Except for the 100 or so people directly involved with Arizona State University's student government, Associated Students of ASU has not traditionally been a hot topic on campus. Jason Nitschke, a sophomore business major from Albuquerque, answers for most of his fellow undergrads when asked about ASASU. "I know they're there," he says. "But I don't know what they do."
What they do is spend about three quarters of a million dollars every school year in student fees to provide services back to students, some of which include a lecture series, a nighttime safety escort service on campus, a bike-repair co-op, concerts and, of course, gala homecoming festivities.
Yet the doings of student politicians are rarely, if ever, on the agenda of dorm round tables. "We usually talk about the Suns," says Nitschke. "Something more important."
Such apathy prompted one group of agitators called the Sunday Evening Society to try a wholesale system-flushing. The group attempted to fight apathy by fighting the entrenched student government. Pounding on a few currently hot themes--distrust of politics as usual, the Rock the Vote generation's bad attitude about elected officials, an alleged trend toward volunteerism among young people--it collected some 2,500 signatures in an attempt to force a referendum on ASASU's constitution.
In the old constitution's place, the Sunday Evening Society offered one of its own. This New Campus Order would remake the existing student government, chiefly by eliminating all but a handful of its many paid jobs and converting it to a volunteer-driven organization. So far, the effort to challenge the status quo has successfully been challenged by the status quo. The ASASU Supreme Court--an appointed body consisting of five ASU law students, one a former president of ASASU--ruled late last month that the petitions were worthless. The reformers, said the junior justices, should have tried to work through the system instead of trying to kill it off.
The Sunday Evening Society leaders were not discouraged. Luke Tigaris and Jim Ryan, society founders, appealed the Supreme Court's decision to the ASU administration. The administration took weeks to hand down a decision (the standing constitution is vague on the topic of palace coups), but announced Monday that the school wouldn't overrule the student Supremes. Now, Tigaris and Ryan say they're ready to appeal, first to the Arizona Board of Regents, then, if necessary, to the real-life court system.
Ironically, Tigaris and Ryan first began to foment their overhaul plans at an ASASU-sponsored event, a retreat for campus leaders last fall. Ryan, a junior elementary-education major, had run unsuccessfully for ASASU president. The campaign experience, he says, opened his eyes to the failings of the existing government. Tigaris, a junior economics major, was vice president of the Memorial Union Activities Board, an all-volunteer organization that programs events in the school's student union. His dealings with ASASU while holding that post also left a sour taste. "I really wanted to get involved with attacking the student apathy on campus," says Tigaris. "ASASU uses student apathy as an excuse all the time. 'Don't blame us for what goes on. It's because students don't care. It's not our fault that only 2 percent of people vote in the general election.'
"Well, why don't they care? Is it because they're too busy partying, or is it because they're not interested in what's going on because the student government is not doing things that are relevant?"
A valid question. About 3,000 of ASU's approximately 40,000 students turn out to vote in student-government elections, more than the 2 percent Tigaris claims, but pathetic nonetheless. Accordingly, critics have long said that the students who are elected run an insulated, cliquish club for practicing pols (many of ASASU's highest elected offices have been occupied by fraternity and sorority members). About half of ASASU's budget goes to overhead such as salaries for student officers and a full-time professional support staff, which includes an adviser and several secretaries.
Though ASASU has turned out a few notable alums (state Representative Chris Cummiskey and Phoenix City Councilmember Craig Tribken polished their political acts at ASU), it's no surprise that most students view it as a place for a few kids to build rsums, but otherwise nothing more than a fine excuse for college kids to wear neckties.
Last October, Tigaris and Ryan called together campus leaders who were equally dissatisfied with their elected neckwear models. The first meeting, in a dorm on campus, was held on a Sunday night. After a few meetings, the group--20 to 30 students, Tigaris says, though only ten or so would show for any one meeting--decided to rewrite ASASU's constitution. The idea, Ryan says, was to build "the ideal student government for the ASU campus." Nine drafts later, the group was ready to go public with its plan.
In mid-January, Tigaris and Ryan introduced their document to the ASASU student senate, made up of elected representatives from each of the university's colleges. They say they were all but hooted out of the room.
"It was just amazing the way they treated us," says Tigaris. "It became clear that this was going to be a battle royale."
Petitions were circulated, in classrooms and in public areas on campus, asking students if they wouldn't mind voting on a new constitution. Ryan says the typical reaction by potential signers was, "Change? I'll sign it." A few of the students approached by the Sunday-nistas were hostile, Ryan says, but "the overall point that was reflected was that people didn't know anything about ASASU." Within three weeks, the group got more than the 2,077 signatures needed to force an election.
Though the ASASU constitution calls for an election within three weeks of petition delivery, that deadline has come and gone. The ASASU senate protested the referendum drive on several grounds, including a couple of petition-circulating technicalities, and quickly passed the issue along for a Supreme Court slam dunk.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Tigaris and Ryan say ASU administrators assured them repeatedly that a petition drive is a valid route to reform, and now fret that their effort is running out of time. The ASASU general election for the next school year will be held shortly after students return from spring break. The Sunday Evening Society's inertia could fade. Nonetheless, the experience so far has been exhilarating, Tigaris says. "This has been a blast," Ryan adds. Others disagree. Gary Kleemann, the full-time adviser to ASASU since the late 1970s, praises Tigaris and Ryan for their efforts, but says their criticism--that ASASU is a clubby, unchanging, bureaucracy-laden dinosaur that lavishes money on itself--is off-base. "The student government is a very dynamic organization," says Kleemann. "I came here in 1979, and the changes since that time have been phenomenal. When I came here, there were 18 departments. There are 17 now, but out of those, 15 of them didn't exist in 1979. What I'm saying is, the numbers may be similar, but the kinds of things that are going on are all very, very different. It's not a static organization at all. There has been lots and lots and lots of change.
"I think Associated Students does a very efficient job of delivering services to students," he adds. "We have a very low overhead." Perhaps prompted by its critics, the ASASU executive committee voted two weeks ago to seek an independent audit of its entire operation. And whom did the student politicians turn to in their hour of self-doubt? The Office of Excellence in Government, a state program spawned by Arizona Governor J. Fife Symington III's Project SLIM. Student-body president Scott Maasen says the money for the audit--he's heard cost estimates ranging from $30,000 to $60,000--will come out of the state operating budget.
Says Tigaris: "It's laughable. State government telling student government how to be more efficient?"
Says Maasen: "I welcome working with the governor's office, because I think it's really going to give us the objective analysis that we do a pretty damn good job. I really believe that.