Student governance at UT is an odd, frustrating thing.
Many students are unaware of its existence, and almost all of those who are aware of it have a distaste for it. It's a sort of phantasm that haunts UT student life. Like similar microcosms of government, it has fallen ill to something that political theorists colloquially call a "negative feedback loop." Rudimentarily, the loop goes something like this.
Consider two parties, party A and party B, that have come to a mutual agreement. A "negative feedback loop" refers to the scenario in which party A breaks the deal because it fears that party B will not uphold its end of the bargain. It's not that party B has wronged party A, it's just that party A is unwilling to take the risk that party B won't deliver on the agreement. Thus, party A acts out of preemptive self-defense.
When "negative feedback loops" set in to systems of political representation, it's nearly impossible to restore trust between the "people" and their governmental institutions. In UT's case, party A is the student body, and party B is the student government.
Students at UT want a student government with some real meat to it. They want a student government that has clout with the administration, and they want leaders with actual power. But the recent past has delivered just the opposite.
We've seen campaign promises with empty follow-through, a lack of motivation for change among top leaders, and lackluster inclusion among different student populations. But none of these things is the real problem with student government at the University of Tennessee. The funny thing is that students could, and probably would, put up with these sorts of shortcomings if the root of the problem were addressed.
The truth is I'm not sure what happened first: SGA not delivering on its promise, or the students not supporting SGA. But the chronology is irrelevant now. In the recent past, students haven't cared about SGA because it had no power. And, to an extent, SGA hasn't had any power because students haven't cared. The feedback loop has set in.
The bedrock problem is that the Student Government Association (SGA) has simply lacked power in the recent past. Even when SGA experiences the shortcomings — empty promises, etc. — mentioned above, students don't really care because they've already checked out of the game. Good-intentioned SGA leaders have done some great things for campus, but SGA's most valiant efforts at most residually affect student lives. Why would students care about a government that has no effect on them?
Somewhere along the line, students stopped caring — almost entirely — about their student government. The total vote of the past three SGA elections has averaged about 17% of the total student population. This is, of course, because students think that SGA has no power to do anything of substance. It lacks legitimacy.
Let's reconsider the "negative feedback loop" mentioned above. Scarred by past experiences with SGA, students fear that SGA has no authority, so they aren't willing to take the risk of committing lots of time and effort to support their SGA. SGA and the student body must have some sort of deal for there to be an effective student government: the students must be willing to provide genuine support for, and involvement with, the SGA, and the SGA must deliver on its promises to make promises with substance happen — to do things that really affect students' educational and recreational lives. But success can only occur if neither party preemptively breaks the deal.
In order to reverse the loop, SGA must take a bold step in the opposite direction. With that step, students must take the risk and follow with support in tow. The good news? It turns out there may be warrant for optimism.
Three strong, capable leaders have recently been elected to the top SGA posts, and SGA showed unusual signs of life over the summer. There's been quite an uptick in social media and website communication on their part, and they're doing more to increase SGA recruitment.
But it doesn't matter what efforts SGA is taking if there is no dialogue across campus. Student government at the University of Georgia has the power to distribute over one million dollars to student groups on campus. If you want SGA
The aim of my column is to spark honest dialogue about student politics. I will share my thoughts — complementary at times, critical at others, but always constructive — against the background that SGA deserves a nod in our student lives. I encourage you to e-mail Adam Roddy, our student body President, at firstname.lastname@example.org with thoughts or concerns throughout the year. SGA certainly needs to fight to regain legitimacy in the eyes of students, but student dialogue and support are requisites for that legitimacy as well.
— Eric Dixon is a senior in philosophy. He can be reached at email@example.com.