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Sunday, March 3, 2024
The Observer


The Observer Election Endorsement: Let’s take a look at Student Government

Traditionally, The Observer Editorial Board writes an editorial endorsing a ticket for the Notre Dame Student Body President and Vice President elections. 

This year, we decided not to. 

For nearly 20 years, we’ve endorsed a candidate. In that time, we’ve seen few policy efforts come to fruition. And when they do, as in the case of the Student Life Council of the Lee-Stitt administration, they often do not last.

To be fair, there are some exceptions in recent memory. The decision to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a school holiday was engineered in part by Student Government. Accessibility issues have also been improved by StuGov as well, with efforts to help students who aren’t able to walk get to class when sidewalks are icy or covered in snow. Last year, some dorm gyms welcomed new equipment or squat racks. There have also been recent ongoing initiatives to clarify new Title IX policies and to incorporate digital ID cards. 

Student government certainly has a role on campus, but election platforms do nearly nothing to guarantee what will get done in office.

In reality, student government is the intermediary between Notre Dame administrators who always have the final say and students who have lots of grand ideas and limited funding during a relatively short term. Compounding the problem, the organization of student government attracts both dedicated leaders and “resume sharks” — as one candidate in the 2024 race called them. Discerning the difference is anyone’s guess.

The Observer is left trying to endorse a candidate based on policy items that have no immediate impact or based on some subjective measure of authenticity. It is difficult to choose a candidate based on objective criteria for an election that often boils down to a popularity contest.

Despite slight variations in goals, material differences are few. All the candidates express a similar motivation to improve Notre Dame, build community and serve as the voice of students. They have similar ideas about diversity and inclusion, civic engagement, faith life on campus, dining hall improvements and plenty of other dimensions.

One candidate described StuGov as the “invisible hand” that works behind the scenes in this mediation role. But when the work of student government is often invisible, how can voters make an informed choice? Candidates proposed their various solutions and communications channels, but as the situation stands, editors at The Observer — people who chase after, write and edit daily stories about this campus — have a hard time pinning down exactly what student government does and where we would be as a campus without it. 

We asked candidates about this exact issue. Synthesizing their answers, we sought to understand what student government is and what powers it holds. Here’s what we found:

At times, the student body president and vice president bring student concerns to the attention of administrators. At other times, administrators and University leaders turn to these elected officials seeking a benchmark of the student population. Student leaders are both a representation of student voices and a resource for administrators to tap.

Keep that in mind when voting for candidates. Their power to effect change rests almost entirely on their power to persuade. When Notre Dame wants a student representative, they will turn first to these leaders.

In our interviews with candidates, they each expressed a desire to break away from student government’s reputation as an unimpactful organization. In our own conversations on campus, we hear the same sentiment: Student government leaders come and go, and students are left wondering what has changed. We sincerely hope that whoever wins the election can break that cycle. History tells us it will be difficult. 

The 2023-24 administration of Daniel Jung and Aidan Rezner hoped to bring in mobile IDs, fresh fruit Fridays at the dining hall, a Stand Up Speaker Series “for thought-provoking and fruitful discussions at least once a month to appreciate and promote visibility of different racial and ethnic groups” and expand protections surrounding Title IX policy for those filing non-legally binding issues like stalking. We have no doubt they worked diligently on these goals, yet none of these pillars of their platform have come to pass, at least not visibly. Another example, the grab-n-go also looks nearly the same as it did a year ago. A cursory look at the administration’s Progress Tracker shows many initiatives still marked “In Progress.”

This issue isn’t limited to the current term. As mentioned above, the previous administration of Patrick Lee and Sofie Stitt did bring back the Student Life Council, but its revival has not been sustained, highlighting the issues of the one-year terms. Even though they proposed lowering the cost of Rec Sports classes, the cost remains about $13 per week. While the Rachel Ingal-Sarah Galbenski ticket did succeed in creating a partnership between the University and Callisto in February 2022, that was an effort five years — and therefore five administrations — in the making. But their goal to improve day-to-day life by creating “Nap Pods” went unfulfilled. In 2021, future leaders Allan Njomo and Matty Bisner said they would push the University to halt investments in fossil fuels, transition University computers to the Ecosia browser and pressure the University to add sexual orientation and gender identity to its non-discrimination clause. These are laudable ideas, but they remain unaccomplished.

Part of the reason these changes have never come to pass is because the student government structure is muddled. Many students have heard terms like Student Union Board or Judicial Council thrown around but have no idea who is in charge of what and how these branches function together. And when you look at the official Student Union organization chart, it’s easy to see why.

[Photo Courtesy of Judicial Council]

Is the above chart the best way — both in terms of achieving results and individual student development — to accomplish this? Do we really need to push students into an environment where they think they’re a politician, especially when many student union roles are unelected? 

Students in student government are obviously capable of accomplishing amazing things on this campus. But the bloated system of student government encourages them to emulate the air of title-hungry politicians and cater to administrators rather than students. Notre Dame prides itself on preparing students to be a “force for good.” This means cultivating students who are ready to use real, human emotions and morals to make a positive impact. It does not mean channeling the superficial qualities inside each of us that politicians use to rise to the top of bureaucracies.

Endorsing a candidate under the current structure would validate that sentiment. We respect all those who are campaigning and wish success for whoever wins. But in the current StuGov environment and election, there just isn’t enough to separate the platforms from one another or a legitimate reason to believe the meaningful changes promised will be carried out when they haven’t for so long.

In 2023, Pew reported that just 16% of Americans trusted the United States government to do the right thing “just about always” or “most of the time.” Americans don’t have faith in an institution plagued by bureaucracy that cultivates superficial character traits. So why should Notre Dame allow its student union to grow into a winding, endless administrative state whose own leaders acknowledge a disconnect from the students they serve? 

In the 1962 Port Huron Statement, then-student activist Tom Hayden wrote:

“The accompanying ‘let’s pretend’ theory of student extracurricular affairs validates student government as a training center for those who want to spend their lives in political pretense, and discourages initiative from more articulate, honest, and sensitive students.”

Students in student government are obviously capable of accomplishing amazing things on this campus. But the current state of the system encourages them to emulate the air of politicians with big promises and obscure results. The Observer won’t be part of the problem. 

Don’t just take our word for it. Two of the tickets we profiled mentioned that many students are cynical about student government or don’t even know what role it serves. 

Perhaps we are simply missing the grand accomplishments and fulfillment of promises made. But we are actively looking, as are everyday students, with little success. Even in asking the question directly, candidate answers pinpoint only a handful of changes.

Student government certainly is capable of effecting change on campus. But the current structure  encourages students to live in a make-believe political world where they’re focused on building some sort of political legacy or resume within the bounds of what Notre Dame will allow. Platform promises do not frequently align with the work accomplished once in office.

What’s our recommendation? Size up the candidates, who are profiled in the pages of The Observer. Vote for the ticket you think will be best. But don’t be fooled into thinking this ticket will evoke major change at the University, at least not during one term. At the end of the day, Notre Dame — and not its student government — is the one calling the shots. The results of this election will be a huge win for the candidates, and probably won’t affect the rest of us. But to whoever wins: We’d love to be proved wrong.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.