Hardly a week had passed after accepting my scholarship to attend the University of Alabama before I decided that I would one day make a run for a seat in the Student Senate of UA’s Student Government Association. I was intent on leaving a mark at the place where I would spend four years of my life. The SGA, it seemed, was a natural pick.
Fast forward a couple years. I’m seated at a table amongst a row of young men and women, most clad in the ever-prevalent Comfort Colors shirts that, to me, seemed to spring out of nowhere as soon as I arrived at the Capstone. We are all SGA senators, now nearing the end of our term, and at 7:00 PM on a Thursday evening we are all in the presence of a fellow senator in the front row passionately arguing that the Senate should adopt a resolution encouraging the University to align itself with the Worker Rights Consortium, as opposed to the Fair Labor Association, with whom we currently work.
Later, another senator will respond, with the same passion and intelligence, in opposition to the WRC. As someone who is admittedly rather ignorant of the more subtle labor rights issues, I felt that there was no way I could make a “Yes or No” vote without listening to what these two senators had to say.
I found this difficult, however. In the row in front of me were three fellow senators passing around a phone with what seemed to be particularly damning photos of someone’s weekend gone awry. The laughter and whispering attracted the attention of some senators across the room, all of whom began joining in the conversation — from across the Senate floor. This, unfortunately, is the regular condition of the Student Senate at UA, week in and week out.
In another instance, we were forced to grab the nearest students walking around the Ferg to act as proxies in order to pass Financial Affairs Committee funding requests. Please just let that sink in: random students having no affiliation with SGA approved thousands of dollars in funding because not enough people showed up or sent proxies to the meeting.
Of all the human emotions, complacency is among the worst. It stops progress in its tracks. It stifles all meaningful discussion. And in a political system such as the one we have here at the University and the State of Alabama as a whole, it is destructive.
It’s not a secret that there is a problem with UA’s election process. It’s not a secret that a clandestine organization known widely as “the Machine” more or less guarantees the elections of its privileged members through a mixed bag of both legal and illegal tactics. What does seem to be a secret, at least amongst the larger student body, is the effect that this situation has on The University of Alabama.
The SGA allocates hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to various student organizations and projects that it sponsors. At the same time, many students believe that the SGA doesn’t really do anything, and they are not always far from wrong. This is an extremely problematic paradox: how can an organization that literally controls upwards of $300,000 have such an image problem regarding whether or not it actually does anything?
This is the state of affairs in a system where power is appropriated to individuals based on their Greek affiliation first and their qualifications second (or worse). This is the state of affairs in a crony system.
When the students elect people who spend every waking moment in Senate meetings (and I use the term “waking” loosely) by checking Facebook, playing games, or otherwise completely ignoring the job they were asked to do, they are effectively electing children to color all over their tuition dollars. The students are failing themselves.
When the students elect people who are simply interested in playing dress-up with a position of power, they are failing themselves.
When the students elect people who miss well over 80 percent of these meetings and still manage to keep their seats despite very clear rules that dictate their removal, they are failing themselves.
And when the students elect people who grow up to become big name politicians who now get to color all over said students’ tax dollars, they are failing themselves.
Don’t get me wrong, my Senate experience was not entirely negative by any means. I met some incredibly qualified fellow senators, Machine and non-Machine alike. Our Speaker and Secretary were both very well-suited for the job, and I’m not sure there were many who could’ve done better.
No, my problem is with those who failed to author a single piece of legislation, who failed to show up to many of the meetings for no good reason (at one point causing us to not meet quorum), and who gave the student body a perfectly good reason to doubt the very legitimacy of the SGA. And my problem is also with those who continuously allow them back in office.
There is a single problem lying at the heart of them all: students do not vote. Notice, I did not say that the Machine is the problem. The Machine, at the end of the day, is simply a group of people who take advantage of the problem in a way that benefits its members.
The University of Alabama has had a troubled past with voting. Indeed, the State itself has had a troubled past with voting, and this is not a coincidence. When we fail to engage our political system, we allow entities like the Machine to keep a closed fist on power. When that happens, we teach the students who are a part of that system that dirty politics, intimidation, and voter fraud are also okay in the real world. We saw that exact thing happen this fall in the Tuscaloosa Board of Education elections.
And still, I hear complaints that “our SGA is corrupt.” While I would agree in many ways, I would be hard-pressed to say that the students are not at fault. Our government, at all levels, is accountable to the citizens that it governs. If there is no input from those citizens, the government has a clean slate to do whatever it wants. No amount of whining that the system isn’t fair will change that. With over $300,000 dollars at stake, I’d say the students have plenty of reason to act.
My term in Senate was marked by numerous frustrations brought about by some of my fellow senators’ lack of concern for the students they claimed to represent. Security breeds complacency, and that is as true in our Student Government Association as it is anywhere else in the world. The Machine will not fix itself; that job is left to the students who vote — or don’t vote — it in power.
I can say first-hand that our SGA has a problem, and I have committed myself to spending my final years at the Capstone fighting that problem. But the solution is one that involves all of us as students of the University of Alabama. And it will one day involve all of us as citizens of the state in which we choose to live.
Until we act on that solution, we will fail ourselves, over and over again.