April 28, 2011

The Right Candidates, the Wrong Message

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My friends and the (probably few) regular readers of my column know I am passionate about campus politics. I truly believe in the importance of such representative governing bodies as the Student Assembly and their capability to affect change. Chances are you don’t. And given the nature of this year’s campaigns for student trustee, I don’t blame you. Too often, candidates for student governance positions on East Hill resort to the same tired and true rhetoric of false promises and ludicrous proposals. It’s no secret that we, as Cornellians, see through it all. I have always separated the candidate from the campaign, but if candidates ever hope to legitimize their platforms they must campaign based on merits and the realistic bounds of their positions, not through videos and gimmicks.

My short (but sweet) political career provides an illustration of how a candidate can campaign responsibly. I ran for student government president at Great Neck South High School on a platform of experience, accountability and instituting an inclusive School Spirit Week. This paled in comparison to my opponent’s popularity and his promise to install a latte machine in the lobby, yet somehow I won. If an honest campaign based on merits and attainable goals was able to win over Long Island high schoolers, then it can be reasonably assumed that a similar approach would prove popular with Cornellians.

Unfortunately, none of the candidates in this year’s race for student trustee chose to showcase their merits and understandings of the position. All the more disappointing is that I feel three of the candidates had the credentials to do so. Instead, we heard about their commitments to “transparency,” “mental health” and “tuition regulation” (not my words, quotes from actual candidate platforms). These oft-repeated catchphrases were even versed in rap form! Candidate videos were humorous and provided fodder for IvyGate (shout out to Slope Media for the incredible quality of their productions) but did little to stir discourse about campus issues. The only issue presented was singing and dancing ability; if this is a criterion, I am wrong and these elections are truly meaningless.

The view that student government, in particular the position of student trustee, is without purpose seems to resonate with the student body. A new entrant to the Cornell blogosphere, EzraKernell, even proposed that students not vote at all to send a message of apathy. It’s not like such a position needs to be mobilized; the last undergraduate trustee election had a turnout of under 25 percent. The truth is that having a student representative on the Board of Trustees is vital and not to be taken lightly. Sure, your student trustee won’t substantially lower your tuition (unless they plan on soliciting massive donations from their fellow trustees) or completely alleviate mental health problems (unless they devise a way to change the Ithaca weather). Your student trustee will, however, serve as a student voice and ensure that Board of Trustees decisions are not made without student input.

A few of the candidates are friends of mine, and I don’t think their campaigns reflect their character or knowledge of the position. In fact, I think three of them would make great student trustees. One in particular has proven himself as a student leader and has experience mobilizing students with tangible results. Rather, there seems to be a disconnect between what student politicians see as effective campaigning and what students look for in a candidate.

Based on a completely unscientific frat house poll, students want to elect a responsible leader with a firm understanding of the student trustee position and the student body. The poll also found that students aren’t swayed by traditionally popular promises such as free gym membership (perhaps because my pledge class built a gym in our basement), nor are we motivated by guarantees of transparency. Platforms like transparency make themselves apparent through honest interactions, not music videos.

For you prospective politicians, take note heading into the summer as you undoubtedly plan your future campaigns. We don’t want to hear about a binder or office hours. We don’t want ridiculous promises. We don’t want to be lied to about motives. We don’t want to be pandered to like interest groups. Rather, we want to know what candidates actually feel they can reasonably accomplish in office. We want candidates to be honest about their ambitions and their understanding of their constituency. We want to know what the powers and responsibilities are of the position in question, and why a candidate’s experiences and qualities make him or her the right fit for the job. We want to be assured that our voices will be heard and that candidates will earnestly fight for the student interest.

After all, transparency and improved mental health will not be achieved through the lobbying of Day Hall. Instead, such goals can be attained by individual Cornellians truly coming together as a community and collaborating with each other. Over the (hopefully) long and enjoyable summer, think about how you can contribute to that community and how campus student governance can help you in the pursuit of common goals. When we come back in the fall, translate those thoughts into constructive dialogue. But please, not through a music video.

Jon Weinberg is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at jweinberg@cornellsun.com. In Focus appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Jon Weinberg