Publication: College Student Affairs Journal
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 36168
ISSN: 0888210X
Journal code: CSAJ

Historians contend student self-governance in higher education in the United States has been a reality since the 1700s (Coates & Coates, 1985; Cohen, 1998; Klopf, 1960). However, few people understand and appreciate its history and evolution. Moreover, the genesis of student self-governance is often disputed. Some historians and practitioners say student self-governance had its start at the College of William and Mary, others argue that it began at the University of Virginia, while many other institutions have claimed that student selfgovernment was founded on their campuses (Klopf, 1960). While the location of the origin of student self-governance is debated, it has survived and evolved as an integral element of higher education in the United States.

This article will explore the history and evolution of student governance in higher education in the United States. For the sake of clarity, Freidson and Shuchman's (1955) definition of student self-governance as "a type of organization which by virtue of its composition and constitution is entitled to represent the student community as a whole" (p. 6) will be employed. It should be noted that the evolution of student self-governance has not been seamless. The stages of student self-governance are not independent, but interrelated by time, institution and organization. Student self-governance has evolved from literary societies to honor systems to student assemblies to class councils to student councils to, ultimately, student associations. This article will treat each of these groups separately because they each have a unique history and story to tell, and each has had its own impact on the evolution of student selfgovernance. However, this article will also show that many of these groups existed simultaneously and are interconnected.


The origins of student self-governance arise out of a combination of the need for extracurricular outlets, disengagement with the academic curriculum, dissatisfaction with institutional rules and disciplinary procedures, and a desire for student empowerment. Colleges in the Colonial period and the eighteenth century were quite distinct from colleges today. The student population at each institution was small, often numbering less than one hundred students per campus (Rudolph, 1990). In addition, the student population was, in general, restricted to upper-class white males (Cohen, 1998; Horowitz, 1987). Also, colleges for the most part did not possess the financial and personnel resources needed to adequately support the academic and social needs of the student populations (Coulter, 1979). Furthermore, the curriculum focused on classical education; elective and professional courses of studies were not available (Rudolph, 1990). The instructional method was composed of recitation and lectures with little student engagement. Also, there were no extracurricular activities as would be defined today such as athletics, clubs and other recreational outlets (Boyer, 1987; Cohen, 1998; Horowitz 1987).

Students in the 1700s, 1800s, and 1900s were dissatisfied by the lack of power and control they had over their own lives. There were few freedoms and many rules for students who had litde to no autonomy during this period. Nearly every aspect of their lives was strictly controlled and monitored by the faculty and the college administration (Caple, 1998; Crane, 1969). The culture of higher education at the time supported the belief that college students were a subservient class that did not possess the same rights and power as the instructors or even other citizens (Katz, 1968). Coulter (1979) writes that officials at the University of Georgia did not consider students during the late 1700s and early 1800s as possessing inherent rights or privileges and felt that students "had no rights that need be respected, in fact they were not supposed to be important enough to have rights" (pp. 47-48). These frustrations revealed themselves in the student revolts and rebellions during the late 1700s and early 1800s when students attacked instructors, burned buildings, and protested their treatment as a subservient class (Jackson, 2000).

As with students of any era, these young people sought ways to express themselves, to find something to fill their time, and to empower themselves and become engaged in their campus environments. The remedy for the frustrations pertaining to a narrow curriculum, limited instructional methodology, lack of institutional resources, and no extracurricular activities was the establishment of the first model of student self-governance - literary societies (Coates & Coates, 1985; Horowitz, 1987; Otten, 1970).

