For anyone who follows national politics, there is no shortage of scandals and harrowing economic figures to buttress the opinion that our leadership is corrupt and incompetent. My own pessimism about government, however, is born of experience. I was foolish once and young; I even believed in The System. That was before I spent time in student government, a corner of campus life that is directly responsible for accelerating the degradation of our broader political culture. If, as P. J. O’Rourke once quipped, giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys, then giving actual money and power to teenage boys (and girls) is as predictably disastrous as you would imagine.
Before I explain what happened during this spring’s campaign for student government at the University of Oregon, my alma mater, know that there are good reasons why you should care. The student government president who emerged from the tragicomic thunderdome I’m about to describe now presides over a $15 million budget that runs 413 pages, with almost zero professional oversight or legal accountability. That’s more than many municipal budgets in the United States. The UO is located in Eugene, which has a population of 157,000. The annual budget for the city’s Department of Public Works is around $6 million, and for fire and EMS services $25 million. If such financial stakes seem absurdly high for a student government, they’re not atypical for a major public university—and the cost of student government, like the cost of everything else in higher education, is exploding.
As a former journalism major who cut his teeth reporting on the UO student government—the Associated Students of the University of Oregon (ASUO)—before briefly being elected to a position with it, I am qualified, if not exactly eager, to revisit this topic. Like most other forms of government malfeasance, corruption in student government is perpetuated by the fact it is largely opaque even to those who are victimized by it. Your typical college student government is riven with Judean People’s Front vs. People’s Front of Judea factionalism, and to understand it requires a superhuman tolerance for politically correct posturing and a willingness to decipher reams of inscrutable bylaws. But if you really want to fathom how broken America’s political culture is and why higher education costs so much, it’s necessary to consider the microcosm of student government corruption.
Three undergraduates ran for president of the ASUO this spring, and the controversy centers on two of them. Ben Bowman was the former opinion editor of the campus’s influential Oregon Daily Emerald, president of the College Democrats, and president of his fraternity—your basic Big Man on Campus. Thomas Tullis was a freshman affiliated with the Oregon Commentator, a libertarian and right-leaning student magazine that has historically combined irreverent lampoon-style humor and investigative journalism into university affairs.
On March 12, Bowman and two of his supporters, Marshall Kosloff and student senator Alex Titus, met with Tullis in his dorm room. A 70-minute audio recording of the conversation that transpired there—presumably made secretly and leaked to the Emerald by Tullis—revealed that Bowman and his associates had threatened to blacklist Tullis from both Greek life and student politics unless he dropped out of the race. They went so far as threatening to have the charter of Tullis’s fraternity revoked and to keep Tullis’s girlfriend from pledging the Gamma Phi Beta sorority. Bowman was also heard promising to use his connections to have negative articles written about Tullis at the Emerald. Those were the highlights, but most of the conversation was taken up with arguments about esoteric matters of student government. “Throughout the conversation there are multiple references to third parties not present in the room,” notes the Emerald’s summary of the recording. “Masturbation is used as a metaphor to illustrate the impact those third parties have on the ASUO process.”
Tullis submitted a transcript of the recording when he filed a complaint with the ASUO elections board, and on March 20, the board voted to disqualify Bowman and his running mate from the ballot. Bowman appealed, and his appeal was denied by the student Constitution Court on March 30. On April 3, however, the university administration intervened and overruled the student government’s decisions. Bowman would be on the ballot, and the student government election would be delayed one week, from April 7 to April 14. The president of the student government elections board resigned in protest, and by April 5, all five members of the board had resigned and the student government was threatening to shut down.