May 14, 2013

Tools of engagement

Student Government should take advantage of the opportunity to sustain the political engagement that spiked during elections.

In addition to our student body’s fondness for fun-killing, we are notorious for being apolitical or, more accurately, politically apathetic.

It’s a trait I’d see resurface frequently while leading our campus’s Students for Obama team last fall. It didn’t take long—or much—to realize that the vast majority of our students were far too politically skeptical to volunteer their time to a presidential campaign in any meaningful or consistent manner. Even the most committed of student volunteers would come and go (and flake) largely as they pleased.

It was therefore incredibly refreshing to finally see our student body get so engaged in the politics of this year’s Student Government (SG) elections.

It wasn’t that this year’s turnout was remarkably high; at 2,305, undergraduate turnout was actually slightly lower than last year’s 2,317. Far more compelling was the margin of victory. In 2011, LIVEChicago beat the runner-up slate by 291 votes, and last year, Connect slate won by 549 votes—more than 291 to be sure, but far less than Impact’s landslide 839-vote triumph.

The reason for this, I think, was that something far more important was at play in this year’s election: real issues. From droppings-ridden dining halls to abysmal health services to possible divestments, administrative transparency, disability inaccessibility, “Politically Incorrect Maroon Confessions,” and scores of other concerns, we were finally—finally—engaging in a dialogue about what mattered to us and what we wanted in and from our representatives.

Online engagement signifies this momentum most remarkably. One could even argue that it was this form of engagement with key issues that helped seal Impact’s landslide victory.

Some, such as Maroon contributor Tori Borengasser, have criticized social media forums like “UChicago: Where Good Food Comes to Die” and “Student Health Horror Stories” for inspiring what they see as student idleness on campus issues. Such critics understand social media as a voice detached from action. However, it’s these same social networks that provided a crucial platform for thousands of students to coordinate and articulate a cohesive, collective response when SG voting opened.

It was online engagement that allowed the Election and Rules Committee (E&R) controversy, for example, to become such a focal point of the SG race. Had we continued to not care about student politics, we would have seen the disqualification of one candidate and the penalization of another as the status quo—as simply more evidence of the inherent corruption of our (and Illinois’s) politics. But we didn’t. This year, we cared; we refused to accept a do-nothing default and, in a rare moment of political mindfulness, we demanded more.

But we can’t forget that issues do not end with a new slate of leaders; the ballot is only the beginning. For proof, one need not look further than Barack Obama’s presidency circa 2009. It is therefore crucial that we keep this engagement—this momentum—going strong.

For their part, our new (and returning) SG representatives need to make sure that the concerns heard during elections continue to resonate. They should be addressed, certainly, but we must also know that they are being addressed. And if, for whatever reason, they are not able to be addressed, SG must tell us why honestly and in an accessible and timely manner.

That’s the thing about transparency—maybe the only thing that all of this year’s slate candidate platforms had in common: It doesn’t just mean giving constituents access to information. It’s not enough to be an open book if no one knows where the library is, or to host an “open forum” about which few are informed and to which fewer are invited. Being transparent about one’s operations requires publishing relevant information in places where as many concerned parties as possible will be able to find it.

For example, SG meetings take place on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. in Stuart 104, and are open to all students. But how many students actually know this? It’s not enough for SG to run a Google calendar with this information if no one knows it exists, or to publish it on its Web site if no one knows to look at the site’s afterthought of a right sidebar.

All signs point to social media being a central way for students to show that they care. SG should increase its social media presence, using it not only to gather students’ input and address their concerns, but also to post information about its open meetings, forums, and events.

But beyond a greater SG presence on social media, the onus falls on us, as students, to respond to any increases in the accessibility of information. It’s exciting to see us get so excited about politics. Let’s not let that engagement die, and let’s start holding our representatives accountable for making the most of it.

Anastasia Golovashkina is a second-year in the College majoring in economics.