Power to the People: Revived Campus Group Seeks Stronger Student Voice

By Mike Wilson

INDIANA, Pa. — Christian Nolan Minich, a freshman philosophy major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is a Student Government Association senator-at-large. But he says SGA has not been representing students properly.

“We don’t know what students want,” Minich said in an April 2 interview in his Whitmyre Hall dormitory.

The blame, he added, is shared.

“Some of it is apathy on the students and some is incompetence on behalf of SGA,” Minich said.

SGA has lost respect over the years and has acquired a bad reputation, according to Minich. It has few active members. And only a small fraction of students bother to cast ballots in annual online elections for positions in SGA.

“Not many people know about it,” Minich said. “Not many people care about it.”

In spring 2007, Brandan Hartland, a senior journalism major, wrote an article about voter participation in that year’s April 11-12 SGA elections online. Hartland reported that 209 ballots were cast out of IUP’s 14,000 eligible student voters, a 1 percent turnout.

Hartland’s story also reported that IUP’s voter-turnout rate suffers by comparison to sister institutions in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education’s western region. At Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, for example, 22 percent of students cast ballots in the 2007 student-government elections. At California University of Pennsylvania, 17 percent of students voted that year.

In April 2009 SGA elections for the 2009-2010 academic year, however, turnout increased.

A total of 712 students cast online ballots, according to the SGA Web site. While the latest turnout figure reflects an increase of 240 percent over the 2007 turnout, it still represents only 5 percent of the IUP’s 14,300 student electorate.

SGA soon may have an antidote to student apathy. Or it may have competition for it. The Commonwealth Association of Students, a dormant campus organization, recently regained official recognition from IUP.

In 1973, the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, the statewide faculty union, assisted in establishing CAS as a statewide student lobby.

It started with the presidents of the student government associations at the 14 schools in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. The organization was active on all 14 state campuses, according to Harvey Holtz, an IUP sociology professor and longtime faculty advisor to IUP’s CAS.

In the mid-1970s, CAS led rallies at IUP’s Flagstone Theatre to lobby for lower tuition statewide, according to an April 18, 1978, CAS news brief written by former IUP coordinator Ken Griffith.

In 1982, CAS backed Pennsylvania Democratic gubernatorial candidate Allen Ertel, who lost to Republican candidate Richard Thornburgh, according to Holtz. Once in office, Gov. Thornburgh defunded CAS at all 14 PaSSHE schools because of the organization’s political activism.

“He wasn’t going to say it was our politics,” Holtz recalled in an April 16 interview in a Keith Hall classroom. “But that was it.”

The organization officially disbanded in 1986, according to Holtz, who said his active involvement with CAS began in 1979.

On Jan. 25, 2009, Holtz sent an e-mail to his students to revive CAS. Twenty-three years had passed since the organization operated at IUP.

“It’s 2009,” Holtz wrote in the e-mail. “It’s time for a change.”

CAS is re-forming to bridge a power gap between students and administrators at IUP and at PaSSHE headquarters in Harrisburg, Holtz said.

“Students have no power,” Holtz said in a March 25 interview in his McElhaney Hall office.

A key reason then and now: student apathy.

“Students are viewed as second-class citizens by most legislators and administrators,” CAS coordinator Griffith wrote in his 1978 news brief. “Why? Because they do not vote.”

But Holtz said IUP student government is the institution that needs to wield power. He added that SGA’s relative powerlessness is not the fault of SGA or of its 2008-09 president, IUP sociology student Jessica E. Carson.

“[Carson] is a good, progressive president,” Holtz said.

But Carson can’t provide students proper representation, Holtz added.

“She’s empowered, but she’s alone,” Holtz said. “SGA needs to be tied to the students.”

Carson agreed and shared Holtz’s beliefs about students coming together. She said campus administrators do not have SGA at the top of their priorities.

“IUP’s situation is unique among its fellow PaSSHE universities in that its SGA has been stretched between the Student Cooperative Association (Co-Op) and university/administration itself,” Carson wrote in an April 7 e-mail. “The priority has not been made by the IUP administration to include the legalized student governing body/voice (SGA) within its agenda.”

Enter CAS. The revived organization would provide a structure to gather all other student organizations into a single constituency or cabinet-like group, according to Holtz. This group would not serve as a replacement for SGA. It would reinforce the voice of students.

IUP SGA senator Minich illustrated the need. In the University Senate, the body that represents all academic constituencies on the campus, faculty and students outnumber administrators, he noted. But Minich and Holtz said that the administration has been more decisive and successful because of a lack of unity between faculty and students.

“We need to join together,” Holtz said. “If we could come together, we could crush the administration.”

Holtz referred to the university’s budget as a key point of conflict between the administration and the rest of the Senate. He cited the administration’s funding of the proposed $54 million Kovalchick Conference and Athletic Complex.

“[The university] is spending money it doesn’t have,” Holtz said. “There needs to be more attention on the academic sector.”

To alter the balance of power, IUP’s CAS wants to reopen chapters at the 12 PaSSHE schools that are without them, Holtz said. Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania is the only other state school that hosts a CAS chapter.

Carson shares Holtz’s vision of CAS and SGA bringing student power back to campus.

“I hope in the coming years that the SGA as well as the CAS will be able to reestablish the student voice/power at IUP through various works such as creating a student government center, and petitioning Harrisburg,” Carson wrote.

It is uncertain how soon SGA and CAS can begin actively collaborating on campus.

“It’s up to the students,” Minich said. “It could happen easily in a couple years.”

It depends on how involved students want to be with either SGA or CAS, Minich said. CAS is drafting a constitution for the 2009-2010 academic year that will set up an organizational structure. And until then, SGA and CAS will not be working together.

Meanwhile, CAS organizing has already begun with elections of student officers for the 2009-10 academic year.

“Hopefully, it’s going to be a really great network,” Minich said. “We get CAS, we get SGA, we get things done together.”

Mike Wilson, a journalism major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is from Summerhill.


Sidebar: Fast Facts

For more information on the Commonwealth Association of Students at IUP, contact:

Harvey Holtz, Ph.D.
Department of sociology
McElhaney Hall 102K
Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Email: iamholtz@iup.edu

For more information on IUP’s Student Government Association, contact:

Alyssa Stiles
SGA President, (2009-2010)
Web: http://www.coop.iup.edu/sga/index.htm
Email: a.m.stiles@iup.edu

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