Want a Diverse Student Council? Well You’re Going to Have to Pay For It

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

At the time of writing, the results of the Student Council elections remain to be seen (though by the time this article goes to the web, we will know who our new StuCo representatives are). No matter what the results of the election, however, we’re happy to have seen such a politically charged election. This election saw the mobilization of an extremely dedicated group of students who sought to rectify, through active participation in the StuCo election process, a longstanding problem of Council’s: its tendency to avoid taking stands on political or otherwise contentious issues. As we noted in our last article, this round of budget cuts has inspired in Student Council a more activist stance, and we’re confident that the newly elected Council members will display an even greater willingness to function in this way.

Maybe you think we complain a lot, but we think our Student Council members do a ton for us! After all, we’re expecting a lot from them. They invest time and energy into functioning as our representatives and, you know what? We think it’s time to pay them. In fact, we should pay all our student representatives, including committee members.

Let’s begin by considering the recent discussions that have taken place around student representation in committees and Student Council. Obviously, in the interest of full representation by the student body, it is important that any student who feels capable and qualified to accept the responsibilities of serving on a committee or on Student Council have a fair shot at those positions. Obviously, elections are open and there are no institutional barriers to participation. At Swarthmore, we probably have a surplus of students qualified to handle these responsibilities. Semester after semester, however, many Council positions go uncontested, and others have only a few students competing to fill the positions. Those candidates who do fill council and committee positions, have, to a great extent, been fairly homogenous. We wonder about the feasibility of fulfilling the responsibilities of StuCo and committee positions for students attending Swarthmore on work-study, given the time demands of their mandatory jobs and elected office. If serving on Council or committees represents an undue time burden for a large percentage of the student body, what kind of representation can we really hope for?

As current StuCo Vice President Nate Erskine ’10 estimates, the average weekly time commitment for a Student Council member is about 4.5 hours per week. This varies significantly by position, however, and can reach to as many as 18-20 hours per week for Appointments Chair during the appointments process. Adding the expected work-study workload, 7.5 hours per week, we come to 12 hours per week that an average student on Student Council and in the work-study program would have to contribute outside of class from those two activities alone. When you consider the various clubs and organizations that we expect students to belong to (who elects a council member with no experience?), the number of working hours starts to pile up, to the point that an expectation that such a student could fulfill all these obligations and maintain solid academic performance is unlikely. Those 7.5 hours of work-study start to seem like an awfully difficult load to bear. While the time commitment for committee members varies as well, they face similar challenges.

On the other hand, if one’s work on Student Council or on committees were to replace the work-study component, or even be subtracted from it (i.e. working 4.5 hours on StuCo leaves 3 hours left to fulfill), the burden placed on our student representatives could be significantly lessened. It seems natural that Student Council would be counted as a job in this regard – what are these positions but service to the student body and administration? Working on Student Council is not just a resume stuffer, it’s a civic responsibility and should be treated as such. At many other institutions, Student Council positions are paid like any executive job; at American University in Washington, D.C., for example, the Student Council President received a $3,500 stipend last year for his work. While we are not proposing that large a payment, some sort of compensation seems appropriate.

The importance of ensuring the possibility of running for Student Council or standing for committees to any student capable and interested enough to serve can’t be overstated. These bodies are intended to represent the interests of the student body; how can they do so effectively if large groups of students are deterred from serving on the Council by time constraints resulting from their status as aided students? This is not to say that it is impossible for a work-study student to be a member of StuCo or a committee member, but at a certain point taking on high levels of responsibility and meeting the demands of a rigorous Swarthmore education becomes extremely difficult, even without the 7.5 mandated work hours each week. As finals approach, we can all agree that Swarthmore is strenuous enough without these significant extra demands on one’s schedule.

Students discussed the possibility of paying StuCo/committee members with Dean Campbell this semester, but we cannot, at the moment, look forward to any changes in current policy. Similarly, Student Council discussed a proposal to pay StuCo members last year, but only considered the possibility of compensation from internal student budgeting – essentially, the idea that SAC could pay Student Council. This presented some fairly clear opportunities for a conflict of interest, in that StuCo appoints the students who serve on SAC, and furthermore, that such a scenario would not make StuCo eligible to fulfill work-study requirements. Perhaps needless to say, that option was rejected.

We don’t pretend to have the answers to the many logistical questions which arise when discussing the idea of compensation for Student Council and committee members. However, since, as one Gazette commenter said, we’ve been reading too much Marx, we do know this: under Capitalism, work is valued to the extent that that work is compensated. Paying Student Council and committee members wouldn’t just make it easier for more students to seriously consider representing their peers in this way, it would make the work they do more valuable in the eyes of other students. We might even end up with something that looks like student power.

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