Literary Societies

Literary societies were established by students to channel their institutional frustrations; however, there is some question about where the first literary societies were created. Some authors argue that they were first started at Harvard in the early 1700s, while other authors contend that the first literary societies were formed at Yale in the mid- 1700s (Harding, 1971; Kelley, 1974). Placing this discrepancy aside, literary societies shaped the lives of not only the students, but also the institutions themselves. During the 1700s and 1800s, colleges did not possess the resources of personnel, finances or programs to provide for the needs of their student population (Coates & Coates, 1985; Harding, 1971; Seeley, 1871). Literary societies enabled students to become engaged educationally and socially. These societies had significant and lasting influence on the universities by opening the institutions' first libraries, initiating an honor system, and providing a voice for the students (Harding, 1971). In light of their effects on not only the student bodies, but also entire institutions, literary societies prospered and were pervasive throughout higher education in the 1700s and 1800s (Seeley, 1871). literary societies were integral to higher education in the United States because they filled a vacuum left by the inadequate resources of the college while satisfying the needs of students.

In addition to creating social and educational outlets for students and providing resources, literary societies also initiated an element of student self-governance. Literary societies were established by students; therefore, students empowered themselves to take ownership of their collegiate Uves (Handlin and Handlin, 1970). In many cases, institutions recognized the efforts of the students and relinquished, to varying degrees, authority and responsibility to students for selfgoverning issues (Crane, 1969; Harding, 1971). Literary societies were selfregulated entities outside the jurisdiction of faculty, allowing for the first steps towards self-governance (Eller, 1949).

Literary societies were the focal point for co-curricular resources and extracurricular activities for 100 years; however, as higher education evolved and became more complex, diverse and established, literary societies outlived their usefulness. Literary societies began to decline in the 1830s as the institutions' offerings expanded, and the number and type of social outlets increased to include athletics, fraternities, clubs, and specialized organizations (Coates & Coates, 1985; Harding, 1971). Administrative regulations and policies became more Uberai and lenient, as well (Rudolph, 1990). Literary societies lost influence and eventuaUy died out as these improvements did away with many of the principal grounds for their estabUshment (EUer, 1949; Otten, 1970).

Honor Systems

Literary societies did not resolve all of the students' contentions regarding their higher education experience. Students were frustrated with the lack of authority over their own lives. To garner favor of the faculty and to gain jurisdiction over their lives and actions, students sought to create student-led honor systems. While informal in origin during the late 1700s and early 1800s, these student-led honor systems became formalized through written honor codes and established honor councils and tribunals (Falvey, 1952; Horowitz, 1987). Often, the honor systems and councils emerged from the actions of the early literary societies (Albright, 1931). It was through these self-regulated honor systems that students were able to take control of their institutions' judicial and disciplinary processes (Godson et al, 1993; Otten 1970). Over time, students were successful in their efforts to create codes of behavior and to hold themselves accountable to those standards; consequently, institutions withdrew their objections and allowed students to oversee their own lives. Harris and Dyer (2006) contend, "This student self-regulation is clearly a precursor to student involvement in campus judicial matters, setting the groundwork for the student government that arose in their wake" (pp. 34-35). Throughout the 1800s, the role and influence of honor councils and honor systems grew. By the 1900s, honor systems had become an integral part of student self-governance and have continued to evolve and adapt to the ever-changing higher education environment ever since.

Student Assemblies

An added avenue of engagement and self-governance beyond literary societies and honor systems emerged during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: the student assembly. Throughout this period, the entire student body of each institution often gathered together in scheduled assemblies to discuss and vote on matters of concern. The small number of students on each campus made it easy to gather students together with the purpose of addressing issues or imparting information. Generally, these assemblies were considered to be the governing body of the student population (Somers 2003).

By the early 1900s, the governing structure of the student population evolved as higher education institutions were growing in size and complexity. Campuses no longer comprised small, intimate numbers of homogeneous students; campus populations were growing more diversified by gender, socioeconomic status, etc. (Otten, 1970). In addition, students were no longer required to study a fixed classical curriculum instead they were able to study a number of subjects and professional fields, as well as participate in a multitude of co-curricular and extracurricular activities (Coulter, 1979). Institutions began to subdivide or categorize students by their class rank rather than their level of academic proficiency. Students also began associating themselves by their class status as a means of categorizing themselves, and students reveled in the camaraderie that came along with this association (Horowitz, 1987; Otten, 1970). Consequently, the role and importance of the student assemblies declined, became merely a formaUty, and were used for informational purposes. Student self-governance then evolved from unwieldy mass assembUes to a more representative form of governance: the class council (Somers, 2003).

