Practicing Democracy to Help Govern our SchoolsPosted: December 12, 2011
By Caitlyn Leiter-Mason
On the last weekend before classes ended, I wasn’t in the library studying or out celebrating before finals began. Instead, I was interviewing candidates for Maryland’s student regent position as part of the University System of Maryland (USM) Student Council.
When I was first appointed to the council, I had no idea what my role would be. But after a year of involvement in student government at UMBC , where students act as partners with the administration in creating change on campus, I was intrigued by participating in shared governance on a larger scale.
The University System of Maryland consists of 12 public universities in the state. We’re led by the Board of Regents and our Chancellor, Brit Kirwan. The system is also advised by four councils: the Councils of University System Presidents, Faculty, and Staff, as well as the USM Student Council.
We meet monthly to deliberate the higher education issues that Maryland faces, covering everything from the role of regional centers to a proposed merger between two schools, to parental leave for graduate assistants to budget and tuition issues. We discuss our institutions’ concerns and share new ideas and initiatives. When the annual Joint Council meeting occurs, student members meet with their staff and faculty counterparts to discuss higher education issues. We present our ideas and findings to the chancellor, right alongside the professors and staff.
Our council also has another important task: selecting student candidates to be considered for a full-voting position on the Board of Regents. No other council has such a representative. But the students do, and we take the responsibility of helping the chancellor and governor pick someone to represent every student in the university system very seriously. We ask questions about their previous experience, how they would balance the sometimes conflicting interests of students and the system administration, and what new ideas they would bring to the system. We then carefully evaluate how each of the candidates would represent us.
Being a part of the student council has taught me a lot about our university system, the schools within it, the politics of higher education, and the way that shared governance works on a state level. I’ve also learned that the decisions and recommendations we make aren’t our only, or even most important, contribution. We’re actively practicing democracy, not just to gain experience, but to help govern our schools.
I’ve also learned that civic engagement isn’t just about going into an outside community and making a difference. Civic engagement is also about taking ownership of the places where we are now. It’s about stepping up to participate in leadership within those places and making sure our voices are heard. As students we have an important perspective and it’s time for us to embrace civic engagement to create change in our university and campus communities.
Caitlyn Leiter-Mason is a Sondheim Public Affair Scholar, studying gender and women’s studies and political science at UMBC. She is passionate about student governance, civic engagement, feminism, mangoes, and service-learning.