Student Government Rolls into School Year Poised, Reflective
The Gate spoke with Student Government (SG) President Jahne Brown and College Council Chair Myles Hudson to hear their plans for the upcoming academic year.
A Brief Overview of Student Government
University of Chicago’s Student Government (SG) consists of three bodies: the Executive Committee (EC), Graduate Council (GC), and College Council (CC). SG’s main administrative body is the Executive Committee, which prepares reports and proposals for the consideration of the Councils, or the Assembly as a whole if necessary. Graduate Council consists of seventeen members from UChicago’s graduate divisions, with each division having at least one representative on the council. College Council includes sixteen representatives, four from each class, plus a chair. All representatives to each council are elected by a popular vote of their constituency (for Graduate Council, graduate students, for College Council, undergraduates). Every member of the Executive Committee is elected via the same process, excluding the Graduate and College Council chairs, who are appointed by the elected representatives from among their respective ranks.
Both Graduate and College Council develop projects, plan events, and approve budgets specific to the students they represent. An example of their work is CC’s Emergency Fund, which provides modest financial assistance to marginalized students dealing with an emergency, such as an immigrant needing to renew her documentation. Equally important, however, the councils serve as the primary intermediary between students and UChicago’s administrative board, which has the ultimate authority to approve and organize major projects such as quarterly airport shuttles, and which determines the overall SG budget each year.
Beyond its three main bodies, a central way that SG effectively responds to and carries out the myriad needs of UChicago’s students is through committees. These range from the Annual Allocations Committee, which distributes more than $400,000 each year to over 200 Registered Student Organizations (RSOs), to the Committee on Campus Sustainability, whose goal is to reduce the environmental impacts of campus life. All funding committees are chaired or overseen by a member of the Executive Committee and are filled by the EC with students who have a vested interest in the issues it addresses.
Typically, funding is front and center in SG decisions. Allocations for RSOs, event programming, and student funds all fall under SG purview in one form or another.
Discussions with SG Leadership
Current SG President Jahne Brown, who was elected to the position last spring as a member of the CARE Executive Slate, is already hard at work on her top priorities, which include expanding the health and wellness resources available to students and increasing transparency within SG itself. After close work with other students, RSOs, and SG leadership, Brown carefully identified these issues as top priorities because of their potential impact, but also because of their practicality. “We picked our priorities by considering what’s most important to students, what’s most feasible for Student Government, and what will cause the most tangible change in student experience,” Brown said in her interview with the Gate.
Brown mentioned that while tuition at UChicago is a major priority for practically every student, including herself, three years of experience in SG have shown her that there is nothing the president can do in a single year to bring down the cost. Her focus is thus on making student life just a little more convenient and affordable.
“In our platform, we really stressed that Student Government should provide resources [to students and community members] and democratize helpful information,” Brown told the Gate. To follow through on these goals, SG is planning to create a new Health and Wellness Committee that will work closely with existing wellness RSOs to handle unaddressed student needs. Some projects Brown and her Executive Slate team intend for this new committee include working with local nonprofits to give out free menstrual cups, funding current student initiatives that map out mental health resources on-campus and in the city, and working with RSOs and the university’s administration to increase crisis training for students.
“This is the work I’m probably most excited about because it really encapsulates my vision for Student Government ever since I started The Emergency Fund,” Brown told the Gate. “I know from experience on The Emergency Fund and from research into other school Student Governments that it’s completely doable to give students their direct needs.”
With regard to transparency, Brown expects big changes from day one. The Executive Slate has already drafted plans for an SG listening tour, where SG members will strive to visit several major RSOs in the first weeks of fall quarter. In these meetings, SG hopes to receive feedback on their previous work, gather suggestions for new projects, and share ways to get involved with SG to as many students as possible. Additionally, Brown and her team will be expanding the role of the Secretary to include maintaining a public, online calendar of all SG events, and they’ll be taking on a full-time Director of Communications to redesign SG’s website and create public Facebook events for major meetings. For day-to-day operations, Brown told the Gate that she’s already “made a list of new bureaucratic rules for SG that aren’t as sexy [as publicity campaigns], but will make a huge impact on SG’s transparency.”
Looking to the coming year, Brown also expressed the desire to move past the “Abolish UCPD and Greek Life Slate” nickname that was given to her campaign as it launched and that, to a certain degree, still lingers. When the Maroon first interviewed the CARE slate, they didn’t yet have a platform, but were still asked about issues, like Greek life, that weren’t especially important to them. Brown places no fault on the Maroon, but said the situation was “really unfortunate because in the minds of many students we were these silly caricatures instead of extremely accomplished and experienced women with serious, complicated goals and ideas.” She hopes her work as SG president dispels any remaining misunderstandings.
Brown and her slate believe in community-based safety and feel that a strong police presence does not necessarily create safety or make all students feel safe. This year, they will release “know your rights” guides that will inform students if they ever have an encounter with UCPD. They would also like to see more transparency from UCPD, calling for a public release of their budget and training protocols. These steps will in no way change UCPD’s day-to-day operations; they merely strive to help the public learn more about the institution.