Class Councils

With larger and more diversified campuses, students sought ways to label or classify each other. With larger student populations, it was no longer easy to know everyone on campus, so students became more familiar and developed close associations with the peers with whom they enrolled. Students became organized by their class associations, and as a result class councils were estabUshed in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Each class created a class council wherein they elected officers to represent their needs and serve as activityscheduUng agents (Otten, 1970). The class officers governed their respective classes by monitoring their fellow students and handüng honor and discipline infractions, as well as making recommendations and requests to their institutional administrations (Somers, 2003).

However, the reign of the class councils was short-Uved, from about 1875 to 1925. The continual evolution of higher education, as well as the growing number and diversity of students enrolling in college, lead to significant changes in both the academic and extracurricular Uves of students, including the decline in influence of class councils (Cohen, 1998; Otten, 1970). With the growth of extracurricular activities, students were less Ukely to identify themselves by their class status and were more Ukely to identify themselves by their club, Greek affiUation, team memberships, or residential status (Otten, 1970; Veysey, 1965). Even though the influence of the class councils was not long-hved, the concept of a governing council remained a fixture in student self-governance.

Student Councils

By the first quarter of 1900s, student self-governance had evolved from the class councils of the late 1800s and early 1900s into student councils. The representatives elected to this council presided over the student assembUes and the student body as a whole (Albright, 1931; Godson et al, 1993; Somers, 1993). The evolution to a more representative role of the student governing body highlights the transformation from class-oriented councils to college-wide councils (Coates & Coates, 1985). The student council was not only an agent for the student body to voice their agenda to the institution's administration, but it was also the adjudicator of their peers' transgressions. By the middle of the twentieth century, student self-governance organizations on college and university campuses evolved into its current form: the student associations.

Student Associations

Student associations are similar to that of the national system of governance with executive, judicial and legislative branches. The evolution to the student association allowed for the broadening of representation, oversight and management of the student body and its affairs (Eller, 1949; Somers, 1993). Generally, the responsibilities of student associations include serving as the voice of the student body to the institution's administration, overseeing student fees, supervising student organizations, and running campus programming. These bodies also currently participate in decision-making processes in student affairs and academic and administrative affairs.

Executive Branch of Student Associations

The executive branch typically consists of a president and other administrative officers elected by the student body (Coates & Coates, 1985). The role of this group of officers is the management and oversight of the student association in its entirety. The primary figure within the executive branch is the president. The role of the president of the student body evolved along with the rise of student self-governance. In the early years of student selfgovernance, during the 1700s and the 1800s, the role of the student body president was mostly ceremonial and had very little, if any, authority. Typically, the student assembly or student council was led by the president of the senior class, who was the ex-officio president of the student body (Eller, 1949). However, as the organization evolved, so did the role and responsibility of the chief student officer. With the increased responsibility and importance of the student government organization in the early and mid-1900s, the role of its president became more critical. Between 1920 and 1950 the position of the president of the student body evolved from that of the senior class president to a campus-wide, elected position that represented the entire student body. This position held a greater role in, and responsibility for, institution-wide decisionmaking processes (Albright, 1931; Somers 2003). Eller (1949) describes this evolution at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill by writing, "Now the student president is the sole person to whom the students or the administration may look to for immediate responsibility" (p. 26). The responsibiUty of the president and the executive branch continued to evolve over the next half century, and has played an active role in student selfgovernance on coUege and university campuses (Coates & Coates, 1985; Godson et al, 1993).

