver lining of giving me experience I never would have had otherwise.
We must keep in mind that there are motives and ends toward which each department and administrator at Yeshiva University is working. There are ins and outs to this university — and any university — that the students just may never see. From accreditation to grants, much of the university’s functions are rightly outside of our hands as student leaders. But a lack of responsibility in some areas brings a lack of control in others. The machine of YU may or may not be well-oiled but either way, there is much to keep in mind when contemplating the shortfalls of student government.
As I mentioned above, there was a point when students had a lot more leeway and control. I don’t know when or why it was changed but I do know that these changes and this reality is well entrenched in the current system of the university – a university which has amazing faculty working toward creating a wonderful student experience. At the end of the day, I may just be a cog in the machine, but as my first semester as president comes to a close, I look to my second — and last — semester to keep fighting, to keep the “Student” in Student Council.
Photo Caption: President Avygayl Zucker, Vice President Rikki Kolodny and Director of Communications Gillian Herszage at the Annual American Dream Mall Chanukah Takeover
Photo Credit: Yeshiva University