Each February, GW endures one of its most recognizable traditions – the Student Association elections. As ridiculous as it is, SA election season is also an exciting time, providing endorsement hearings, broadcast debates, live blogs, a postering day, fancy Web sites, T-shirt armies, rental cars, and, of course, violations. The elections bring energy to campus and, if nothing else, provide unassuming freshmen with a few days of free candy and energy drinks. The problem isn’t the election spectacle; it’s what we’re left with after the elections are over.
I don’t understand it, but something about the free summer housing, the $15,000 scholarship and the fourth-floor office causes SA presidents to forget who they work for. As important as it is to have strong working relationships with administrators, those relationships should never come at the price of real advocacy. Effective presidents work with the administrators, but for the students.
I’ll be the first to concede that the SA on a whole is ineffective. Still, in the past it has produced a few notable accomplishments. In 2007, SA leaders bypassed administrators who were skeptical about Safeway’s desire to accept our campus card. They traveled to Safeway’s corporate offices to speak directly with the company’s executives, which resulted in the Watergate Safeway accepting GWorld. The free newspapers many of us read each morning returned to residence halls only after SA president Nicole Capp and crew challenged Senior Vice President for Student and Academic Support Services Robert Chernak, showing him the newspapers were something GW students actually cared about. The common thread in each example is a willingness to challenge the administration on the issue.
Unfortunately, SA leaders too often find more comfort in attending holiday parties and alumni receptions than they do in standing up for the issues students generally care about. There’s a reason no substantive changes have occurred in the dining program over the past few years. It’s the same reason CCAS advising is still lackluster, and our bookstore is still overpriced. The lack of change on these issues has nothing to do with the inability for change to occur, and everything to do with the failure of SA leaders, specifically SA presidents, to show any kind of backbone before the administration.
While the EVP gets the same face time, the SA president forms the agenda. He or she is the person administrators look to. One year ago, I ran for president on the theme of “Advocating Together” not because it was any less toolish than the other slogans, but because it embodied what I still believe is the only way for the SA to actually get stuff done – and not the stuff no one cares about, like “task forces.” SA leaders are most successful when they generate enough student support to influence the administration’s decisions
I do think GW is a great place, but that doesn’t mean we should forsake improving it. For example, in my four years in Foggy Bottom, I have yet to meet a single student who is satisfied with on-campus dining. A Sept. 21, 2009 Hatchet editorial called for a “shake-up in dining” and they got it right. The editorial accurately suggested that student-focused administrators would be better positioned to oversee the dining program than the business-focused administrators who oversee it now. The Hatchet only repeated what many of us have been saying for years, that the true first step to improving the dining program is to give its oversight to those with student concerns in mind. The leaders of the SA, specifically the president, are the only students who can truly make that case before the administration.
This year, no student should get a single endorsement or vote for an SA position, unless they demonstrate a willingness to challenge the administration on the issues that matter most. It’s not enough to say you want to make small tangible changes, unless you can explain how you’re going to accomplish each of them. It’s also not enough to talk about reforming the SA. We already know the SA is ineffective, so get a new platform. This year, if you want to be in the SA, show me and the rest of the student body that you are a strong enough leader to tactfully stand up to the administration and represent real student concerns.
The writer, a senior majoring in political science, was the Student Association’s executive vice president during the 2008-2009 school year.
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