When I was covering student politics in the State University of New York system, I attended something called the Ray Glass Memorial Student Organizing Conference a few times. This was an annual legislative conference hosted by SASU, the statewide student association that also functioned as an off-campus lobby group.
I could never quite figure out who Ray Glass was, except that he wrote an essay called “Are Student Governments Obsolete?” that was a founding document for SASU. The article made the case that traditional student government was useless, granting students only token input on crucial issues of university governance. He described student government as being like the toy steering wheel a child would play with in daddy’s car — only most student government leaders pretend that it really works.
I also knew that Ray had been killed (as a pedestrian) by a drunk driver some time in the mid-’70s.
SASU has faded, or rather it was faded, into history. Much of what I covered as editor of Student Leader News Service in the early ’90s was how SUNY’s then-chancellor, Dr. D. Bruce Johnstone, had viciously dismantled the political apparatus and funding sources that enabled SASU to exist, turned local campuses against it, eventually creating a situation wherein the organization could no longer support itself or any meaningful work. After a monumental, expensive statewide effort, Johnstone turned student input on statewide issues back into the toy steering wheel that student government is theoretically supposed to be. Johnstone viewed students as the enemy with a vengeance that seemed personal, and which I still don’t understand. I have more to say about this but not today.
Decades on, I never stopped wondering about Ray. I wanted a copy of that article, but there was nobody to ask; I could not find it online; none of the SUNY archives around the state that I called had it. What I discovered the existence of, though, was a collection of documents donated in 1985 by SASU’s staff to SUNY Albany’s special collections. Though the article I was seeking was not indexed, I thought it was worth a look; it had to be there somewhere. I discovered this in the midst of Cosmic Confidential, the 2010 annual edition of Planet Waves, and it took me about five months to get there; that day was today.
More than 120 cubic feet of SASU files exist, only loosely categorized. I invited Amanda to the library (a journalism date, my favorite kind) and after providing her a brief orientation, we dove into the boxes, or rather, leafed through page by page, to see what we could find. What I saw amazed me: a student organization that wrote persuasive legislative memos, exchanged reams of correspondence with state officials, lobbied for financial aid and budget equity, trained students how to visit their legislators and that knew the state and federal education budgets on a line-by-line basis.
I discovered that Ray was the co-founder of SASU, not merely an employee. He had been president of the student government at my favorite SUNY in ’71-’72, the one in Binghamton, and after a new chancellor had been selected without student input, coordinated with campus leaders around the state on the organizing effort that created SASU. By 1975, he had grown the organization into a well-respected voice for students. It was funded by referenda on the member campuses (a dollar or two per year, per student), which was collected by the local student governments and then sent to SASU in Albany, to fund its lobbying and advocacy efforts.
Working with discretion over its own budget, off campus, the organization could actually do its job with little fear of interference by the administration.
When Ray was hit by a drunk driver early the morning of Sept. 30, 1975, he had already decided it was time to move on from SASU to the next stage of his career. Spending a day reading his memos and leafing through the pages of his legacy, I have no doubt that he could have gone as far as he wanted in politics. He was clever, hard working, charming and ethically, he knew which way was up.
He chose to step out of the student political realm just before his Saturn return, an indication of sensing his own talent and consciously honoring his maturing process. I didn’t find a copy of “Are Student Governments Obsolete?” (we barely looked through three boxes) but I feel like I made a friend. I got a clue of the spirit that was behind the student organizing tradition that I inherited in the ’80s and early ’90s when I worked with Ray’s successors years later.
At the end of the research session, Geoff, the archivist, asked what we were doing, and I explained. He went back into the stacks and brought out a box he thought would be useful, which contained photos of Ray, his grave, letters from many state senators and assembly members, letters to his parents from the same people, letters from friends, and a statement by then Gov. Hugh Carey. There was an original copy of the Western Union telegram from SASU’s president announcing his death, which described him someone “whom we have all loved as the father of student politics in New York State.”
I paid for my 55 copies, and told Geoff I would be back. We packed up and walked through the maze of corridors in the Science Library leading from where the archives were housed, stepped out into the plaza on a warm late afternoon, and encountered the most beautiful little rainbow hanging out in the fountain.