Riley O’Rourke Elected SGA President… After 23% Turnout

An email this evening from the SGA Election Committee announced that Riley O’Rourke received 291 out of 557 votes cast in the SGA Presidential election.  I assume this means O’Rourke has been elected President since he got over 50% of the votes cast, but the email does not make this clear.

I think the real story coming out of this election is the dismally low voter turnout– by my calculations, only 23% of the student body voted.

There are a lot of factors that could have gone into the lack of participation.  A few that come to mind are general student apathy, a lack of publicity for the election, and possibly unexciting candidates.  But I also think we should take a hard look at what the SGA actually does.  Many people consider this year’s SGA to be one of the most successful in recent memory.  Their accomplishments include extending library hours during exam week, saving midnight breakfast and saving the Freshman outdoor orientation (now called OINK).

These are concrete accomplishments, but I think the SGA also needs some more ambition.  We need an effective student voice on important issues such as the Commons system, alcohol policy, and Senior work, to name a few.  Perhaps the administration doesn’t give the SGA enough power, but the SGA could at least try to take action on substantive issues.

As I said, there are a lot of factors that go into this embarrassingly low turnout, but I think the SGA’s lack of initiative is an important part of the story.

Feel free to share your thoughts on why you did or didn’t participate in the election here. Or you could drop a comment on the SGA website.  You’d be the first activity on the SGA’s site since October…

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7 thoughts on “Riley O’Rourke Elected SGA President… After 23% Turnout

  1. George,

    Thank you writing this story on the SGA. Low-voter participation rates have been a constant concern for the SGA over the past year. In fact, that is one of the principle reasons why the SGA voted to move Senate elections into the spring. Even tonight we discussed the issue. Ultimately, we decided to release the actual numbers to spur on higher participation rates for the upcoming Student Co-Chair of Community Council election and the Senate Elections.

    If I may, I would like to address some of the other points you raised in your piece. Your characterization of this year’s SGA as being “one of the most successful in recent memory” is certainly correct and our achievements speak for themselves. Every member of the SGA has been dedicated to improving the quality of student life on this campus and protecting the interests of our constituents.

    Regarding this election, I would like to reflect on your sense of a lack of excitement. After working closely with all three candidates this year, I can assure you that each candidate would be an excellent President. Each candidate is very passionate and has a particular set of issues that inspires them. Some of these issues include the ones that you raised in your article. This year, the Senate formed an Ad-Hoc Committee to examine the ride board, general transportation issues, the College Alcohol Policy, and the Wireless Situation on Campus, to name a few. Perhaps, the lack of excitement comes from their various campaign strategies, which I wont comment on here.

    In terms of voter apathy, I must admit, it has plagued me for some time. As students, we all have the responsibility to participate in the way our school is governed. Ultimately, the onus to be concerned with the SGA lays with ourselves. Of course, the SGA can always do a better job about getting that message across, beginning with better election advertisements, the creation of voting stations staffed by election committee members, a better website, weekly press releases, monthly “Town-Hall” type meetings, etc. And, of course, an independent, critical press is necessary for any functional democracy. I am elated by the press coverage MiddBlog has given the SGA. As always, MiddBlog and “The Campus” do a fantastic job at discussing issues close to students’ hearts. But, more can be done. I am sure that the Senate would love if a Middblogger came to each meeting on Sunday to report on the SGA.

    Your article has raised some very serious issues and I hope that you continue to tackle them. I encourage other students to heed your call to “share your thoughts on why you did or didn’t participate in the election.” If you don’t tell us, we will never know.

    Sincerely,
    Vincent A. Recca’12
    Sophomore Senator

  2. Thank you, Vin, for the further explanations. But I certainly hope Vin is not the only engaged member of the SGA. Maybe some of the candidates or current senators might also participate in this discussion?

    I’ve always maintained that the SGA needs more than incremental changes and ad-hoc committees to regain the interest and trust of the Middlebury community. I wrote about it just over a year ago: http://midd-blog.com/2009/02/23/president-of-sga-resigns/

    But was I wrong? This year’s SGA seems successful with very little change. I see the SGA’s success in their willingness and tendency to spend money. 10k on new gym equipment, couple thousand on midnight breakfast, money for MOO/OINK. A lot of this could be deemed worthwhile spending, but it misses the point entirely: most students aren’t engaged with their own affairs and this community. They read about changes/purchases in The Campus and immediately take it for granted.

