Malaise and lack of dialogue hinder SGA

“It’s a three-legged stool consisting of staff council, faculty and SGA,” said Vandy Kemp, vice president and dean of students.

However, right now, it’s more akin to a two-and-a-half legged stool—or two-and-nine-one-hundredths, to be honest.

The 9/100, of course, represents the turnout for the latest SGA election, “the only measure of formal power for students,” according to Devan Reynolds, outgoing SGA president.

The wants and needs of around 1,100 students are being decided on by the 112 voters who turned out for this recent election, lagging far behind such traditional democratic powerhouses like Estonia, Bulgaria, Hungary and the United States (who actually “boast” some of the lowest voter turnouts among democracies worldwide).

Obviously, the stakes are a little lower for MC, but the analogy is still relevant.

“Most rules and most policies are reviewed by all three,” Kemp said. “And if it’s a major decision … then it’s always discussed by faculty and staff and students. I don’t think SGA realizes how powerful it can really be. And my job each year is somewhat to nag them a bit about, ‘You have power—use it for good.’”

Recent developments with the adding and cutting of majors and minors and concerns over the college’s strategic plan have provoked a rise of campus discontent—or if not discontent, then at least feelings of disconnection.

Why, then, was there such low voter turnout, if these feelings are so strong?

The SGA meeting on May 3 was one of the more well-attended SGA events, according to the organization, yet they stated that only eight non-government students were present.

There was drama, tears, anger and pointed debate between Kemp, acting as a representative of school administration, and several students, both in regards to SGA and other issues.

It was, to tell the truth, a fairly open, honest and good student government meeting, but it was hindered in that it was conducted by a government that isn’t seen by a large part of the student body as truly representative of them.

“I don’t think students know what’s going on,” said sophomore Natasha Strain. “Therefore, they don’t want to be involved. If they knew that something was going on, I think they would be more involved. I think SGA needs to be more pronounced on stuff that they do. With all the stuff they do, I had no idea that they were going to be revising the academic scheduling and stuff like that.”

Natasha is not alone in her thinking.

I asked several students about SGA since the elections, but none of them had actually voted.

Why is that?

As freshman Stacey Padilla explained, many students feel as if the elections were simply under advertised.

“I wasn’t on campus during the time it was held,” Padilla said. “I also only heard about it a couple of times, so I wasn’t sure what I’d be voting for.”

Aidai Kozhalieva, a junior international student from Kyrgyzstan, merely said: “I didn’t vote. I didn’t know about it.”

Why is this the case?

Is SGA or the student body to blame?

“When you think about the investment that students and their families are making in MC, it’s curious to me that they’re not more concerned with how things are run and what goes on,” Kemp said. “Either people are fairly dissatisfied with stuff and they don’t care, or they don’t think SGA can do anything about it. And I think that both of those extremes are incorrect, and I think that SGA has a responsibility to be active and to think about what SGA can do to improve [communication].”

Dr. Andy Lewter, associate dean of students for student development and SGA’s faculty advisor, agrees with Kemp.

“If you feel like our culture now is about immediate gratification—’How is it gonna change tomorrow’ or ‘I’m upset today so I want it to change tomorrow—‘then things can’t necessarily move that fast,” Lewter said. “And we continue to push student government members to go out and talk to other students and find out how they feel about different issues. I would say, too, that the general student may feel like that the decisions that student government makes doesn’t affect them. And that’s not exactly true. It’s actually probably in the other direction. The decisions that student government makes have a huge effect on other students.”

The consensus seems to be that there’s a fundamental dialectic which should occur between the student body and SGA that some time ago became broken.

Whether that’s the fault of the SGA or the students at large is irrelevant at this point.

The fact is that a lot, if not most, students, myself included, could probably not describe the function of SGA.

For the record, SGA independently runs student room selection, appropriates funds for clubs and organizations and (in theory) acts as a buffer between the student body and administration.

Reynolds explained that SGA representatives are able to impact decisions made by college administration.

“The SGA president, now Keli Shipley, has the ability to kind of walk up to any administrator on campus, tell them their opinion and you get treated as an equal,” Reynolds said. “You’re not just some student complaining about something. You’re a student who’s charged with representing student government, which in turn is charged with representing the rest of the students. So, when you speak in an official manner to another administrator on campus, you’re speaking essentially with the full force of the student body behind you, and they have to take that seriously because the student body is what keeps an institution in higher education running.”

“Being in SGA legitimizes what we say,” Shipley said, relating an anecdote about the recent search for the new dean of academic affairs.

“It was really comforting because Dr. Bogart, when he was speaking to us, he goes, ‘I actually want to keep this person because it matters what Ellison and Keli say because they’re the students—they’re the ones who this academic dean will affect the most,’” Shipley said. “And that was just really comforting seeing that we have that influence, whether people realize it or not.”

I pressed Shipley and Reynolds, also the incoming senior class president, about this issue, because I was wondering if SGA was truly vital.

They credited the administration—Dr. Bogart and Vandy Kemp in particular—for encouraging input.

“I feel they have been very receptive of what SGA has taken to it,” Reynolds said. “The simplest way I can put it is [that] we take the concerns of the students—what they care about—we take that and are able to present it to the administration in a format that has authority. Like, you can have a few students that complain about an issue, but they don’t have the sort of historical and traditional kind of authority that an organization like student government [has]. We, as an organization, have presumably been doing this since it started.”

