Only four candidates for the Student Association Senate are returning senators this year – an issue SA leaders say the senate has had in the past, but want to remedy to add energy to the group.
While a young senate could face a steeper learning curve, leaders in the student government say getting senators to return has always been an issue – last year, only five senators ran for reelection. And even though the high rate of turnover doesn’t necessarily lead to an ineffective senate, top SA executives and candidates say they will work on improving the group’s retention and recruitment strategies.
Out of the 36 open senate positions in this year’s election, 11 seats are uncontested races and 17 have no candidates.
SA Executive Vice President Thomas Falcigno said that although having fewer applicants impacts the senate’s ability to represent the entire student body, turnover can be a positive when new voices are added to the group.
“There are currently no structural measures in place to encourage senators to run for reelection. That is an individual choice,” he said.
Some schools, those with mostly graduate students like the nursing and law schools, have only one or even no candidates running for their seats.
This past election, three undergraduate senators – all of whom had previously served as freshman non-voting senators – and two graduate senators came on with senate experience. But those senators said in interviews that they won’t be returning because they’re either graduating or have other commitments to prioritize.
Diagnosing the problem
Outside of the races for the two executive SA positions, the only two contested races are for the undergraduate-at-large seats and the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences undergraduate seats.
Sen. Devan Cole, CCAS-U, one of four current senators running for reelection, said while each senator’s decision to run is personal, the stress of the work means few students want to return for a second term.
“Whatever the culture is, it must be one that a lot of students are turned away from, if not a lot of them are running for reelection,” he said. “The Student Association can be a really stressful community to be a part of and the workload that comes with it can be difficult to manage when coupled with all of the other things that we participate in.”
Sen. Nate Pasko, ESIA-U, said he decided against another year on the SA because of scheduling conflicts with other activities, adding that SA positions are generally acknowledged as a “one-year deal.”
“Getting used to the senate and its processes is definitely a learning curve, but this happens almost every year given the senate’s generally consistent rate of turnover,” he said.
Seats that are still empty after the election are filled through an open application process for students from those schools. If no one from those schools goes out for the seat, it can be converted to graduate or undergraduate-at-large seat so students from any school can run for the spot, according to the SA constitution.
Sen. Pilar Mendez, SPHHS-G, is graduating this year, leaving her seat vacant with no candidate to replace her. She said the high rate of turnover isn’t a big issue because senators learn the ropes quickly.
“A majority of graduate students this past year were new to the senate, and we still managed to have an amazing presence and get things done,” she said. “We all have experiences in other areas that make us well-suited for the senate. Advocating for students is just as genuine and a necessary qualification, regardless of senate experience.”
All three candidates for SA president this year said more experienced members should working alongside younger senators who bring new perspectives to the SA.
Cole Ettingoff, the SA director of campus operations and a presidential candidate, said he has seen students in the SA “burn out” and choose not to continue working in the student government.
“If the SA spent less time on its own petty drama and more time actually helping students, we might be losing fewer good leaders and have more students interested in being involved,” he said.
He said many students in the SA get frustrated with the slow-moving administration, but that there are also “cultural issues” within the group that drive students away. Ettingoff declined to comment on what those cultural issues are.
SA outsider and presidential candidate Adam Johnson also said the consistently high turnover rate could be from the group appearing to be out of touch and exclusive, with student leaders favoring those with experience over passion.
“I think that fresh faces and new perspectives are beneficial for the SA,” he said. “In my opinion, formal SA experience is not essential for the senate to properly function so long as prospective senators do their homework, use their predecessors as resources and come into the position ready to work.”
Lande Watson, the vice president for public affairs and a presidential candidate, pointed to a lack of opportunities, not a lack of interested students, as a reason for senators’ annual departures.
“Often retention issues aren’t due to a lack of interest, but a shortage in avenues for student involvement which begins on the freshman level,” she said, citing her own plan to create a “freshman advocacy corps” to get more first-year students involved in the SA.
Coming up with a plan
The two candidates for EVP – a position that presides over the senate and works closely with senators – said they would each create plans to recruit students to run for senator positions and to stay in touch with the senate.
Sen. Sydney Nelson, ESIA-U and EVP candidate, said the current senate only had five senators with previous experience but was still able to pass legislation smoothly. This year’s senate passed fewer bills, but their meetings were faster and there were no suspensions due to lack of attendance, she said.
“Both last year and this year the turnover rate in the senate has been relatively consistent, so I do not anticipate a negative impact on the next senate,” she said.
Nelson also cited a resolution she cosponsored in the senate earlier this month, requiring senators to write exit reports for the student who takes over their position, as a way to make the transition smoother.
Sen. Peak Sen Chua, MISPH-U and EVP candidate, said that if he’s elected, he would improve retention by creating “more flexible” attendance policies for graduate student senators, who have in the past left the SA because of time and work constraints.
“If nothing is done to guide and mentor senators, the lack of experience will show,” he said. “However, through a solid transition process we can make sure that we pick up near where we left off.”
To recruit new members, Chua said he plans to work with the Joint Elections Committee to hold presentations on how to get involved with the SA at the beginning of the spring semester. On a more personal level, he said he has reached out to his friends and classmates about running, one of whom is now a verified candidate.
“I’ll encourage senators to do the same – running for reelection or not,” he said.