Here to serve who?
An exploration of how SGA’s administration has evolved between 2012 and 2019.
April 29, 2019
At one point, I had aspirations to be a part of the Student Government Association here on campus. Then I read Hatter Network’s bylaws and found that I am not allowed to be a senator. This tragedy aside, I found another way to be involved–thus, I have been spending most of my Wednesday evenings this academic year at SGA meetings, writing up highlights for each issue of The Reporter. At other colleges and universities, the Student Government Association plays a large role in the goings on of university life, but after eight months of SGA meetings, until recently I couldn’t say that I had seen anything major being done.
If you take a look at my compiled SGA Highlights, you will know that several weeks ago, SGA was voting to approve new senators, and I’ll be honest, the voting seemed lazy. Few people actually knew the candidates who came forward to present their ideas, even fewer asked many questions of the applicants, despite being given ample time to do so. The period of deliberation was short and quiet, then by majority the senate elects were all approved to be in SGA.
This is troubling. It felt as if the goal were quantity over quality. If you do not know someone, and the questions asked are inadequate to form a more complete picture of them, you should abstain from voting for or against them. Instead, elects who may not have the work ethic, the communication and collaborative skills, or the drive to be effective SGA senators seem to be indiscriminately placed onto what is supposed to be a well-respected, powerful conduit through which the voice of the student body may be heard.
Curious to know what the senators thought of their own legislative process and organization, I reached out to several for statements. The current senators I spoke to expressed that they prefer to remain anonymous, but the information they provided points to an immense issue with the current state of our Student Government Association.
Based on my own observation that SGA’s meetings seemed ineffective at best, I asked one senator what they believe the underlying cause of this is.
“SGA has a major problem with complacency and not properly fulfilling their responsibilities to their constituents. There are only a handful of senators who take their responsibility seriously, and they are carrying the weight of the entire legislative body,” they told me in response. The thoughts of others seemed to align with this general idea–a majority of senators seemed disinterested and only vaguely involved in the proceedings of each Wednesday meeting, and many made motions that were little more than jokes.
“No real change is being seen on campus, or if there is, we definitely don’t know about it. …I don’t know what to say when I’m asked why I’m in SGA, because honestly I don’t know,” stated another senator, adding, “since I joined, there hasn’t been a vote on something that has the potential to truly impact life on campus. …it is the least impactful, least effective, and least memorable thing I have been involved in on campus.”
Faculty have remarked to me in the past that they have never been at a school where so few students engage in activism, and it seems that this problem is further manifesting itself in the form of reduced membership in clubs and organizations, lower levels of attendance in class, lowered involvement both academically and otherwise, and in the apathy of students who do join significant extracurricular bodies on campus.
“Student apathy is at an all time high in student organizations,” another senator said during our meeting, adding that over 50 percent of the current makeup of SGA is senators in their first term. Retention levels are alarmingly low, in their opinion, and seats still remain unfilled.
“Senate is supposed to be, you know, the best and the brightest…but a majority of the senate doesn’t give a shit, doesn’t know, and doesn’t care.”
In browsing the archives, it becomes apparent that we once had an effective, outspoken SGA–so what exactly happened? I was put in touch with a former high level SGA executive member to further discuss previous SGA administrations, and we spoke about their opinions regarding the shift.
In 2013, Dudley Joseph, known better as DJ, won the SGA presidency and proceeded to become what some I spoke to called one of the laziest and more incompetent SGA presidents in recent Stetson history. During DJ’s time as president, the former executive member informed me, the decision was made by “Lua Hancock (under the advice of Tanner Vickers)” to use the excess SAFAC funds from that academic year to fund The Rock. A former member of The Reporter staff informed me that DJ encountered academic issues during his tenure and they do not believe he graduated from Stetson University. This was corroborated by the former executive member of SGA.
DJ was succeeded by Aaron Bibbee, who stood up to the administration against their decision to construct the Rock, but often butted heads with the them over what exactly the purpose was that SGA was meant to serve. When contacted, Bibbee confirmed that there was “definitely a sense that the administration thought [he] should be more of a liaison,” and that “there was a fundamental difference of opinion in the amount of direct and unfettered control [SGA was] allowed to have over certain things.” Aaron’s term was especially unique in that there was a large amount of unrest within the student body over “large, visible, and unpopular changes” made by the administration, making it “easy for SGA to channel…energy into legislation,” but there were still many challenges to face due to the legacy left by the previous administration.
“[After DJ] when Bibbee was elected the next year, the admin didn’t respect or treat us seriously. [Dr. Libby] didn’t have meetings regularly scheduled. It was an uphill battle… At the same time, the senate was in disarray because Dudley [Joseph] and Alyssa [Collins] didn’t have the status to be able to actually bring passed legislation to the admins to be implemented and everyone knew it, so people just stopped…debating,” confirmed the former executive member. “I [feel] like we were never taken seriously by the administration, so there was only so much we could do.”
