Protecting student rights

With the new year came a new constitution for the Student Government Association. The goal of the new constitution is “to protect and promote the rights of Northern Kentucky University students (and) to democratically represent the student body and its opinions to the institution,” according to the SGA constitution.

But what can students do if they feel their rights are not being protected or they are not being represented properly? One answer to this question is found in Article VIII of the Constitution. It is entitled “Student Initiative, Referendum, and Recall.” The article gives students the right to act outside SGA by proposing or repealing acts, amending the SGA Constitution or removing a member of SGA.

Professor Bruce McClure says that this gives students a lot of power.

“What you’re doing is making a public statement on what your populace wishes to occur. It is basically a request to the Board of Regents in the form of popular vote.”

McClure goes on to explain that it is “a democratic process that gives us an opinion, as students, to the Board of Regents who take that into consideration.”

So when would you have to hassle with the article in- stead of allowing SGA to act in their advisory role?

“There might be times that SGA is out of touch with the students and that is when you would use (it),” Dr. Fred Rhynhart said.

One example of SGA possibly being outside of the popular opinion is the recently discussed smoking ban resolution before SGA. The resolution proposes to the Board of Regents (BOR) that NKU become a completely smoke-free campus. Recent articles published by The Northerner have generated arguments from both sides, and it is clear that there is a rift between students on the matter.

Many students have offered alternatives to the campus going smoke-free — such as fines for smoking outside the designated areas or erecting enclosed structures for smokers. However great these ideas may be, they are only comments on a Web site until the students — smokers and non-smokers — voice their opinions to the SGA.

Steve Meier, associate to the dean of students, reminds students that SGA meetings are open-session and if they have any issues with legislation or any legislation they want to present that is the time for students to come and voice their opinions. Few, if any, students are present at any regular SGA meeting.

Although SGA makes decisions in the name of the student body, there is room for any student to discuss concerns. So why aren’t students showing up to speak up at the meetings?

Rhynhart says that “you (NKU) have student disinterest in student government.”

Dr. Shauna Reilly brings the impact of disinterest home when she said that if students are not involved in their government, things will “happen to you, not with you.”

Without a strong independent student voice present at the SGA meetings, the smoking ban and other resolutions that cause rifts in the student body are likely to pass. If students attend, particularly a large number of students, and voice their opinions, SGA will have to reconsider passing the resolutions. When all else fails, however, students still have the option to act on their own behalf through direct democracy under Article VIII of the Constitution.

The process is fairly straight forward. Students must first have three percent of the cur- rent student body sign a petition on the issue. It is then submitted to the appropriate authority and placed before a vote of the student body. If the issue wins a majority vote, it must be approved the Vice President of Student Affairs, President of the University and the BOR.

The largest hurdle in this process is getting three percent of students to sign the petition. Just as a reference point for how many signatures that would entail, NKU had an enrollment of 15,109 students in fall 2008. That means 454 students would have to sign a petition on a specific issue for it to be considered.

“Three percent of the cur- rent student body; that’s rather a tall order,” said McClure. “Not unreasonable in some circumstance and if an issue or a repeal or an amendment were honestly something that the students cared about…If this is an issue that touches the interest of the students, getting three percent of the student body would not be unheard of.”

If the entire process passes all of the injunctions set up along the way, McClure notes that “in the final analysis it all boils down to one thing, that’s the Board of Regents.”

If students still feel that a matter has not been given due consideration by the BOR, McClure admits that there is little students can do. McClure shares insight as to why the buck stops at the BOR.

“The student body is a beating heart of the university. And if you think with your heart and you add in politics that has a bottom financial line, you may make the wrong step, so something has to be the brain. So in this example we have delegated to the state the right to establish the brain of the body.”

He goes on to explain that “university settings are not typically democracies but the students’ voice is necessary and what prototype can you use — the American democracy…that’s why it’s [the referendum process] somewhat a tempest in a tea pot, it’s a voice of opinion. We have a democratic process that gives us an opinion, as students, to the Board of Regents who take that into consideration, and they do.”

Even though this process can be construed as a “tempest-in-a-teapot,” the same can be said of SGA. The only real power the entire student body or SGA has is to make recommendations to administrators as to what they want done. But when an issue touches the student body as much as the “smoking ban resolution” has — it is worth students’ time to voice opinions to SGA, the BOR at their meetings and if necessary, begin a student initiative.

Story by Vern Hockney