Suffrage for Student Governors

By Dvonta Richard

December 9, 2013

The Missouri General Assembly will, once again, debate if universities should have a voting student representative.

The proposed legislation, sponsored by Rep. Jill Schupp (D-88), permits the governor to appoint a voting student representative to the University of Missouri System’s Board of Curators, provided the student remains full-time during his or her term. As the conversation is being revamped for the University of Missouri, other public universities across the state could experience similar pushes.

“A voice includes a vote. My bill doesn’t require the governor to appoint a voting student member, it simply exercises an opportunity for students to have an official stance,” Schupp said.

A student lobbyist group from the University of Missouri-St. Louis drove the initial debate until Rep. Schupp picked it up and filed a bill. Students say the bylaws do not contain a clause that excludes a student from being a voting member, so they moved forward in casting votes. Schupp maintained that the university was very responsive to the “idea” of a student vote, however, when the students decided to assert their vote, there was some backlash.

This is not the first time that this topic has been addressed in the Missouri Legislature. Back in 2007, both chambers passed SB 873, which required a student representative to be appointed to student curator (voting member), but only in the event that Missouri lost a congressional district in the 2010 census. This clause ensured that only one member from each congressional district would serve on the board and still retain nine curators. Then Gov. Matt Blunt vetoed the bill; the Senate did not override his veto in the special session.

HB 573, Schupp’s sponsored bill, did not pass out of committee this past session, which has been the recurring fate of similar legislation throughout the past few years. Schupp plans to file the bill again in the upcoming session. She highlights some positives, and some negatives, of the bill.

On the positive side, a student curator would have a very eye-opening life experience by having the ability to decide on tough issues, issues that affect him or her and his or her fellow students.

“With the students as stakeholders,” she said, “they have first-hand knowledge of how the changes they vote on will impact their experiences as a student. It’s a great learning opportunity.”

Opponents posited that students would be too “inexperienced” to handle the executive decisions of hiring and firing a president and granting salary increases. It was not stated in what way these students were inexperienced to support the claim. Another negative, Schupp mentioned, was the 6-year term agreement that students would not logistically be able to accommodate. These counter arguments were in addition to those in Fmr. Gov. Blunt’s veto letter (available online).

Although the bill does not directly affect Western, President Robert Vartabedian gave his opinion on the topic, should the issue ever address Western. While he is not on either side of the issue in terms of the legislative process, he did speak in favor of a student vote.

“I, personally, have no problem with giving the student governor the right to vote. I think that not having the right to vote puts the student governor in an awkward position. He or she can openly discuss issues, but when it comes down to a vote, he or she is not part of the final decision-
making process,” he said.

Student Governor Brian Shewell posed several thought-provoking concepts of a student-curator vote, citing that he must take a neutral position on the topic.

“First of all, there is a major conflict of interest in a student vote,” he said. “Let’s say I vote against a salary increase for an instructor, and then I have that instructor in class who is aware that I am one of those who voted against his or her increase. Does that instructor have an unbiased view towards me when grading my work? Because the student curator would be required to vote on something like that.”

“Even if I [absentee] voted,” he added, “having the vote that you don’t use is counterproductive. I’m not against it personally, but it does, in fact, put the student in a very awkward position on many things, including tuition increases.”

Shewell also mentioned that though he doesn’t have a vote, the student’s voice is not excluded in the decision-making process. However, the case is more minute for Western, which is not in a chain of school’s overarched by the same administration.

“The vote is the ‘official’ stance, but the Board asks my opinion on every single issue we’re presented with. The University of Missouri System is a little different because there is one student curator representing multiple schools in different parts of the state. A student curator, whose home school might be UMSL, will not understand what or why some things work for Rolla or UMKC.”

The legislation will again be introduced to the House Standing Committee on Higher Education in the legislative session. Information following this legislation’s scheduling hearings is on the House website.