A New Hope: How Darfur and the Common App are making Student Government matter

New SG, shot by Lisa Bang

Everyone needs a whipping boy, and for a long time, Student Government (SG) has been designated to take the lash. UofC students, who are as a group exceptionally skilled at the twin arts of cynicism and skepticism, have never failed to come up with a robust spectrum of complaints about SG. Some say it doesn’t do anything; others say it meddles too much where it doesn’t belong. Many can’t remember, off the tops of their heads, anything that SG has done in the last year, while others are all too eager to bring up famous spending gaffes, like the now mostly obsolete LCD screen in the entranceway of the Reynolds Club. The decision to spend $26,000 from the $40,000 in the New Initiatives Fund to bring fiery Democratic strategist James Carville to campus as a speaker may end up in this latter category–unless Carville’s new initiative is to donate half of that to Katrina relief in his home state of Louisiana, perform “I Would Do Anything for Love” dressed as Meat Loaf, and buy every student a pony, it seems unlikely that all that cash will be worth the satisfaction of listening to him talk for forty-five minutes.

And yet no matter how much people seem to enjoy hating on SG, there was something different about this election. This academic year delivered a one-two punch to the collective ego of the student body, as the death of the Uncommon Application and the ongoing debacle around the issue of whether to divest from Darfur were perceived as sending the same message to the student body: “You can talk all you want, but at the end of the day, we run this place, and we’re calling the shots. Love, Administrators.”

So when the SG campaigning started for 2007, two words quickly rose to the forefront as the phrase that would come to dominate the talk around the elections: “student voice.” A huge gap was perceived between students’ desire to have some control over the environment they call home for four years and administrators’ mandate to administrate, and every SG candidate professed to have what it took to fill the void. The Most Known Unknowns, a slate composed of Archana “Archie” Chandrasekhar, Ronnie “RJ” Virissimo, and Eric “Just Eric” Vazquez, ran under the slogan “your everyday students, not your everyday student government” and promised to “revitalize student government so that it can realistically take care of your needs, and let your voices be heard directly.” And like every other contender, the Most Known Unknowns brought their platform to everyone’s favorite agglomeration of meaningful and meaningless student voices: Facebook. “We will pressure our decisions makers to have only open meetings where students can rightfully voice their opinions,” declared the trio in their eponymous Facebook group. “It’s OUR university, shouldn’t our administration reflect that? … All of [our] platforms came from students with concerns. We want to push your ideas forward. Let us know what you want to see happen next year! Call or email. Our information is below–we ACTUALLY want to hear from you!”

That enthusiastic populism proved to be exemplary. Incumbent candidate Hollie Russon Gilman, undergaduate liaison to the Board of Trustees, wanted to “push forward an agenda to increase student power,” her opponent Christian Brockman promised to “fight for your rights and your voice,” and second-year Hannah Jacoby launched a write-in campaign based largely on a promise to blog the minutes of every Board of Trustees meeting, and carry student comments to her posts directly back to the Board. Student voices promising student voice volleyed back and forth, listhosts were spammed, Facebook invites were relentless, and sidewalk chalk abounded. Students were pounding the pavement, the best way they knew how.

But perhaps the greatest testament to the new energy around this year’s SG elections was the election itself, in which record numbers of students voted. And here we are, a week later, with Scott Duncombe, Matt Kennedy, and Hilary Fruitman of the slate Your-SG on tap to run student government next year. These three were no exception to the student voice frenzy, making their blog the centerpiece of much of their campaigning. The posts, under the banner “thinking and speaking about you” (creepy … yet effective) revolved around what the candidates called “a fundamental breakdown between Students and Administrators.” So now that they’ve won, can the student body expect a fundamental upheaval in the way the University is run? Can SG re-invent itself as, simultaneously, a meaningful locus of power and an effective and broad-reaching advocate for student concerns? Or will the calls for “student voice” fall to the wayside as just more campaign hogwash, just more promises made for the convenience of getting elected, only to succumb inevitably to the status quo?

“Things are going to change,” says Hilary Fruitman, the newly-elected VP for Administraion. “We’re going to make sure that they change.” Her co-VP, Matt Kennedy, sees changes already in the works. “A lot of people are running for College Council,” he says. “People that never would have, people that felt so disenfranchised in the last year, people who were really fed up with the way the system was working and tired of trying to fix it from outside.”

