Friday, June 5, 2009

BYU's Dirty Politics

That title might get me in trouble, but something afoul is afoot at BYU and people need to talk about it.  BYU and the city of Provo are making it increasingly difficult for students to have any real voice in their community.  Students and those who care about students should be up in arms at the latest developments in this saga.  

Yesterday the Daily Universe (BYU's campus newspaper) ran a series of articles focused on student involvement in the political process of Provo, Utah (the city where Brigham Young University is located).  It is, in my opinion, the best journalism I've seen the Daily Universe do in the 6 years I have been here on campus.  For some good reading check out any of the following articles 
The article regarding the failed attempt to put a student on the city council is particularly telling.  I'll address a few comments made in the paper below.  In general, the comments made by Nathan Ward, the assistant director of Student Leadership at BYU are vague, non-descript, and appear to be attempts to make the university look good without committing to any meaningful change.

"We declined to participate when it became clear that it was an inconsistent way to choose a good representation of the community"
What does that even mean?  What was inconsistent about the "way" this student representative was going to be chosen.  When were BYU students consulted about this?  And, why is a full-time administrator speaking for the BYU Student Association?  Shouldn't we be hearing from an actual student? (On a side note, this another indication that BYU's student leaders don't have any meaningful involvement in actual decisions impacting the students they represent--this isn't the student leaders fault, it's bad leadership on the part of those leading them).  

"One reason for concern about the idea of a BYU Provo City community representative was that BYU's and Provo City's interests are sometimes not identical."
Are you kidding?  Of course BYU and Provo city's interests are different.  This statement actually strengthens the argument that student's should be represented on the council--none of the other members of the council have similar interests or a desire to ensure that student interests are addressed.  Additionally, this statement is full of bad logic.  The whole idea of a democratic process is to allow for a diversity of interests and views to be represented and addressed.  If the discrepancy between BYU & Provo City's interests precludes students from sitting on the council, then, applying the same logic, anyone that doesn't fit the mold of the typical Provo resident should not be represented either.  Non-LDS Hispanics, Single-Mom's, non-BYU attending college aged-students--you're all out of luck.  If your interests don't align with the oligarchy holding positions in city or university leadership, then you don't have a voice.

"We applaud the efforts of students to engage in the civic process."
Really?  That seems very disingenous given the fact that BYU has done very little to allow students to have a meaningful role in the civic and political process here in Provo.  Yes, students can vote, but as illustrated by the first article I reference, the student voting bloc has been split so many ways that it would be virtually impossible for students to have a meaningful voice in the political process.  What BYU really means when they encourage students to be "civically engaged" is to provide the city with free service (tutoring in local schools, bolstering the economy by shopping at local stores and eating in local restaurants), put on a pretty face so BYU looks like a "well-kempt" campus, and vote in the BYUSA election.  I don't doubt that there are some very sincere individuals in the campus administration that want students to be involved, but let's put our money where our mouth is and actually go to bat with students.  Are we using buzz words like "civically engaged" because we mean it or because it looks good in newspaper articles?

"We've tried to communicate with BYU, and this is where it has gotten us."  
This was a comment by current council chair Cynthia Dayton.  It may be the dumbest thing I've heard this month.  Dayton was referring to the city's current struggles in developing parking guidelines for the area south of BYU campus (commonly referred to as the "Joaquin neighborhood").  Apparently Dayton believes that being on the city council does not include addressing significant issues.  This issue of parking has been an issue for years but the city and university ignored it until students made enough noise that it had to be addressed.  Being a political representative means dealing with hard things, having hard conversations, and working hard to make the city a better place to live for all citizens, not just those over 30 with families and full-time jobs.  Heaven forbid Cynthia actually make a difference.

BYU students should be outraged at this.  Provo wants them to serve, spend, and look pretty.  But, from the look and sound of things, they don't want students to be involved in any meaningful ways.  Likewise, BYU wants to prepare students to "go forth to serve," but they aren't willing to do much to provide authentic opportunities for students to be involved in the political process.  

Sad, very sad.  Thanks Daily Universe for doing a great job of bringing these issues to light.



gary said...

I think your description of the situation is absolutely correct. I wonder about its cause though. Why is it that BYU and Provo are loathe to work things out in public, or event to try to build the civic skills of the community? Why is it that people who tend to consider politics important (we love the Founders after all, and the GOP) fear involvement in local politics?

I expect that if change comes it will be from outside the system. Visit the Provo Farmers' Market on Saturdays. Lots of BYU students there re-making the community by producing, selling, and buying local goods. A new view of how BYU students ought to engage with the community, and one created without official university or city sponsorship...

Unknown said...

That's an interesting take. I haven't ever been to the Farmer's market--I'll have to check it out.

My hunch is that it is a specific type of student that would be involved in things like local markets--upperclassmen, living off campus, with a particular interest in a return to more sustainable local communities. But, I might be way off.

That type of student also seems like they might be in the minority among college-aged students in Provo. My question then is how we engage the rest of the student population.

What I would love to see is for local involvement and civic engagement to become part of the culture or ethos of BYU. But, I get the sense that University administration fears those sorts of things because they don't want BYU to be perceived as a boat rocker.