    Another interesting piece of info: students have received 54 emails since September 2009 that have come from sga@middlebury.edu. Maybe two emails ask some type of student input and not a single email directly addresses the student population with a report. Most emails are advertisements or calls to “join a committee.”

  3. Ryan,

    I can assure you your hope is a reality—my fellow senator, the esteemed Vincent Recca, is absolutely not the only engaged member of the SGA. I urge you, though, to use a definition of “engaged” that is broader than what you make it seem to be here—reading and choosing to respond to posts on Middblog. While some of the senators on the SGA probably do not read this publication frequently, I would argue they are still deeply engaged in many aspects of Middlebury. I would further argue that the diversity in the forms of engagement senate members choose to pursue actually contributes to the effectiveness of the organization.

    Semantics aside, I do appreciate your interest in and public criticism of the SGA. It makes our jobs of representing the campus community easier! I agree with Mr. Recca; it would be pretty cool if a Middblogger chose to join us at our weekly meetings in the Crest room, Sundays at 7pm. Anyone is welcome to come and feedback is great!

    Anyway, I want to comment on a few of the points you raise in this post as well as your post last February. I think you make some excellent points; the SGA certainly has a lot of room to be better. At the same time, though, I do think the SGA is doing a better job in some places than you give it credit for.

    First, I echo what Mr. Recca mentioned about increasing student interest in and turnout for SGA elections. We should be publicizing the event more and proactively encouraging voting. We are working on finding better ways to do this for the upcoming senate elections. Apathy of the student body toward student government affairs is indeed a big problem. In addition to increasing voter turnout, we need to encourage students to attend SGA meetings either to contribute or observe, and the means to channel feedback and comments to senators need to be more easily accessible for students. With a little maintenance, I think we can make the SGA website a good forum for this. Some senators have developed more systematic means to communicate with their constituents; perhaps it would be good for other senators to take some time to develop this kind of plan.

    I also think the suggestion to address some potentially more “important” or “substantive” issues such as “the Commons system, alcohol policy and Senior work”, as George mentions above, is indeed a goal of the SGA, but I think is a misguided criticism. So far this year, the administration has taken a proactive role in communicating with students about concerns regarding the Commons system, so this issue has not been at the forefront of the SGA’s agenda. Alcohol policy has actually been discussed at several meetings this year, and we heard a report from Dean of the College Gus Jordan on the new policies put in place last semester. According to data Dean Jordan gave us, public safety is actually seeing fewer dangerously intoxicated students. As for party regulations, we have a committee currently working on examining and proposing changes to these policies. Hearing your concerns here, we will be sure to place more emphasis on this issue and the committee addressing it in the next few meetings. I am not sure how much power the SGA senate has in student issues such as senior work, but I pledge to investigate this.

    I understand your frustration with the structural model of the SGA. While not all of the work we do is done through committees (plenty of initiatives are started and completed by individual senators), this form of teamwork has, in my experience, actually been quite effective at leveraging and organizing the different skills and interests of senate members. Sure, some ad-hoc committees are periodically forgotten on the sidelines, but I think that is simply our way of prioritizing how we want to spend our time and resources.

    I also understand general frustration with the bureaucratic nature of the organization. With the sizeable spending power of the SGA, though, I think this structure is necessary. It’s a little like the US government—in order for students and the administration to place so much power in the hands of the SGA, there needs to be a mechanism in place to limit the potential for this power to be misused. I agree with Mr. Recca that we have been successful this year in working within these confines to produce some important results and have shown this model to be effective.

    I think the suggestion you made in your February post to “get input and buy-in from the ‘student power-players’” at Middlebury is a good one. We do this. We spoke with Pier LaFarge and other representatives of the MMC when we were looking for ways to replace MOO/Middview. We meet regularly with Tom Brush, head of the Finance Committee (actually a branch of the SGA). Mr. Recca meets with leaders of the Distinguished Men of Color organization and reports back the senate. These are a few examples.

    So, when you say we need a “fundamental restructuring and re-culturing of the SGA” (your February post), I am not sure what you have in mind, whether any other model would be effective, and whether the administration would be willing to grant the same level of power to a differently structured organization. If you have any concrete ideas of how to do this, though, the senate would be more than willing to hear them.

