UMD’s student advisory councils don’t accurately represent the student body

The administration building. (Joe Ryan/The Diamondback)

Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

The aim of any university administration, in all contexts, should be to represent the will of the students. Unfortunately, the University of Maryland does not see it this way. As can be recognized with its recent refusal to implement a pass/fail grading system, the administration sees its students as petulant children who aren’t responsible enough to act in their own self-interest. This is by no means a new phenomenon; time and time again, students have been treated more as nuisances than the essential stakeholders they are.

While this neglect is most visible in university policy, it can also be seen on a structural scale, particularly through the administration’s favorite way of dealing with students: advisory councils.

Advisory councils are prolific around this university. They’re generally composed of a small group of so-called extraordinary students who, in theory, are supposed to represent the interests of a larger cohort of students. From colleges within the university to the University System of Maryland as a whole, administrators assemble these groups to gain “student input” in the policymaking process. 

Administrators love student advisory councils, as they offer an opportunity to performatively “listen” to students without actually needing to speak to the larger constituency.

This is primarily done through the selection process used for forming these groups. Every council has its own process for selecting its members, but the one I went through felt like a job interview. I submitted an application that was reviewed by an administrator, who consulted with professors who had worked with me. Then I had an interview where I discussed my perspective on university policy. 

This process has two principal effects. First, it generally narrows those eligible for the council down to those who excel the most at the university. Councilmembers are frequently referred to as “student leaders” — they are often members of clubs and specialized programs and have performed well academically. They often have completed impressive internships or are members of the Student Government Association. By definition, these councils are only listening to the perspectives of “elite” students. 

This is an example of the entrenchment of privilege at its finest. Only those who have the free time to participate in extracurricular activities, those who have the resources to help them achieve academic success and those who may be able to afford a high-level unpaid internship are represented as the “student’s voice.” In reality, this represents a miniscule subsection of the student population and of student experiences. By creating the body in this manner, the administration only hears from those who naturally excel in school, not those who struggle. Therefore, when a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic happens, the administration isn’t really exposed to how difficult the experience is for some students.

The second effect of this process is a sense of responsibility to the administration that brought you on to the council. When you are scrutinized and hand selected by an administrator, you are likely to feel indebted to them — after all, it can feel like you just got a job. Unfortunately, this may also mean you are less likely to confront them and have uncomfortable conversations when you need to, since it feels like you’re fighting against the person who hired you. 

The process of selecting students for advisory councils is deeply flawed. When councils are formed using intense application processes run by the administration, the resulting body is not representative of the population and is less likely to call out members when they are acting against students’ interests. In no way is this legitimate accountability to the students on behalf of the administration.

These councils are in need of significant reform. First, the job-like hiring process some councils use could be done away with. Members should not be chosen because they are the best of the best. Student advisory councils should have typical students represented to gain a greater understanding of the actual experiences of the student body. If someone wants to have their voice heard, that’s qualification enough to be a responsible advisor to administration. 

In addition, these councils can’t be chosen by administration, as it creates a conflict of interest from the onset. They should be organized by the students, whether that selection be by popular referendum, the previous members of the board — although this may still yield problematic results — or some other method.

This university has made it clear that it does not truly care about students’ voices. And while reforming the student advisory boards will not comprehensively fix the issue, it’s a simple and obvious step toward accountability from the administration.

Jake Foley-Keene is a junior government and politics major. He can be reached at jakefoleykeene@gmail.com. 

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