EDITORIALS

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April 29, 2020

Student Government Executive Slate Must Balance Serious Ideas With Pragmatism

Of the four groups running for Student Government’s Executive Slate this year, no one slate showed both big thinking and administrative know-how. However, voters should be aware that they are not choosing between equal options.

The Maroon Editorial Board has chosen to not endorse a Student Government (SG) executive slate this year. 

To capably lead SG, an executive slate must balance working through official channels by meeting with administrators with the need to work outside those channels when administrators stonewall their efforts for real change. Last week, we met with each potential executive slate, expecting to endorse the slate we believed would best balance these two essential tasks—one with an innovative vision for our school and a practical plan to implement that vision. 

In our interviews with the candidates, however, none of the slates running convinced us they could strike this balance. Two slates have grand ambitions but neglected to seriously consider what they will do in the likely event that limits on SG’s authority will pose a threat to what they hope to accomplish. The other two slates understand how difficult it is to get things done in SG, so much so that they seem preemptively resigned to the impossibility of accomplishing much beyond initiatives within SG.

Our decision not to endorse a particular slate does not mean that voters for next year’s SG Executives have a choice among interchangeable slates. 

The Independence Slate, composed of David Liang, Joana Lepuri, and Rodrigo Estrada, has premised its entire candidacy around the promise to transform SG into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, outside of University control. Independence touts the claim that this plan is based in extensive research, but in our interview the candidates could not demonstrate that they have thought through the externalities of this plan. The lion’s share of SG’s money, about $2.4 million annually, comes from the Student Activities Fee levied by the University. When we asked Liang if he expected the University to transfer that money to an independent student government—something which Liang characterized as a “rebellion”—he responded affirmatively, but did not offer any reason why the University would volunteer those funds to an outside entity. Liang also suggested that the independent SG, by disbursing those funds to RSOs, would assume legal liability for all RSO and other student association activities. He did not elaborate on what that would mean for RSO leadership, which we found concerning and poorly thought through. Lastly, the research on which Independence is grounding its claims—coauthored by Lepuri under the auspices of the Campus Policy Research Institute, of which Liang is Executive Director—is a study of student governments that are already independent, and it has been for some time. The situation currently relevant to UChicago is not analogous to that of Stanford or UC Berkeley, as Independence claims, because independence has not yet been negotiated at UChicago. An attempt at independence requires planning for contingency and consideration of its potential ramifications; the Independence slate failed to account for any consequences of their platform’s central plank. The Maroon is therefore uneasy about their candidacy and urges them to assess their plans in light of the fact that declaring student government independent may not be so easy as making a statement and negotiating a Memorandum of Understanding.

The Amplify Slate, composed of Andrew Langford, Jacob Chang, and Joalda Morancy, has taken a unique approach to their candidacy, pledging to release 99 policy proposals by election day (only 40 were out at the time of their interview with The Maroon on April 23). The Maroon applauds the way Amplify has thought out-of-the box with creative proposals, from bird-proofing University buildings to improving rural student outreach and increasing the supply and quality of condoms provided by Health and Wellness services. Some of their ideas are extremely ambitious, such as pushing the University to divest from its holdings in fossil fuels. However, when asked how they planned to make good on these promises through their access to administrators, Amplify replied by saying, “If we are confidently pushing them to work with us, we believe that we can make those changes.” When pressed on how the slate would make administrators work them, Andrew Langford suggested that President Zimmer might be more amenable to meeting with students given the urgency of the current climate and the ease of meeting over Zoom. Amplify seems authentic in its convictions about bringing positive change to UChicago through SG, but they appear unprepared to take on the real challenges facing student representatives.

The Engage and Elevate slates, made up of Raven Rainey, Alex Levi, and Myles Hudson; and Malay Trivedi, Sofia Barnett, and Terri Smith, respectively, show an excellent understanding of SG’s position relative to administrators and its recent history. This is unsurprising, given that five of the six candidates have extensive prior history with SG and Smith, a third-year PhD in Political Science, has served as an executive member of the University’s Diversity Board. Each slate is championing a number of policies around important issues like mental health, pushing reform in University of Chicago Police Department, building on the recent momentum of the sustainability movement at UChicago, and supporting Graduate Students United in its continuing fight to have the University recognize their union. For example, Elevate would support HB 3932, which would make UCPD subject to the Freedom of Information Act, as part of the Chicago Coalition for Colleges and Universities (CCCU). Elevate also emphasized their ambition to try to bring community activists outside the University to the table with administrators, and would use the start-of-year SG barbecue to spotlight campus groups working for social change. Engage, meanwhile, hopes to create the Committee on Marginalized Student Affairs (COMSA) on SG in order to increase funding and resources for multicultural student groups and to communicate with the Office of Campus and Student Life on behalf of these students. These candidates are sincere in their wish to improve life for UChicago students, and their past SG experience shows that they have an idea of the resources and leverage available to them in doing so. Our hesitation around these slates had less to do with the details of any one plan, and more to do with the sense that several years on SG has limited the scope of what these candidates hope to accomplish. 

Trivedi and Hudson both referenced their existing relationships with administrators as a contrast with the other slates and as a way for them to get things done. If this is the case, The Maroon wonders, why have these slates largely limited their platforms to changes internal to SG and vague “we will pursue” statements? If there is a purpose to cultivating relationships with administrators, surely it lies in making big demands when they let you in the room. Asked about how they planned to confront the likely frosty administrative reception to student advocacy, Engage’s Rainey responded, “Our hands are tied, but we can create new ways to show them that this is something that students want.” Trivedi also acknowledged that the likelihood of getting the University to enact, for example, a tuition reduction was close to zero. When asked how Elevate might respond to this challenge, and myriad others that come when dealing with UChicago’s often-disinterested administration, Trivedi responded, “If we push for the highest possible level of change, we can get to some middle ground.” The desire to forge a compromise between students and administrators is admirable, but neither Engage nor Elevate offered a real plan as to what that push might look like. Between “continuing a conversation” and asking for the moon is the middle ground Trivedi referred to. When asked what the role of SG Executives is in the event that conversations with administrators do not result in the changes that students demand, Rainey said, “That's a really important question that we haven't really thought about.” These two slates left us disappointed because, while they both pointed to their experience on SG and relationships with administrators as selling points, their ultimate impression was one of resignation, not excitement about using those connections to break new ground.

We applaud candidates with the initiative to push for big changes, but urge them not to neglect the mechanics of their positions. Simultaneously, whoever our next Slate may be, we hope that they will not allow defeatism to overwhelm the initiative necessary to leave lasting impacts, but that they will make clear, tenable plans for achieving their most ambitious goals.

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