A recent article by Emily Kopp provided in-depth coverage of attempts by this year’s Student Government Association to make itself more accountable. And credit is due, because this SGA has done more in that regard than any SGA I have seen in my undergraduate career.
However, SGA has misunderstood its own problem. With annual elections, open forum and the contact information of all SGA members listed plainly on its website, SGA has always been institutionally accountable to those who participate in its operation. The real issue is the paucity of students who participate.
No matter how “accountable” SGA makes itself, it matters little if the only students who participate are the same who have always participated. The overwhelming majority of students would likely welcome the absence of the annual campaign dash to see who will get the honor of placing “Student Government Association” on their résumés.
In short, SGA has a crisis of credibility, not of accountability. I would welcome the existence of an SGA in which the majority of the student body participated, but the truth of the matter is that each year, a large percentage of the student body simply does not vote in SGA’s elections.
Examine the recent vote on the question of increasing student green fees. SGA’s website reports that of the 1,771 students who participated in the online vote, 1,332 or 75.21 percent elected to increase the green fee.
Set aside the politics of a $1 increase in student green fees, and pause to question which part of the vote demonstrates “significant” support among the student body. Around 1,700 students on a campus of more than 34,400 constitute about 5.15 percent of the student body. Those favoring the increase constitute about 3.87 percent. Is a body that bases its decisions off the opinions of less than 4 percent of the student body really representing students?
As it is, SGA is in a perpetual Catch-22. If it sits on its hands and does nothing, then it is a superfluous institution. If it takes action, it is doing so in the absence of support from tens of thousands of students.
I know this is an issue that this SGA is sincerely attempting to address, but it is something that cannot easily be remedied by a few institutional changes in the name of accountability. Nevertheless, there are a few reforms that I believe would make SGA more credibly representative of the student body, separate from my previous call for a 20 percent participation threshold in its next vote of confidence.
The first is that it must do away with the self-selection bias in its online voting system for policy polling. If SGA wants to poll the student body on a proposed measure, the poll should reflect the entire student body. By this, I recommend collaborating with administration and the statistics department to randomly sample students (using phone numbers already on record with the University) to discover the real opinion of the student body rather than a self-selected fraction of it. Admittedly, this would be difficult to implement, but I believe the payoff for SGA’s reputation would be immense in the long run.
SGA should also reorganize itself in the fashion of any other registered student group on campus. That is, participation would consist of voluntary, dues-paying members. At present, SGA is structured as a sort of union in which all students are enrolled, whether they care to be or not. If restructured, it would act as would any other campus advocacy group by promoting policy changes supported by its members. The key difference is that it would act as the voice of its voluntary membership, rather than the demonstrably inaccurate claim to be the “voice for every student” as it is now. Naturally, this would require SGA to forgo many of its institutional privileges, but it would be a substantially more credible organization, as its will and the breadth of its support would be clear and definable.
In any case, the current trend cannot continue. SGA does not need to become more accessible to those already involved. It needs to get more people involved, or else content itself with limiting the scope of its authority and voice.
— Brian Underwood is a senior from Evans majoring in history and political science