By JOHN HENRY
The concept of a student union is not original to Colorado College. The organizational structure takes after the namesake unions that catalyzed the labor movements in the U.S. and across the world. By and large, student unions exist wherever universities do. The UK mandates that a student union exist at every university. In India there is a National Students Union that has existed since 1971 and is an offshoot of the India National Congress party. Across the U.S., student unions have formed to give voice to the attending students. CC is poised to join this rank of national and international student unions should student organizers succeed.
“Best case scenario what it could be would be like a crossroads for people with a lot of different interests and opinions and issues that they care about,” said one of the organizing members of the newly forming student union. The organizers of the student union are not named in this article because they do not want to be singled out, out of respect for the horizontal nature of the organization.
On Thursday, Nov. 9 in upstairs Worner, a variety of students responded to anonymous posters put up around campus advertising the student union. The posters advertised the meeting and compared equity at CC to the practices of peer institutions. One poster compared CC to Vassar College, another private liberal arts college that’s located just north of New York City.
Vassar is a similarly sized school with a more diverse student body and more available financial aid, but that’s largely because their endowment is much higher. Still, students attending the meeting explored the ways that CC could change with what it has and even proposed that the school can become a model for equity in higher education.
“There’s a big precedent to be set in higher ed especially… and in that respect if we could be a model for making things better and making higher ed work better, that’d be great. If we could be a model for student being involved in social movements or demonstrations or whatever, that’s great,” said an organizer.
Organizers of the meeting are concerned students, working to bring together dissenting opinions that might not be apparent to everyone at the College. “I think there are a lot of people who don’t know why anyone would be mad about anything that’s happening here,” said one member.
Issues at the meeting ran the gamut from increasing student input for the upcoming renegotiation of the Bon Appétit contract to changing housing policies, questioning Sodexo’s role in the private prison industry, and moving college investments away from fossil fuels among many others.
Many of the issues seem huge in scale, and some had been addressed before, even if they weren’t rectified. Students that attended the meeting don’t necessarily have ready answers for how to fix the issues at hand, but the idea is that via collective action, the organization can become a powerful advocate for student concerns.
The organization is focused on campus equity and is thus not expressly political, but members acknowledge that certain actions will be political regardless. “I don’t think that we exist in a bubble… we don’t because we are an institution of incredible financial power and that money…goes to things that are not socially equitable,” remarked another organizing member.
Student unions can be powerful tools to amplify student concerns because they have the added benefit of working with greater autonomy than existing student groups. A union has more capacity than existing student advocacy groups to exercise the ability to use protest tactics like letter writing campaigns, sit-ins, marches, and boycotts. The center of such an organization however, is not action, but horizontally structured community.
Potential members would share administrative responsibilities so that nobody has any real official of power that takes precedence over other roles. The group, while still fledgling, hopes to meet often enough to build a community rooted in equity at CC. The organization is just getting started and already there seems to be a swelling of interest.
Colorado College Student Government Association (CCSGA) is the official organization on campus responsible for relaying student concerns to the administration. The student body elects representatives to have a working relationship with officials of the College, including the President and Board of Trustees.
Representatives engage in nuanced dialogue and leverage their relationships in the effort to effect lasting change. Their approach naturally differs greatly from what a student union could achieve. “Our conversations can be contentious and can lead to compromise sometimes and can lead to leaving in disagreement, but our conversations can’t lead to a state of never talking to that person again.” said Vice President of Student Life Ethan Greenberg ’20 .
Some students view CCSGA as slow and unmoving, with little more than a series of progressive campaign promises, but much of this perception comes down to a lack of knowledge. Most students on campus don’t know what projects CCSGA is working on, and even fewer know that all Full Council meetings are open to the public in the Yalich boardroom of Spencer Center.
Yet, the blockages in the interface between CCSGA and the student body can be attributed to both parties. CCSGA could do a better job of reaching out to the student body, and students in return could seek out information and engage with their elected representatives, yet an air of distrust weakens that potential relationship. Oftentimes students fail to recognize that CCSGA representatives are students themselves.
“My subjectivity is formed not only as Student Body President, but as a student who’s on full financial aid, and as a queer student and as a student of color… I see inequity in a lot of places, and I’m not going to deny that, but I’m here for a reason, I’m doing this job for a reason,” remarked Student Body President Dorsa Djalilzadeh.
And as any faculty member on campus will attest when asked, the student body has enormous sway over the direction of the College—perhaps the largest voice outside of officials themselves. The problem of creating change at CC is only partially because of an unresponsive administration; the far bigger problem is the inability to communicate discontent in a powerful and organized way.
If organization of a student union at CC succeeds, it could provide a space for collective action harnessing the power of the student body. The group could take considerably more radical approaches than possible in CCSGA. “Maybe we can hit one pressure point, and a student group can hit another pressure point,” says Djalilzadeh. However, the future of the student union and how it will interact with the administration, CCSGA, and student body remains to be seen.