Column: The SA’s most recent scandal demonstrates its flaws and failures

With Student Association members “touching grass” once again and students refocusing on their own summer plans, the uproar over the attempt to force SA President Christian Zidouemba from office is finally dying down. As tensions cool, consider this article a postmortem report on the SA’s latest political drama – an opportunity to diagnose and treat the moribund student government’s flaws and failures.

The SA’s midsummer theatrics began when the executive cabinet voted to remove Zidouemba from his position under Article 15 of the SA’s constitution, which allows the cabinet to remove the president from office when they are “temporarily or permanently unable” to execute their duties. But Zidouemba was alive and well – he even posted an Instagram video in which he denounced the cabinet’s move while at work. In the days that followed, SA Vice President Yan Xu and Zidouemba both claimed the presidency before Xu and Communications Director Aiza Saeed rescinded their votes, leaving Zidouemba in the role of president and putting an end to the brief leadership struggle.

If that’s the story of what happened, then I’d like to focus on what caused the whole mess. Of course there are more immediate explanations – the decision of some SA members to sign a letter calling on officials to fire U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas from GW or an allegedly “hostile” environment under Zidouemba’s leadership to name a few. But the longer story is that, beat by beat, this scandal encapsulates what critics and cynics have said for years about the SA – its poor relationship with the student body, tendency toward bureaucratic excess and meaningless political theater are hamstringing its ability to actually advocate for students.

The fact is that most students aren’t invested in the SA unless or until it’s royally messed something up. An embarrassing, unpopular and unsuccessful removal-cum-coup fits that mold exactly. And when students do engage with the SA to dunk on it and its members, that ought to be a sign that something’s gone wrong. It’s basic politics in which your constituents shouldn’t be more interested in making fun of you than they are voting for you. But the initial reaction to the SA’s drama went beyond urgent pleas to “touch grass” and more crass insults. Confused students also wanted to know why the SA was doing anything in the middle of the summer, let alone removing its sitting president.

Students who largely either outright dislike or completely ignore the SA’s affairs saw an organization without a clear leader – for whom they likely didn’t vote for in the first place – implode before the start of the school year. They had to decipher the SA’s messy bureaucracy and bylaws to make sense of it all. Sure, it’s important to have rules, but did anyone know about the intricacies of Article 15 prior to this whole kerfuffle?

As we’ve learned, members of the executive cabinet ignored the rules – Zidouemba turned out perfectly fine. And while five of the required cabinet positions were present to vote on the attempted removal, it’s unclear if the absence of Keanu Rowe – one of Zidouemba’s two chiefs of staff – invalidated the ousting altogether before votes were later withdrawn. What’s the point of these rules if members of the SA will seemingly sidestep them if or when they feel like it? And in turn, why should students respect the dozens of senators, various committees and advisers and enrobed justices of the Student Court – yes, they actually wear robes! – who write and enforce those rules?

The SA doesn’t really have a “popular mandate,” and its internal sources of legitimacy – its bureaucratic procedures – are meaningless to outsiders and ignored by its members. So what can it do? Besides distributing funds to student organizations and ginning up school spirit, the SA’s role lies in passing non-binding resolutions and issuing statements to represent students and pressure officials. When the SA’s efforts succeed, students have gained things like U-Pass and an expanded SafeRide system. But when it comes to hot-button issues like transphobic tweets or the movement to fire Clarence Thomas that officials are unlikely to touch, the SA largely ends up shouting into the void.

And in the end, that’s what this two-bit “House of Cards” episode is – a whole lot of noise, but a whole lot of nothing. It was instigated by members of the SA who signed a letter that officials were likely never going to consider anyway, an executive cabinet that walked back its bold power grab as quickly as it began and an SA that is now rushing to return to the status quo as quickly as possible. In the end, although with a few firings and resignations, Zidouemba is still president and Xu is still vice president.

The SA may be returning to “normal,” but there is nothing normal about empty grandstanding, total dysfunction and meaningless political theater. The SA ought to stop and think about what they are doing – every member, every aide, everyone. What are you trying to do? And what are you actually doing?

The students of this University deserve meaningful, effective representation. Whether that entails abolishing the SA entirely, reforming it via a referendum or finding new leadership at the ballot box next academic year is up to you. But I know one thing for certain – the SA’s latest scandal isn’t just a microcosm of its failures. It’s the final nail in the coffin of its current iteration.

Ethan Benn, a rising junior majoring in journalism and communication, is the opinions editor

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