March 1, 2011

S.A. Elections: Ending the Ineptitude (Hopefully)

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Student Assembly election season is upon us once again. Ho Plaza is splattered with chalk calligraphy urging passersby to VOTE VOTE VOTE. Candidates mill around the Arts Quad handing out meticulously crafted quarter cards to polite students who, in turn, nod and stuff them in their coat pockets until they come across a trashcan that’s sufficiently out of view. Facebook groups are made. Unsuspecting freshmen are cornered by candidates in their dorm rooms. And ultimately, sometime before tomorrow’s deadline, most of us find our way to the online ballot, glance at the list of candidates, and vote for a candidate or two that we’ve heard of.

As usual, this year’s election for S.A. President (between Adam Nicoletti ’12 and Natalie Raps ’12) has gone largely unnoticed. The only thing that people know about the race is that one candidate — Sun-endorsee Raps — made a silly YouTube video. Even the video itself seemed disinterested in discussing anything substantive, and was instead used as a way for Raps to humiliate herself in a self-conscious way that I guess meant to imply an easy-going, personable nature that would come in handy once she’s the fearless leader of Willard Straight Hall.

Since the video is purposely stupid, I’m wary of giving it too much close analysis. However, the fact that dumb, intentionally embarrassing gimmicks have become a popular way for S.A. candidates to engage with students speaks volumes to how the S.A. sees itself.

Ultimately, the S.A. needs to take its primary role more seriously. By this, I don’t mean it should pass more pointless resolutions calling for bipartisanship in the Senate, or revel in its own faux-governmental internal procedures. I mean it should value its most important role — communicating the student voice to the administration.

The only thing that prevents the S.A. from being completely useless — more akin to a bunch of kids play model Congress than a purposeful elected body — is the fact that it has a seat at the table when University decisions are being made (in theory, at least). The fact that the S.A. has even the slightest involvement in University affairs gives it the potential to be massively effective. As we have seen with the restructuring of Africana and the changes to the Greek system, the administration (understandably) will try to do what it wants, the way it wants. Things like “student involvement,” “transparency” and “open dialogue” are simply not as important to Day Hall as crossing bullet points off its to-do list. But a strong S.A. led by a strong president could at least make it difficult for the administration to run roughshod over student interests like it has done over the last six months.

It might not be pretty, and Susan Murphy might not be so eager to write S.A. President X a glowing recommendation when he or she graduates, but it’s the type of leadership that the S.A. has an obligation to provide.

In yesterday’s endorsement for S.A. President, The Sun urged students to “consider which candidate can, when stonewalled by administrators, prioritize student opinion over administrative edicts and engage the entire student body — not just campus leaders.” The key phrase here is “when stonewalled.” In the past year, the S.A. has arguably achieved marginal success on mental health issues. But that success was largely a result of the fact that students and administrators were on the same page when it came to mental health after last spring’s tragedies. Day Hall made mental health a priority; students made mental health a priority and, voilà, marginal success on mental health issues was achieved.

But the real work is done when students and the administration disagree. Too often the S.A. simply throws its hands in the air after being stymied by the administration, lamenting a “lack of student input” before quietly moving on to some meaningless resolution. If the S.A. isn’t going to push back, if it isn’t going to make student opinion valuable in the eyes of the administration, then it might as well be dissolved as soon as possible.

The S.A. cannot continue to be a insular group of goodie goodies too concerned with their personal futures to stir the pot. It has to meaningfully engage the student body. Not only to solicit student opinions, but also to make students invested in campus issues, such that they refuse to accept the same ineptitude from the S.A. year after year.

For now, we owe it to Nicoletti and Raps to give them the benefit of the doubt. Hopefully Nicoletti’s “responsible and effective leadership” amounts to putting responsible, effective pressure on the administration. And hopefully Raps is as comfortable being awkward when telling off an administrator as she is when rapping.

Tony Manfred is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences and the Sun Associate Editor. He may be contacted at tmanfred@cornellsun.com. The Absurdity Exhibition appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Tony Manfred