But that, as some see it, is the central problem with SG–disgruntled students fussing over systems they don’t really understand, systems that are in place for the best interest of the institution. “I don’t want students running the university,” one first-year told me recently. “I don’t think they know what they’re doing, and I don’t think they’d do a good job if they had more power.” Another student, a three-year SG insider speaking on condition of anonymity, agrees.

“Most students do not have a good understanding of how power is structured,” explains this student, whom we’ll call Elizabeth R. “For SG to be effective, we have to work inside of that structure. Students do not have power, and we should not have power. This is, first and foremost, a research institute. Every other priority should come after that. We need to spend effort recruiting the best graduate students, the best undergraduate students, and the best faculty, and then giving them the best academic experience and support services possible. That can include social and cultural and health services, but academics are the raison d’etre of everything else.”

Elizabeth sees all the talk about “student voice” as nothing but marketing. “The ‘voice’ is extremely fractured. And also–students don’t matter! Faculty matter, alumni matter, the Board of Trustees matter. Students are a dime a dozen. So nothing changes. Students can want a change, but they have no power.”

Hannah Jacoby, the write-in candidate for the liaison position, thinks that’s “ridiculous.” “We are stakeholders in this university,” she asserts. “I came here for the amazing education this University offers, but I have to be a conscientious consumer. I will be in debt for the rest of my life because of what I am paying to go here, and I’m not all right with that money going to the destruction of low-income housing or the support of a genocidal regime.”

Your-SG insists that the administration welcomes their input and is receptive to more formalized structures for discussion. Matt Kennedy says that many student issues “have fallen through the cracks this year, with a new administration, and the departure of [former Vice-President and Dean of Students] Steve Klass, who was amazing. With Kim Goff-Crews [current Dean of Students at Wellesley and Klass’s replacement starting this July] coming in, and conversations I’ve had with [Assistant Vice President for Student Life] Bill Michel, I think we’re going to see student government being more incorporated into these decisions.” Scott Duncombe adds that President Zimmer and David Greene, a Brown import who holds the newly-created title of VP for Strategic Initiatives, have been “very receptive” to the possibility of SG representatives acting on a regular basis as sounding boards for new ideas.

“You have an interesting dichotomy at this school,” says Duncombe. “You’re told that we’re the brightest students and we’re supposed to be able to debate any issue and bring a lot to the table, but at the same time, the issues aren’t debated with us. And part of that, I think, is that there hasn’t been a great medium for it. The administration will do something, and [people] will protest it. No one really talks. And all of us see Student Government as being a great middle ground, where real debate can happen.”

Duncombe admits, however, that none of that communication will mean anything if SG can’t accurately represent the needs of the student body. “A lot of times, we in SG throw around what we think students think. But we don’t really know, and there’s not a clear mechanism on how to gauge student voice. That’s one of the things we wanted to focus on–creating a real solid mechanism for students to voice their concerns, and for us to reach students. Because at this point, when an issue like comes before the council, we say, ‘go and talk to your constituents.’ but does that mean your roommate? Does that mean you stand on the street and talk to fifteen people? There’s no clear meter or method.”

“We’d like to continue the energy we had with the internet campaign,” adds Fruitman. “Using the blog, making the website accessible to students, potentially adding a discussion board. We need an opportunity for students to discuss issues, and for us to throw [ideas] out there ahead of time, so they can talk about it before we actually end up voting.”

Hollie Gilman and Hannah Jacoby, once competing for the liaison position, agree with Fruitman that the discussion and tactics stirred up by the election can be channeled into a more meaningful Student Government. “The process has begun,” says Gilman. “Now we just need to work to make Student Government the effective body for our concerns.”

“I think Hollie is a good liaison, but I don’t think she’s doing the best she can,” says Jacoby. “I wanted students to understand what they could get from a student liaison. I wanted them to understand what was missing. If I only made 180 students realize that, then I made 180 more advocates for change. I hope that now Hollie and I will work together to try to reach some of these goals. She has already contacted me with interest in some of these issues, particularly Grove Parc [a low-income housing development being redeveloped from 504 to 150 affordable units; Vice-President of Community and Government Affairs Hank Webber sits on the board of the management company]. So I think the campaign was only positive.”

The bottom line, says Fruitman, is that even though UofC students seem too busy to care about anything beyond their work, they’re also too smart and too passionate to stay disengaged forever. “When you get people like that in the room, stuff can happen,” she says. But in the meantime, she sighs, “We signed up to be picked on, and we’re ready for it.” Scott Duncombe laughs. “Bring on the rotten tomatoes!”