Two things that GW students can count on each fall semester are the arrival of winter and some type of Student Association scandal.
Whether it’s sex, money or both, students in the SA traditionally face scandal each November as their limited power and public disinterest combine to engender some rather poor choices among our student leaders. Student leaders do have a measure of influence and the discretion to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of student funds. Because the majority of students couldn’t care less about their student government, it’s easy for members of this small group of elected officials to forget their mission and instead focus on restructuring organizational bylaws and frivolously spending money, all while neglecting their true duties.
A former Hatchet colleague frequently reminded me that “the students in the SA are more concerned with the act of governing rather than actually governing.” It’s true – playing the role of the elected official without doing any of the actual work encompassed in that job is often what led to troubles for previous SA administrations.
Last spring, the situation became so bad that, in the midst of the SA elections, two students began organizing a movement to abolish the SA. For them, and for many students on campus, the lack of progress last year seemed to be the final straw.
The SA, of course, was not abolished. Discontentment, however, still reigned as the spring semester came to a close. Nothing tangible was ever put forward to remedy the problems of the past and to ensure a functioning SA. With this legacy, any reasonable person would expect the SA to be nonfunctional by this point in the year – mired in scandal or essentially non-functional.
Instead, the opposite is true. Both the Senate and the executive branches are regularly working with administrators to build relationships and advocate for students. There’s still time for a scandal, but our current leaders understand the history of the SA and seem to be actively working to change it for the better.
It’s the people
When I first met Lamar Thorpe, the SA presidential hopeful, his speech was quick and energetic. He didn’t shy away from any issue and, above all, seemed to understand the problem plaguing the SA: attitudes.
Now, Lamar Thorpe as the SA president is a little more reserved. He chooses his words carefully, speaks slowly and agrees that the position has taken a toll on his enthusiasm.
“This job is a very tiring job. If you are going to do it right, it’s tiring,” Thorpe told me last week.
Still, his central principles remain unchanged and seem to have permeated the entire organization. Both Thorpe and Executive Vice President Josh Lasky agree that there is nothing structurally wrong with the SA.
“It’s not the structure; it’s the people. I wish I could make it mandatory that people collaborate, but I can’t. It’s the people who make up the organization,” Thorpe said.
Lasky agrees. “A large reason why we don’t have the same crap going as last year is because we have focused on this notion that we are all in this together. If we are going to sink, we’re all sinking together.”
An active president
Thorpe’s mantra within the SA might be collaboration, but when it comes to issues outside of student government, he has certainly caused some controversy this year.
When Gallaudet University students protested the appointment of their new president last month, Thorpe was out on the front lines, aiding protestors in a conflict in which he had no direct involvement. For some, he seemed to be advocating a position on behalf of the GW student body when there certainly was not a large amount of consensus over this complex issue. The controversy gained some legs after Thorpe indicated that he wanted to use SA funds to support the protesters.
When I asked him whether he thought it was the wrong move, Thorpe said, “If that ever happened at GW, I would hope that I could call on the rest of the area universities and say, ‘we need your help.’ This is a students’ rights issue.”
Lasky’s role as the neutral arbiter for the Senate flows over into his relationship with Thorpe as well. Even with the Gallaudet issue, he was able to find a happy medium for his presidential partner.
“I’m not going to go out there on the front lines and say, ‘Lamar, this is great,’ because I didn’t get that sense from students on campus,” he said.
Still, Lasky doesn’t see Lamar’s outside politics as a hindrance to his SA duties. “His role as an advocate for the student body with the administration rarely crosses over with his political life,” Lasky told me. “Students didn’t elect him for his national political views.”
Thorpe knows that his views and politics outside of the SA could ruffle some feathers, but he is unabashed in approaching such criticism. During our interview, he pointed out a poster in his office that read “Leadership is action, not a position.” He quickly added, “And I take action.”
Does it really matter?
For all the progress on attitudes and culture within the SA, student apathy toward the organization still remains.
“There’s absolutely a disconnect,” Lasky admitted. “For the average student, I don’t really think they get much exposure to the SA.”
It’s not apparent, on the surface, that the SA does anything for the average student beyond providing old tests or allocating student organization funds. For Thorpe and Lasky, this is exactly the public relations nightmare that they are facing. Still, tangible programs are not the mark of good governance, and neither Lasky nor Thorpe want to pursue SA-branded programming.
Thorpe is clear on his role. “Our job is advocacy,” he said. “We represent students; that’s what we do.”
This role as a student advocate often yields ambiguous results. Thorpe often comes back from meetings with administrators without evidence that he is helping students. In the long run, however, it’s probably true that students gain an advantage through his participation.
“I wish I could put out a press release for all the things I am influential in, but it’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work.” Thorpe said.
Little optimism for the future
Assuming pragmatism, collaboration and advocacy prevail in the Student Association for the rest of the year, it’s not clear that these new attitudes represent anything other than an outlier on a trend of ineptitude and poor governance.
SA elections in the spring are sure to bring out a fresh crop of overly ambitious candidates eager to reengage in the petty tactics of the organization’s past.
“I’m not necessarily sure if I’m optimistic myself in terms of what’s going to happen next year,” Thorpe said. “I hope that down the line, Josh (Lasky) and I and the rest of the Senate can bridge that for next year.”
It would seem pragmatic that both leaders should groom successors to continue their tradition of collaboration, but neither of them is interested in stepping back into the politics of SA elections.
“The election last year [was] clearly a very humbling experience. It really posed a challenge to me. I don’t want to say it wasn’t fun, but it was very demanding,” Lasky said, instead vowing to give advice to candidates seeking it.
When pressed on the same issue, Thorpe implied that the natural successors to this culture of collaboration might already be working alongside both him and Lasky.
“Maybe people should focus on those who are running for re-election who understand this collaboration,” Thorpe said. “Maybe those are the candidates to look at.”
-The writer, a senior majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet senior editor.