Last Tuesday, the Argus reported that the WSA rejected the idea of a “student leadership stipend” put forward by Bradley Spahn ’11, citing budgetary concerns and questions of who student “leaders” were as the main reasons for abstention from the debate and for skepticism of the bill.
Now, much as I often take to the pages of this noble publication arguing that human beings act primarily in terms of their own economic interests, in this case I will have to violate my own standards and say that, despite the fact that this “Leadership stipend” would probably do wonders for my wallet, I have absolutely no interest in seeing it passed because of the unimaginably predictable squabbling which would occur should such a bill be passed.
However, before outlining my opposition, I should like to make a few things clear: unlike many of the policies which I have defamed in this column, there are valid reasons for supporting this particular policy and, should Mr. Spahn and his fellow supporters of the program solve some of the concerns presented here, there is no especial reason why the policy should not be enacted. In fact, from an economic perspective, Mr. Spahn is probably in the right, because of the fact that the incredibly engaged, active and dynamic character of Wesleyan’s political, social and activist leadership constitutes a massive positive externality which is currently enjoying no monetary price other than whatever incidental social capital individual student leaders can claim for their efforts. Moreover, given that the admissions office sells this activism and leadership as part of its marketing practices, it seems a foregone conclusion that those students who are student leaders should not be forced to forego money from the administration for providing a vital marketing service. As such, from an institutional perspective, Mr. Spahn is correct.
However, despite this argument from pure economics, there is a complicating factor that I believe the Argus article dances around but never quite addresses, and that is the fact that this is Wesleyan University, and at Wesleyan University, everything is political. This will almost inevitably throw a monkey wrench into the best-laid attempts at apolitical compensation which student groups like the WSA might undertake.
To illustrate what I mean, consider the following hypothetical situation: suppose that the leader of a fictional group called the “Wesleyan Young Stalinists” applies for student leadership subsidies. Doubtlessly, the question of whether the Wesleyan Young Stalinists have any tangible effects as a campus group will come up, but even if this question is settled, another one still remains: normatively, ought Wesleyan to give money to a group which is dedicated to the memory of a craven dictator who committed atrocities against his own people? The answer is not clear, since presumably, the WSA legislature in question is morally neutral as to the question of “student leadership.”
But, of course, the very idea that a group like the Wesleyan Young Stalinists could exist anywhere but in the twisted minds of the publishers of the Hermes probably sounds a tad alarmist (full disclosure: this author writes for the Hermes and does not mean to imply that his mind is not twisted). So, let’s take another, more realistic example. Let’s say that the leadership of the now-defunct SEWI apply to have their activism compensated by the WSA. Now, let’s add another problematic issue: the WSA is funded, like most of the university, at least in part by the return on our investments. Given this, and given that SEWI was fond of suggesting that anyone who contributes money to a particular group automatically endorses that particular group, by SEWI’s logic, doesn’t this imply that they are receiving money from not just the WSA, but from General Dynamics and Raytheon besides? And, if this is the case, doesn’t SEWI have a moral obligation, by their own standard of morality, to reject the WSA’s money? And what happens when someone does reject the WSA’s money?
Or, to use a really contentious example, suppose the Wesleyan College Republicans apply to have their leadership compensated. As the WSA is partially funded also by our tuition, wouldn’t several students object to such funding for a group whose primary objective is to oust one of the campus’ sacred cows from the White House? The answer is not clear. Of course, Spahn could suggest that, so long as the group funds both SEWI and the Wesleyan College Republicans, their moral responsibility is absolved, but this still doesn’t deal with the question of the Wesleyan Young Stalinists. What if a certain variety of leadership is arguably detrimental to the campus, or to the world? Do we still fund it, even if it is “socially irresponsible?” Really, I wonder that I’m making this point and not the Left.
But unlike the Left, who would doubtlessly try to get this proposal passed with strict ideological barriers to entry, I will instead make a very conservative suggestion: don’t pass it at all, and avoid the problems. Once we have a better idea of the consequences, reopen the debate, but let’s not cross this bridge too early, only to watch it burn.