In a recent interview with the Central Circuit, Seattle Central President Paul Killpatrick said that higher education should be (among other things) “very democratic” and stressed the need for leaders to live up to their own standards of conduct.
This is a commendable sentiment which, as editor in chief of your student magazine, I repeat: higher education should be democratic—i.e. governed by students and staff—and leaders should be held to the same standards as anyone else.
Unfortunately, we live in a society with other priorities. A recent paper from Princeton and Northwestern measured almost 1,800 contemporary national policy decisions in which majority preferences disagreed with the desires of the rich and well-connected. The researchers found that, empirically, the United States is an oligarchy (a society governed by a small group of elites) since the effect of average citizens’ preferences on such policy decisions was “minuscule, near zero.”
“Duh,” you say. But here’s the thing: oligarchy and elite rule don’t only exist on the national level. Just look around you: The Stranger recently covered how attempts to hold Seattle police publicly accountable have been undermined by lobbying from the police union. And within Seattle Central, as the previous issue of the Central Circuit showed, administrative decisions about student funds and organizations are sometimes far from transparent and accountable. Lip service to democratic accountability abounds in our school, city, and country. But in practice, we are a society of rulers and ruled, of administrators and administrated.
To be clear: most elites have the best of intentions. From the President of the college to the President of the country, their goal is not to prevent democracy but to assure efficiency. To do more with less. To balance budgets, boost incomes, and build a better tomorrow. The problem is not that our leaders despise public self-determination; it’s that they value student agency less than fiscal viability. Ditto with corruption. No one wants to misappropriate funds or cover up abuses of power; it’s just that personal relationships gradually take priority over public accountability.
Apathy is the surest road to impotence. The less students participate in routine governance of this school, the harder it will be for them to demand a voice in the future. The more infrequently that people with authority are held accountable to students for their actions, the harder it will be to hold them accountable in the future.
In our previous issue, I asked whether you deserve a student newspaper. Now, I ask whether you deserve any say at all in your school. Do your priorities include living as a free citizen—as someone who cooperates rather than obeys?
Or are you just here for a better job?
Our country is in bad shape. Elites gamble with the economy while millions wallow in poverty; our government spies on us with the President’s blessing; our youth are bribed into waging foreign wars, while our veterans die in line waiting for medical care.
It’s our responsibility to fix this mess—your responsibility. And you can start right here, by taking back your school. Apply for Student Leadership boards, start a club, get involved with student government, organize a protest or sit-in or occupation—how you participate is less important than just simply participating. The future is in your hands.
Our current issue examines some aspects of local democracy and lack thereof. Josh Kelety covers administrative salaries, the purpose(s) of community colleges, and both May Day marches; Mohamed Adan examines student access to counseling and successful transfer rates, and reviews Seattle’s Town Hall; Katherine Morgan presents the upcoming Unity Fair, a student-club extravaganza; I discuss the relationship between capitalism and inequality; Caitlin Sussman lectures you on civic responsibility (rather less severely than yours truly); Diana Gener looks into the financial usage of international students, and joins Adan in coverage of the impending Metro transit cuts.