HENAGAN: End the apathy

University students need to better engage in student elections

The University Office of the Dean of Students defines student self-governance as “the entrustment of much decision-making to students.” Students, faculty and alumni love to toss around everyone’s favorite buzzword when describing what truly embodies the University experience. However, what happens when students no longer choose to govern?

Just over thirty undergraduate races for positions ranging from Honor Committee to Student Council concluded last week. A number of candidates ran unopposed. Buzzwords and phrases for this election season at the University include apathy, boredom and confusion. From admission officers to architecture students, everyone points to student self-governance as what sets this school apart from other institutions. Even Evan Behrle, this year’s Honor Committee Chair, pays lip service to the ideal: “The benefits of student self-governance is [sic] so obvious and so difficult to understate. There is something communitarian about the whole project — about the endowment of this responsibility in the student body even as older students leave and new students come in.”

How can we call the project communitarian if the community does not run for election? Not to mention the fact that voter turnout as a percentage of the student body remained below 18 percent for many elections. To put these into real figures, 18 percent means that less than 5,000 of the over 21,000 students at this University who were eligible to vote for Student Council offices did not take approximately three minutes out of their day to vote. Jalen Ross ran a completely uncontested race for Student Council president. What should have been a hotly contested race on grounds turned into a conversational footnote during the campaign season.

There is either a clandestine political machine controlling the school’s leadership positions, or Virginia students have lost faith in the effectiveness and relevancy of student positions. While a Tammany Hall-esque situation seems unlikely, the disinterest in student body politics represents a failure by current students to uphold their end to an unwritten social contract they signed the moment they set foot on Grounds. This contract stipulates they seek to serve the ideals of the University while they live within the Community of Trust. Duties include voting in elections, actively participating in the Honor system and taking the initiative to attack social issues wherever they arise. The power of student leaders extends only as far as the student body is willing to follow.

Opponents raise the argument that the elected positions at the University do not hold real power or have real ability to bring about change. However, regardless of whether or not this statement holds true, students who come to the University should seek to embody University ideals, which include maximizing the potential of revered concepts like student self-governance and Honor. The only way to ensure this University maintains its mission as a sort of long-standing social experiment is if the students who come here fully buy into the principles laid out in University rhetoric. Mr. Jefferson intended the University to be a microcosm of the ideal democracy.

Students must reject apathy and this overwhelming sense of jadedness with lofty idealism. Student self-governance is not about the acquisition of personal power or padded resumes; it is about finding the most effective medium through which to serve the University. This simple commitment to serve the University should inspire the revitalization of the system. Students must decide what self-governance looks like during this era of the University. Is it too much to ask for 50 percent voter participation and a series of contested elections? The University clearly has issues with racial and cultural diversity, but there has to be enough diversity of opinion to put forth a contested race for student body president.

This election season’s apathy must not permeate into the culture of the University. A cultural reclamation project is in order and should be part of the agenda of every organization on Grounds. Student leadership needs a grassroots-style movement to reclaim its revered position in University society.

Will Henagan is a Viewpoint writer.

Published March 5, 2014 in Opinion

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