As for Greek life, Brown told the Gate that developing programming that would, for example, connect Greek life leaders with other student groups who have raised objections to the institution is not on her agenda. From her discussions with student groups such as Phoenix Survivors Alliance, she doesn’t feel that such reform would have a large impact on students’ lives.
Beyond the plans SG has for the coming year, Brown in particular is dealing with expectations put on her and her slate. She told the Gate about her experience as the first black woman in many decades (and likely ever) to hold the position of SG president:
I do think some people just don’t take [my slate] seriously . . . I have years of experience in SG and policy goals about things as specific and nuanced as childcare at SG meetings, but whenever anyone gets the chance they want to ask me . . . what I think about police or if I think police should be abolished. For some people, I think I will always be this very angry, anti-police caricature of a black woman in their mind no matter what I say or do. I am learning to take these things in stride.
Despite such perceptions, however, Brown feels that being a part of the first all-women Executive Slate has brought more positives than negatives. “A lot of underclassmen have looked up to us in a way that makes me so proud . . . we have policy goals that are fresh and original because our experiences are fresh and original,” she said.
Incoming College Council Chair Myles Hudson is geared up for the year as well. First, he hopes that CC can continue the standard of getting things done that he feels then-Chair Jahne Brown established last year. “[I hope CC will] be able to . . . perpetuate the fantastic legacy that Jahne [Brown] left with us last year in terms . . . of organizing College Council into a serious body, making sure . . . that we all have projects [we’re working] on that we can show . . . to the general public,” Hudson told the Gate in an interview.
Already, Hudson has created guides for incoming SG members that outline the functions of each SG committee and what potential projects could be best suited for each one, in addition to formally organizing CC’s administrator contacts in much greater detail than before. These actions should help jumpstart the year’s work. Hudson also hopes that CC representatives treat their position not just as an extracurricular, but “as a service role and really consider the impact that they are meant to have as elected [representatives] of the student body,” he told the Gate.
A few of the projects Hudson wants CC to tackle this year include research into how to make student mental health resources more visible to undergraduates and working with campus facilities to construct covers for UChicago UGo bus stops. He hopes projects like these will make CC more visible on campus and less of a “shadow body.”
For all their ambitions for the new year, SG’s incoming leadership also reflected on their duties and their actions’ larger consequences. In light of last year’s high-profile debate over a student’s right to use SG’s Emergency Fund to pay for an abortion—a showdown that gained national news coverage—both Brown and Hudson elaborated on how they feel UChicago’s SG, and all student governments, should engage with national political and social conversations on topics such as racism, women’s rights, or income inequality.
For Brown, SG has a responsibility to stand up for all members of its constituency, especially members of marginalized groups who are often underrepresented. “As long as the most personal aspects of marginalized communities’ lives are politicized and debated, these issues will always be relevant and important for Student Government to engage in . . . any student government that claims to have a real positive impact on the personal lives of students—must make it their mission to engage in the so-called political issues that impact many of our lives on campus profoundly,” she told the Gate.
This engagement might often take the form of a resolution, so long as it fits into a larger plan of action. For example, if SG addresses an issue with care, it can use a resolution to leverage meetings with the University’s administration. As Brown recalled of her time on College Council, “my first year, I co-authored several resolutions demanding that UChicago declare itself a Sanctuary Campus. These high profile resolutions helped me get a meeting with several deans to discuss immigration policies on campus and the resolutions were the precedent to The Emergency Fund.”
Brown also acknowledged that SG makes low-profile decisions every day that, even if they seem political, tap into larger conversations. “When we donate money to community organizations that's certainly responding to a broader political issue and when we debate about our budget and what we're prioritizing on campus that is also definitely tied up with real-world political beliefs and activism,” Brown said.
Of course, not every issue demands an opinion from SG. On resolutions, “I try to consider if adding our voice would be beneficial,” Brown told the Gate. “Sometimes it's sincerely better if Student Government would just shut up.”
Hudson, meanwhile, frames the issue of SG’s broader political engagement in terms of impact. “If the end result isn’t . . . [an] actual, tangible benefit to students on campus . . . I'm not sure what the purpose is,” he told the Gate. He cited as a counterexample CC’s 2016 resolution calling on the University to divest from ten companies the resolution’s supporters said enabled Israeli human rights violations in Palestine. Hudson didn’t see a concrete on-campus benefit to adding CC’s opinion to the crowd of other voices calling for divestment nationwide. To Hudson, that situation stands in contrast to last spring’s abortion showdown, which merely happened to coincide with a national debate over reproductive rights, and which involved funding that could “actually impact students on campus, and only students on campus,” Hudson said.
With a keen sense of their responsibilities as student representatives and with clear ideas for the future, Brown and Hudson are ready for a busy year in Student Government.
Fourth-year CC rep. Sam Joyce was also interviewed for this article and contributed supplementary information.
Chase Gardner is the University Section Editor for the Gate. The image featured in this article is the official logo of the University’s Student Government, with permission granted by Student Government. The original image was designed by Michelle Yang.
Chase Gardner is a fourth-year Environmental and Urban Studies major and Statistics minor. On campus, Chase helps research climate change's impacts on agriculture and runs for the varsity Cross Country and Track teams. In free moments, he enjoys reading, walking, crosswords, and playing the guitar.