In a school with over 15,900 undergraduate students, the Undergraduate Student Government senate meetings are shockingly empty. The weekly meetings are where the senate discusses and votes on everything from club budget applications to print quotas. One would think that how USG spends the Student Activity Fee would be of serious concern to all enrolled students, but no one ever comes.
“I do not feel it’s a useful way to spend my time,” said David Harary, a sophomore music major. “If something is important it will be written up by the university or a newspaper or become a topic of conversation.”
All USG officials are required to hold office hours every week where students can come in and discuss their concerns with senators or members of the executive council. No one ever goes.
“It’s really a bummer because I think I can be a really good resource for students who want their concerns to be addressed with the rest of USG,” said Sophia Marsh, vice president of communications, of the lack of students coming to address problems.
Though Harary did vote in the elections last spring, he was in the minority. Only about 1,750 students voted, making up less than 10 percent of the student body, and even fewer voted in the runoff elections that followed.
“People at this school have all different types of work ethic,” said Harary. “I think that generally it is a low priority for a lot of people either because they are too busy managing school work.”
Though USG-sponsored events, such as the annual Brookfest Concert, do generate attendance, students are generally unaware of and unconcerned with what their student government is up to. This year’s USG even put out a survey to find out what students wanted out of campus events, but only received 500 responses.
“Most people don’t even know what they do,” said Zane Hopkins, a senior business major. “They just think [USG] as a once a year petition you sign for people you know.”
Hopkins did not vote in the elections last spring, but has attended several USG-funded concerts such as the Hood Internet show last week and the end-of-year Wiz Khalifa concert in May 2012.
Marsh feels that students are mostly just uninformed about how much USG actually does for the student body.
“I think that most students don’t realize that USG plays a role in almost every aspect of the campus community,” Marsh said. “I think once students start to better understand the organization and how it operates we will see a huge spike in involvement.”
Aaron Doucett, a sophomore atmospheric and oceanic sciences major, agrees that students are uninformed about USG and its purpose.
“[Students] either have absolutely no idea what USG does, or, have a limited understanding of its involvement with clubs and organizations, acting as the ‘piggy bank’ for both clubs and events on campus which they promote and fund,” Doucett said.
So far this year, Marsh and her fellow executive council members, most of whom ran as members of the Seawolves for Change Party on a platform of improved communication, have been working on having more student input.
“We’ve begun holding Town Hall meetings where students can come learn about various USG topics and directly express their opinions to officials,” Marsh said. “In addition to the meetings, we have also began circulating a Student Life survey in order to help guide the SAB in their programming decisions.”
Doucett also sees the general discontent a lot of clubs feel with the way USG operates to be another issue with the organizations relationship to the student body.
“USG is rather keen on promoting their own events, which draw a large portion of their overall budget, but don’t seem to take a strong enough interest in the clubs and organizations they fund,” he said.
Stony Brook is definitely not unique when it comes to the apathetic attitude towards student government.
“Nobody I know goes to meetings,” said Kathryn Fogarty, a junior at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. “During elections I would say we’re actively involved, but not otherwise.”
When asked about why they’re not concerned with student government, the group of students all had different reasons.
“I mean, they don’t do anything, do they?” said Christina Yakomin, a VU sophomore.
Dan Reid, a junior, agreed. “[Their actions] have no actual recourse,” he said.
Fogarty however, says her lack of interest stems from trust in her peers.
“The people involved obviously really care about the university, and so we trust them to make the appropriate decisions,” she said.
At the College of Wooster in Ohio, students don’t pay much attention to student government.
“People only vote when people are tabling and kind of yell at you when you leave meals,” said Katie Libby, a junior at Wooster. She said students are uninvolved because “they don’t do anything.”
While the lack of concern for student government is an extreme example, citizen participation in government in general is low, including on a national scale.
Albert Cover, a political science professor at Stony Brook University shared his insight on the matter.
“In general, the level of participation is fallen off over time,” he said.
However, Cover went on to explain that this trend could be viewed from two opposing viewpoints.
“The partisan gridlock has hardly helped inspire confidence that government can solve problems,” Cover said of the negative views, before going on to clarify the other side. “There are optimists who claim that apathy is a good sign, suggesting contentment overall with the system; if people were deeply involved, it would suggest a nagging dissatisfaction with government.”
Stony Brook students, however, such as Harary, believe the disinterest stems more from the feeling that their input does not really carry any weight.
“There is such a poor representation of student opinion in the elected officials because so few people vote,” Harary said. “The many regulations USG has that can make it frustrating for clubs to run properly [cause] people to lose faith and interest in the student government that is supposed to represent and help the student body it governs.”
Hopkins believes part of USG’s problem stems from poor communication with students. He feels the best way for USG to promote student input would be to advertise better.
“Hand out fliers, talk to people,” said Hopkins. “Just get the message out. Too few people know what’s really going on at USG.”
And that is almost exactly what Marsh has planned.
“Next semester we plan on releasing a periodic USG newsletter to be distributed around campus to keep students informed on new legislation, events, and other USG matters,” she said. “Even though there is still a large disconnect between USG and the student body, myself and other USG officials have been working really hard to bridge that gap.”