Both the administration and SGA repeated that point as I interviewed representatives of each, but I couldn’t help but keep thinking that there was a serious disconnect, still.

There are students on committees and they are elected representatives of the students and they theoretically speak for the student body, but there is a huge gap that seems to arise whenever a big issue comes up.

Case in point: I’ve not seen the level of emotion at Maryville that was present at the May 3 meeting at any other time.

Had there been more of a dialogue, would the students have been able to possibly change decisions or at least feel that they weren’t, in the words of one student, “blindsided”?

Does there need to be an agitator to spur government involvement?

“It goes up and down and up and down,” said Kemp. “It trends. I remember SGA 20 years ago—over a two-year period, they developed and crafted the college covenant, which was a big deal. I know 10 years ago there was a huge debate on Greek life on campus. I know students were trying to get a gay-straight alliance on campus. So, there have been hot-topic issues that SGA has really engaged in and come forward [with], but I don’t think SGA has found that issue in the last year or two to really get the campus involved.”

If that’s the case, then the recent faculty and staff cuts could potentially be a catalyst for increased involvement.

Lewter sees recent years as part of a “downward trend.”

“There are less students that seem to be interested in being a part of student government,” Lewter said. “A few of the problems with student government is that we tend to have the same people involved all the time—which in some ways is good and in some ways it doesn’t provide for new ideas or new energy in the group.”

This doesn’t, to me, seem like an ideal way of running a government.

And I don’t singularly blame the administration or SGA or the student body for this.

For better or worse, there doesn’t seem to be much of a tradition of student government involvement on campus—and that’s weird and bad, considering that we are in the Volunteer State and that we celebrate Kin Takahashi so much.

Solutions, though, aren’t easy.

Should SGA be salvaged and try to move in a sustainable direction, or has the time come to tear it down and start anew?

Opinions vary, but SGA members and the administration are open to both.

“I do believe, as I said earlier, in the structure of college governance here, that [SGA is] an important piece,” Kemp said. “So it may not be the best—you hear people say this about Congress—but it’s the best that exists. And so I can see having bold conversations about how we can do it better and if there’s a better way to do student government, but the truth is that our student government does pretty well.”

Dr. Lewter agrees but notes reconstructing SGA is not something currently under consideration.

“That’s for sure something that could be considered, and if there were other models out there, then we could move forward with that, but currently there’s been no discussion of changing our process or system,” Lewter said.

“We all study government for our majors, so it’s interesting seeing the different types, and it really does depend on the student body as is,” Shipley said. “So, I’m not gonna say that we’re completely opposed to creating a new form of government, but at least my personal stance on it would be to try and alter what we currently have and work with what we have because I don’t see it as being that big of an issue or that big of a roadblock into creating a better communication. I think the capability is there; I just think we need to tweak some things.”

Suppose a scenario in which 113 other students get together and form an organization, though, another student government, with a greater amount of participation.

That would certainly put the administration in a bind as far as accepting the legitimacy of one organization over the other.

Our portion of our tuition and fees goes into the pool for clubs and organizations and student development—would that not have to be transferred to an organization that could claim more legitimacy than SGA as currently constructed?

“If you only have 112 people vote, are you representing the whole student body or those people who selected you?” Lewter asked.

Neither he nor I are calling for a coup or blaming the current or previous incarnations of SGA.

SGA just simply isn’t part of our culture at Maryville, and I think that’s unambiguously for ill.

I personally feel that it’s time for a new form of government which would start out with the explicit message of engaging the entire student body so that we don’t have situations like this past week, in which a significant portion of the campus feels like a major decision was made without its input.

It is a three-legged stool, as Kemp said, but the third leg is not just shorter than the others.

It’s broken.

“I think you feel really good when you’re an SGA member here and you take on a particular project or a particular goal and you see it through,” Kemp said. “You leave college and you go, ‘You know, I made that happen there. I changed things at Maryville College.’ I think that’s really powerful.”

Why must this be constrained to SGA?

If you went to the meeting May 3, you know by now that the school was facing a $1.2 million budget shortfall as of April.

But the simple fact is that you probably didn’t go to the meeting May 3.

If you were like the majority of students that I interviewed, you probably didn’t even know there was a meeting.

I think Kemp is right in saying that it’s incredibly powerful to change something at Maryville—and I would go further in saying that it’s a privilege and a responsibility to do so, if we care at all about the legacy of Kin Takahashi or about building a future.

I think Lewter is right that there’s a generational element to it, too, and Shipley and Reynolds are right in thinking that both the administration and the student representatives are pining for more involvement of the at-large student body.

Perhaps the recent budget cut is one of those somewhat cataclysmic and tense events that galvanizes students into action, but if history teaches us anything, the involvement will fizzle out after anger and depression has died down.

That’s bad.

I would rather have something new, something that we can actually be proud of and actually, as students, feel in control of.

I think Kemp’s thoughts on this are appropriate.

“I think what your non-SGA member student can do is make sure that you’re expressing your concerns. Don’t let people get by with, ‘The food here is bad.’ What don’t you like about it? Let’s go talk about making it better. Or about the library or whatever—people need not to express random complaints. They need to articulate what don’t they like or what can we do better. We’re very receptive to that. We’ve got leeway that we can manage. Most things don’t require a lot of money. They just require people to think about things in a different way—to not be cynical.”

I agree—and if you care more than superficially about the college, then so should you.

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