After Bibbee began bridging the gap that had been formed between the SGA, the administration, and the student body, it was the job of the following administrations to continue his work. And so they did. Jeffrey Hahn, Alyssa Morley, and Daniel Mejia have since held the position of SGA president, and although the work has continued, in the perception of current senators it simply has not happened quickly enough. In light of this realization, I decided to speak to several current members of the SGA Executive Board. For this piece, I spoke to Patrick Sheridan, President pro tempore, Lauren Spratt, Vice President, and Joseph Francis, Chair of Academic Affairs.
Patrick Sheridan tends to stay relatively middle-of-the-road with his beliefs about Student Government’s purpose.
“[The SGA is] representative of the student body, but is representative in terms of being a liaison, I think. The purpose of SGA is to effect change within the campus community, which, I would say, we’re probably doing a better job of this year than last year. I would say that…Jeffrey had a good handle on that…Alyssa leaned more toward the representation side, and it led her to stray more into issues that SGA doesn’t need to be dealing with.”
When asked what he meant by this, Patrick made note of several things SGA has been handling in the past couple of years that are not under their umbrella of responsibility, including DACA and Title IX.
Lauren Spratt acknowledged that there are definitely still issues that will have to be worked on as time continues to pass. In addressing the gap, she spoke on the work being done to continue building the bridge Bibbee set the foundations for, saying, “We’ve been successful in getting these ties back, but we don’t have as much of a connection with the student body as I would like. …Within the administration, we have definitely worked our way toward having more of a partnership. …we have more student representation in different university committees.”
I asked her about an issue facing many previous SGA administrations, which is what exactly the purpose is that the SGA is meant to serve–what is their role?
“We are still in a process of self-discovery. Now that we have strengthened our relationships with the administration and with academic departments, it is time to turn our focus toward how we market ourselves to the student body. …The next stage is trying to work on the student connection side. I think what the next step will be is…rather than telling students they can come to us, we will go to them.”
These points were reiterated by both Patrick and Joe Francis. When I addressed with Patrick what I had spoken about with other senators, he responded, “We’ve had quite a few people drop out over the year, but…based on my three years…it’s much like any other organization. You know that saying, twenty percent of the people do eighty percent of the work? I would almost say that this year we definitely haven’t been passing as much legislation, but we’ve also been doing lots of smaller things. We’ve been interacting more with the administration, and especially with the faculty.”
Joe also touched on other issues brought up by others, namely the idea that the SGA is too large to hold senators accountable for their responsibilities, “Execs have been considering a reduction in size,” he told me, adding that “having fewer people makes each position more important, which will attract more driven people, make things more competitive. …This tightens the framework of SGA.”
In response to one senator’s comment that “the SGA Executive Board does not hold senators accountable for their actions,” Joe countered, “Accountability is one of our strongest suits right now. …We have a pretty solid system. We have been very aware of when people don’t do stuff.”
Current executive board members of SGA clearly have high hopes for SGA’s future, and across the board agreed that although the work is difficult and tedious, progress is certainly being made.
It is difficult, especially on a micro level, to recognize just how much SGA has transformed since 2012. When executive and judicial power were sacrificed by a troubled administration in 2013, the Stetson Student Government Association effectively tasked its future iterations with several years of work in reconstructing the bonds that had been severed, and it is necessary to understand this context to entirely grasp where SGA is now. It is frustrating to feel stuck, to feel unproductive, and to see those around you lacking investment in their positions, but even now SGA is still within the process of “self discovery,” as Lauren put it. Retention is low and turnover high, but Joe Francis put it well when he thoughtfully said, “Within that turnover we have this unique opportunity…[to find] students who really care. I think we really need to pronounce the fact that many are still here because they do their jobs.”
As our conversation came to a close, Patrick remarked that there is “a very core committed group of younger people willing to take on larger complex issues,” but admitted that the large issues they are taking on, fittingly, have much longer timelines within which they are acting. “These things take a while to come to fruition.” Lauren agreed, referring to it as the difference between a sprint and a cross-country run. “You have to keep working at it even if it feels like you aren’t getting anywhere.”
Joe focused on the smaller steps in our discussion, telling me, “I see a lot of room for checkpoints…greater student involvement, more people coming, more people giving their opinions, from SGA, more personal conviction to do stuff. …Just, more. More action, more desire to grow SGA. Once that’s achieved, you can start to look at the more complex issues. …I think the [future]’s kind of bright.”
Addressing these with Lauren, she agreed. “I feel like I’ve been able to see the changes that are happening in student government, although I would not say that we’re at the endpoint. We have made progress, which is what matters to me.”
“And what is the endpoint?” I asked her.
“Just doing more. Closing more gaps between different student groups, forming more connections with administration, having more direct sense of purpose within SGA as senators, and…always striving to do and be more.”