Legislative Branch of Student Associations

Along with the evolution of the student council into an executive branch came the estabUshment of the legislative branch. The legislative branch comprises students who are either elected or appointed by constituencies of student body to serve on something similar to a senate. Their original roles were to draft a written constitution and by-laws and to be an avenue for various student constituencies to voice their opinions and advocate for their needs (Eller, 1949; Godson et al, 1993). GeneraUy, the role and responsibiUties of the legislative branch have not changed since its estabUshment the 1 900s; its primary role still is to represent and advocate for the diverse voices and needs of the student body.

J udidal Branch of Student Associations

Along with the formation of the legislative branch came the formaUzation of a judicial branch. Student judicial systems have been in existence since the 1700s, as coUeges and universities shifted the discipUnary responsibiUty from the faculty to the students. The responsibiUty for overseeing the judicial process in regard to honor and discipUnary issues originaUy feU on Uterary societies then on class councils and finaUy on student councils (Godson et al, 1993; KeUey, 1974). As higher education institutions became more complex, so too did the student governing bodies. The need arose to not only formaUze the process, but also to make a distinction between the body that drafted the bylaws and poUcies and the body that enforced and adjudicated the discipUnary cases; thus the judicial branch of student self-governing bodies was estabüshed (EUer, 1949; Otten, 1970). The judicial branch typically comprised students who were either appointed or elected by their peers to serve on judicial councils wherein they adjudicated cases related to misconduct and academic dishonesty (Eller, 1949; Otten, 1970). Throughout the 1900s, judicial branches of student selfgovernance organizations evolved and adapted to the ever-changing higher education environment. As such, judicial branches are very much a part of student self-governance and coUege and university campuses in the twenty-first century.

The Middle of the Twentieth Century to the Present

Following World War II, a wave of student apathy and disinterest regarding student involvement in self-governance in higher education swept the country (Horowitz, 1987; Rudolph, 1990). Researchers and authors contend that this attitude arose from students being more concerned with off-campus issues including the war in Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement, and the fact that more students were living off-campus and employed full- or part-time (Caple, 1998; Cohen, 1998; Godson et al, 1993; Otten, 1970). Furthermore, due to the tumultuous times of the 1960s and 1970s, the college administration was often seen as heavy-handed and overly controlling, and students saw their role in the governance of their institutions as a façade (Harris & Dyer, 2006). Throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, student self-governance on college and university campuses has gone through intermittent levels of increasing and waning support from students; however, this does not detract from the important and vital role these organizations played and continue to play in higher education in the United States (Coates & Coates, 1985).

Inclusion of Underrepresented Groups

Though student self-governance had been in existence since the early years of higher education, inclusion in higher education and student self-governance was not available to all students. There were two underrepresented groups in higher education until the latter half of the twentieth century: women and minorities. It was not until the late 1800s and early 1900s, and in some cases not until the late 1900s at certain colleges and universities, that these underrepresented groups began to affect outdated cultural and institutional norms and began to participate in student governance as equals (Gordon, 1990).


During the formative years of higher education in the United States, women were not received as students due to cultural mores and beliefs regarding their academic abilities. The common perception of women was that they were intellectually unable to handle college-level education (Rudolph, 1990). Moreover, it was felt during this period that advanced education for women would hinder or distract women from their primary cultural roles as wives and mothers (Cohen, 1998; Famham, 1994; Horowitz, 1987).

The presence of women on college campuses was to become a permanent fixture toward the end of the 1800s, as it was more socially acceptable for women to attend higher education institutions (Gordon, 1990). However, the increasing presence of women on college campus from the 1870s to 1930s was not an indication that women shared an equal or common experience either academically or socially with male counterparts at coeducational institutions (Gordon, 1990; Horowitz, 1987). When the first female students were admitted to coeducational colleges and universities the late 1800s and early 1900s, they found themselves as unwanted and unwelcome outsiders (Horowitz, 1987). Due to their outsider status, female students who attended coeducational institutions in the late 1800s and early 1900s established their own literary societies, clubs, and even their own student government organizations (Eller, 1949; Gordon 1990). These organizations were not perceived to have the same status or influences as those that were operated by their male counterparts (Eller, 1949; Gordon, 1990).