    It is difficult for me, however, to hear you allege that my colleagues and I have chosen not to change the model of the SGA because our “resumes and egos depend on the current system.” Perhaps you have never been to an SGA meeting at Middlebury (while I’ve seen you on campus this year I haven’t seen you at a single SGA meeting), but I can confidently say my fellow senators’ and my dedication to improving our school without regard to personal gain is very apparent in the work we do for this organization each week.

    Thank you,
    Doug Shultz, ’10
    Senior Senator

  4. Thanks, Doug. Your long comment is thoughtful and challenging. Engagement is certainly not limited to reading MiddBlog, although I do hope more senators would read and chime in. With an average of 1000 viewers per day, I would argue that there is a good amount of students on this site. That’s an audience waiting to hear from student leaders daily.

    To be honest, I am a bit out of place talking about all this, because I am no longer a student at Middlebury. I am a staff member here now. And my job is no longer to preach or criticize but rather to facilitate. So instead, I ask, how can I help?

    I am comfortable challenging and starting discussions. I am happy to bring those ideas to SGA meetings on Sundays 7PM, Crest Room. But I keep coming back to this question: shouldn’t someone else (namely, a student) be taking this up? There is something strange going on when I, a non-student, am among the most vocal.

    I can point out what I see, but I don’t own this issue. Students should speak up. Is there something wrong with the SGA? If so, what? The Campus editorial made a statement today: “We feel that the entire system of student government needs of a substantial overhaul if it is ever going to garner interest from the student body.” And the aim is not put the SGA on the defensive, but rather encourage some hard reflection.

    And our collective reflection on the SGA is constrained by time. There are only a few weeks left before summer wipes the slate clean. And it’s easier to let things slide into the next year when perhaps it will be forgotten in favor of classes, midterms, and the new hot topic.

    The SGA has a lot to prove both as individuals and as a body. It’s not enough to debate issues and then rely on The Campus to report on that debate. Senators can be dedicated, but unless they are meeting other students at the forefront of the conversation (often not at the SGA), promoting their own work, and then taking swift action on inspiration, how would anyone know? If the SGA wants credit, speak up. Fight the notion that it is resume-building and ego-trips by showing students how much the SGA is attuned to and care for this community. There is a lot of noise out there, so the publicity is as important as the work itself.

    Finally, I would be concerned if anyone says, “the SGA doesn’t have the power.” Almost anything and anyone that has a well-researched, organized, and innovative proposal has a shot at happening in this community. How else did we end up with a biomass plant (sustainability), solar decathlon classes (academic), and 51 Main (social)? Those student groups didn’t have “power,” but they created big change that mattered.

  5. In reading this discussion, I can’t help but add to the call for more student participation in the student governing process. As a current freshmen senator, I can honestly agree that each member of the SGA senate is devoted to the student body in all areas of student life, and is consistently looking for more ideas to improve it. Our various ad hoc committees (wireless and transportation to name two) have met multiple times with their relative contacts to improve and adjust current systems. In the case of the wireless ad hoc committee, we met repeatedly, including with members of the LIS staff, to work on increased coverage and speed in various areas of the campus.

    As you said Ryan, I recognize that a huge part of this devotion to the student body necessitates proactive involvement of the senate members. I think this is a hugely valid point and one that can be developed further, but we must not overlook its current practice. Multiple senators have brought up various issues on campus–whether that be the health center policies or the party registration process–and have pursued these topics personally, conversing with other students and bringing information back to the senate discussions. I agree that senators have a fundamental responsibility to actively engage with “‘student power players'” and various “other students at the forefront of the conversation,” yet I also hope that students that share a motive for change will also approach the SGA members. Though the senators can and should continue to branch further into the community, I would hope that students would have the same desire to work with the legislative body to put ideas into action. The SGA senate is a collaborative group: one that needs its constituents as much as its members. Whether these interactions happen in small meetings or with the whole senate, they are necessary, and as mentioned in previous responses, the Sunday night meetings are always open.

    The end of the year is fast approaching, and with the many academic and social events coming up, this dialogue may unfortunately dissolve for the summer. Nonetheless, I hope others will contribute and keep the communication and interaction between the SGA Senate and the student body open.

    Sincerely,
    Melissa Mittelman ’13
    Freshmen Senator

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