The evolution of UI student government

By Gillian Dunlop, Staff Writer

Student government at the University has taken many forms since 1870 with the founding of the Illinois Industrial University College government.

The University began to admit women three years after its founding. Although it is uncertain if there was any discrimination against women joining student government, the first female graduate with a degree in architecture is believed to have participated in student government sometime between 1874-1878, according to the School of Architecture.

It was also not until 1948 that the student body elected its first African-American president, Clarence Ford. Since then, there have only been a handful of African-American presidents, but the student government has tried to increase diversity in the executive board and among senators.

Each assembly has tried to launch certain initiatives, the focus of student government over the last 10 years has been on diversity and inclusion. But one issue that has historically plagued the student government with problems is lack of student participation.

“Students need to participate. The students who are elected need to go to meetings and read all the documents and outreach to know what’s important to other students,” Rhonda Kirts, student government adviser, said.

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    However, student government was not always unpopular. Although its unpopularity cannot be pinpointed to one reason, it may have to do with the national political climate.

    “A lot of times student government gets a negative light shone on it, and I feel like actually humanizing government and showing that we’re students too and we’re here working for you really goes a long way,” Jake Ritthamel, student government historian and sophomore in LAS, said.

    Kirts, who was student body president at the University from 1985-1986, remembers a time when students were quite interested in the student government.

    “When I was a student here, government was popular. Ronald Reagan was president, the Berlin Wall was about to collapse,” she said. “Right now, people are sort of frustrated with government. You’ve seen this whole political change occur, because people feel their government is not productive.”

    It may also be that students do not see their own government as productive.

    “A lot of times people feel as those we aren’t doing meaningful action and we’re here just as a figure since there’s also UC-Senate,” Ritthamel said. “It gives people the perception that we’re not doing anything and we’re just holding events, which is not the case at all.”

    The student government began its first It’s On Us campaign last year, where they had pledge drives and also promoted resources for sexual assault survivors. Kirts said that she encouraged the government to jump on It’s On Us even though they were reluctant at first.

    The It’s On Us campaign wound up being so successful that the student government received national recognition when former vice president Joe Biden visited campus.

    The current student government president Ron Lewis made diversity and inclusion his platform when running for office last year.

    “Ron has made it a very big point that we need to reach out to other organizations and it’s not something that’s been done before,” Ritthamel said. “You go and look through the minutes of any exec meeting or any general meeting and we always talk about how can we make (something) more inclusive.”

    With the implementation of the new constitution this year, the Illinois Student Senate became the Illinois Student Government.

    Although the new student government is still getting its footing, Ritthamel is confident it will continue to diversify and include as many people on campus as possible.

    “It’s a matter of realizing what resources are there for us and realizing that we can work with so many different groups on campus to make this campus more inclusive,” he said.

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