Conversely, women who enrolled at women's colleges had different experiences. Without the shadow of the male college student hanging over them, female college students attending single-sex institutions thrived socially and academically (Falvey, 1952). Women who attended women's colleges competed in athletics, were officers in campus organizations, and were engaged in self-governance during the late 1800s and early 1900s, which was not generally the case for women enrolled at coeducational institutions (Horowitz, 1985; Horowitz, 1987).

Similar to the evolution of the male-dominated student governance organizations, women's student governance organizations also developed and changed during the twentieth century (Coates & Coates, 1985; Gordon, 1990). Beginning in the 1940s, women were allowed entry to the reign of the college both academically and socially because of the growing diversity and complexity of college life, the impact of World War II, and the Civil Rights Movement. Sansing (1999) describes the affect World War II had on women on one college campus in relation to their involvement in student governance. The author writes,

As male enrollment declined during the war years, Ole Miss coeds assumed leadership roles in many campus activities. In the spring of 1943, Maralyn Howell Bullion, a junior from Oxford and a member of the Ole Miss Hall of Fame, became the first woman student elected president of the Associated Student Body. (p. 257)

The inclusion of women in all aspects of campus life on an equal footing with men, particularly in self-governance organizations, made the parallel women's organizations redundant and unnecessary and lead to the eventual demise of the separate women's student government organizations (Coates & Coates, 1985; Peckham 1994).

Even though women's student governance organizations dwindled after the 1950s, the involvement of women in student governance on college and university campuses has continued to evolve and increase and has had a lasting impact on the women who participated and on their respective institutions. Women participants helped not only sustain the student self-governance movement, but expanded it as well.


Similar to the experience of women, minorities - especially African- Americans - have had delayed and limited access to higher education in the United States during its first three centuries. As a result, the involvement of minorities in student governance on college and university campuses has been constrained (Horowitz, 1987). The cultural ideas concerning the education of minorities prior to the 1900s were that minorities were considered to lack the intellectual ability to be successful in the higher education environment or outside their culturally and vocationally assigned spheres of manual and menial labor. From the 1600s though the late 1800s, minorities were generally excluded from all forms of formal education, and higher education in particular (Cohen, 2005; Levine, 1986).

Minorities such as Jews and Asians were admitted to public and private institutions in Northern as well as the Southern states during the early 1800s. However, it was not until after the conclusion of the Civil War that colleges and universities began enrolling African-American students, but even then it was in limited numbers and only to single-race colleges and universities due to segregation (Caple, 1998; Horowitz, 1987; Levine, 1986). Public financial support for higher education for African- Americans did not truly occur until the passing of the second Morrill Act in 1890 (Cohen, 1998). However, regardless of the colleges' private or public status, segregation for African- Americans was the accepted norm across the country, especially in the South, until the latter half of the twentieth century.

It was not until after World War II and the Civil Rights Movement that AfricanAmericans and other minorities gained greater access to both public and private colleges and universities (Cohen, 1998; Handlin & Handlin, 1970; Horowitz, 1987; Somers, 2003). The breakthrough for the education of minorities came in the 1954 ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, which declared separate was no longer considered equal. However, the desegregation process was slow to take hold, and not even Federal legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 truly desegregated schools and the workplace (Caple, 1998; Coates & Coates, 1985; Godson et al, 1993). Nevertheless, as a result of societal change, by the beginning of the last quarter of the 1900s, across the nation, the rninority student population on pubUc and private coUege and university campuses was growing in size and in diversity (Caple, 1998). EquaUy, minority students evolved from being solely outsiders to becoming engrained in the campus culture and their involvement in student governance increased.

