Academic journal article College Student Journal

Increasing Student Participation in Self Governance: A Comparison of Graduate and Undergraduate Student Perceptions

Academic journal article College Student Journal

Increasing Student Participation in Self Governance: A Comparison of Graduate and Undergraduate Student Perceptions

Article excerpt

Student participation in self-governance activities has a strong historical foundation in even the earliest forms of higher education. This participation has evolved greatly to situations of students displaying real power in institutional behavior. Undergraduate and graduate students, however, view their role as institutional decision-making participants differently, often based on the idea that their expectations and purposes for enrollment differ. This case study employed a survey of students in a particular program and provided an initial profiling of some of those differences, focusing on how undergraduate and graduate students see opportunities for building more involvement.


There is a long history of student involvement in making decisions for colleges and universities, dating to the earliest beginnings of higher education and the formation of student nations at Bologna (Lucas, 1994). From those institutional beginnings, student empowerment has steadily eroded and has been reshaped by the evolution of higher education as a business-enterprise. With the notable exception of the academic freedom movement of the early-1970s, students have been assigned roles in institutional life, rather than being empowered to assume a role in decision making. Schlesinger and Baldridge (1982) particularly noted that prior to the academic freedom movement, all formal power for decision making was firmly, formally, and legally vested in boards of trustees, and that any departure from that model has been based on boards voluntarily relinquishing control and granting constituencies, such as students, access and opportunities for involvement.

Through activism, though, students get more attention, more respect, and ultimately more power. Kerr (1991) has continued to argue that students have not fully utilized the procedural power vested to them over 30 years ago. The fault has not been entirely the students, though. Schlesinger and Baldridge (1982) noted that the culture of valuing a career directedness, increasing apathy toward social causes among the general public, and increased state control of education have all eroded student participation in governance. Giroux and Myrsiades (2001) provided a forum to highlight the re-cast vision of student participation in institutional life, and they noted specifically that the high costs of college and the directedness of education to the ends of vocationalism create a class of indentured students who by necessity must focus on degree completion and use of the degree as a tool for entry into the world of work.

Student participation in institutional governance can take on many different forms and fulfill many different purposes. Participation in governance can placate the need to speak out, it can improve the level of acceptance of a decision on campus, and it can allow students the opportunity to openly challenge administrators and faculty. In a broad sense, student involvement in institutional governance provides a system of checks and balances with administrators and faculty. The extent that they are empowered through these decisions, though, is largely impacted by the extent of their participation (Kerr, 1991). The extent of student participation is derived by a number of factors, certainly including commitment to the institution, motivation for involvement, institutional culture, community expectations, and for traditional college students, issues such as parental precedent and student socialization. Class standing and enrollment in certain majors can also make a difference.

Student involvement in campus governance has evolved into two clear sets of expectations: traditional areas of student entitlement, such as in activity oversight, student organization oversight and funding, etc., and increasingly in mediating working conditions. This later set of expectations are largely tied to graduate student assistantship efforts to organize and seek representation and 'protection' in some settings through collective bargaining units. …

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