African- Americans and other minority students enroUed in predominately white coUeges and universities were, similar to women, considered outsiders to coUege Ufe (Gordon, 1990; Somers, 2003). Similar to their female counterparts in the early 1900s, minority students began to create their own student organizations, athletic teams, etc., in order to enjoy the same or at least similar coUege experiences that white students received (Cohen, 1998; Handüng & HandUn, 1970). Even with these social outlets, however, blacks and other rninority students were not truly accepted as equals in higher education.

As minority student populations grew in size on coUege campuses, so did their influence on coUege culture and student self-governance. Minority students, particularly African-Americans, estabUshed student organizations on coUege and university campuses, which advocated for their needs. For example, students at Union CoUege created the Black Student AUiance in 1968, the Black Student Movement was launched at the University of North CaroUna at Chapel HiU in 1967, the Black Student Union was estabUshed at the University of Mssissippi in 1969, and the Black Student Union was formed at the CoUege of WiUiam and Mary in 1971 (Coates & Coates, 1985; Godson et. al, 1993; Sansing, 1999; Somers, 2003). Through these and other similar groups, minority students began taking on active roles within student governance. However, these African-American organizations were subordinate to the white-dominated, campus-wide student government organizations. Nevertheless, they played an integral role for minority students on coUege and university campuses, advocating for their needs and voicing their opinions and concerns (Coates & Coates, 1985, Somers, 2003).

As with women in the early 1900s, when given equal access to higher education, minorities took the opportunity to participate in campus Ufe and student government. For example, two decades foUowing the admittance of AfricanAmerican students at the University of North CaroUna at Chapel HiU, the first African- American student body president was elected in 1972 (Coates & Coates, 1985). However, for some institutions it took significantly longer for minority students to gain the chief student officer positions. For example, at the University of Mississippi, the first African-American student, James Meredith, was admitted in 1962, while the first African-American student body president was not elected for nearly forty years (Khayat, 2002). Nevertheless, even though minority students, particularly African-Americans, have had exceedingly limited access to higher education in the past, minorities have made tremendous strides and have made, and continue to make, an impact on coUeges and universities and in student self-governance (Coates & Coates, 1985).


While the genesis of student self-governance may remain uncertain, its complex history and evolution on American coUege and university campuses shows that United States society developed in tandem with the idea of student selfgovernance. Along with being emblematic of the democratic ideals espoused by the nation's founding fathers - the founding fathers of student governance desiring to estabüsh representation and power on campus - this history of student camaraderie through self-governance mirrors the development of young people throughout American history. As higher education in the United States matured, so did student self-governance, sustaining the argument that it wiU carry on as a fundamental element on coUege and university campuses.

Each developmental stage of student governance, from early Uterary societies through to modern-day student associations, clearly demonstrates the links to cultural attitudes outside the confines of higher education. As eighteenthcentury students bridled at the strict administrative poUcies on academic, social and behavioral conduct, their Uterary societies provided an outlet to embrace the revolutionary spirit of their age. The creation of student honor societies and assembUes then reflected the broadening of access to higher education and increased democratization of nineteenth-century America. Class and student councils then foreshadowed the twentieth-century's nearly fuU access to higher education in the United States by empowering nearly every student to engage in decisions about their academic and social Uves.

The last fifty years of the twentieth century saw unprecedented access to both education and poUtical power in the United States, and student self-governance again followed suit. With an administrative framework based on the separated powers of the United States, student associations offer fuU access to on-campus leadership to any student so inclined. As more women and minority students entered higher education, their affect on campus life, and student selfgovernance, became evident in these democratizing associations. In league with social changes outside higher education, the presence of student selfgovernance offers a glimpse into both the powerful changes for the good in contemporary America while also, in the case of minority representation in student associations, accentuating the work yet to be done in realizing access to political power for all in American society.


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