Media Manager

Press Clipping: How KU's Student Senate compares to other student governments

10/26/2017
How KU's Student Senate compares to other student governments

Melissa Yunk, Angie Baldelomar and Ryan Miller
Jan 27, 2017

As the University approaches spring elections, Student Senate is undergoing a review to take a critical look at how its structures and processes include – and exclude – multicultural students.

Despite using election systems different from the University’s coalition system, student governments across the Big 12 are also facing challenges to increase diversity and inclusion in their ranks.

The University is one of three Big 12 schools in which a president and vice president can run together in a coalition with a roster of senate candidates. Other schools that use a coalition system are West Virginia University and Texas Tech University.

At three other schools in the conference – Kansas State University, Baylor University and Texas Christian University – all candidates run separately. At the remaining universities, candidates for president and vice president run together on a single ticket and candidates for senate or representative positions run individually.

The University’s coalition system has come under fire in recent years for making it hard for students of color to run and win elections. In the fall of 2015, students, armed with megaphones and picket signs, led public protests demanding a separate student government for multicultural students.

In a report released last April, a campus advisory group of faculty and students said the coalition system favors “white Greek-letter organizations” and recommended the system be reviewed and changed so that elections are not easily dominated by fraternities and sororities. In early December, the University Senate, composed of students, faculty and staff, created a temporary committee to conduct such a review. The committee will present its findings in April.

The University's Student Senate is composed of 105 seats, including 14 specifically for multicultural organizations, and is empowered to allocate money to student groups, activities and programs. This year’s allocations will total more than $600,000. Supporters of the recent effort to create a separate multicultural student government said students of color don’t get enough support for initiatives that matter to them.

Professor Clarence Lang, who co-chaired the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Advisory Group, said the underrepresentation of students of color in student government is a longstanding problem at the University.

“This is no secret. It is a well-known problem, but no one before wanted to tackle the issue head on,” he said.

His group’s report noted two previous efforts to abolish the coalition system at the University. One was in October 2013, when student senators voted against such legislation. The following semester, in April 2014, the Student Senate rejected legislation for a referendum to put the issue to a vote of the entire student body.

Butch Oxendine, director of the American Student Government Association, said the ticket and coalition systems seem to be the two most commonly used systems in American universities to elect student governments. He said he doesn’t believe any one system is inherently “better” than another.

“I believe an elected student government leader can represent all students, despite the leader’s ethnicity, gender, or way they are elected. It’s a matter of demonstrating commitment to reaching out to all students,” he said.

Other universities

Like the University, other Big 12 student governments are grappling how to effectively represent students on their campuses.

At Oklahoma State University, which uses a ticket system, Mauree Turner, director of multicultural affairs for the Student Government Association, said she does not believe their organization represents all of their students, specifically minorities, very well.

Turner said SGA is trying to increase inclusion and representation by speaking to student organizations not only about opportunities for them within student government but also ways the current government can help and support them.

“We want to be a voice for all students,” she said.

At Kansas State, candidates run as individuals, not under a group, although the candidates have the option to campaign together if they so choose.

“It is hard to say if this system works better than any others. We are also not the most representative government,” said Jessica Van Ranken, the student body president.

One way Kansas State is making efforts to improve diversity and inclusivity is by creating a new membership committee that includes student leaders from diverse organizations to look at different options for ensuring their senate accurately represents Kansas State University’s diverse population, said Van Ranken.

West Virginia University uses a coalition system similar to the University. Adila Fathallah, the election chair for West Virginia University's student government association, said she thinks the coalition system can give the appearance of an inclusive group but isn’t necessarily a true representation of the student population.

“For example, we get the one black student, the one openly LGBTQ+ student, the one Muslim, Jewish, veteran/ROTC involved, band member, and a variety of students in different fraternities and sororities. Though this sounds like a perfect balance, it boils down to connections, friendships, and though it looks diverse, it truly isn't,” Fathallah said.

They have also been taking new measures to promote more inclusivity, by reaching out to student groups and opening conversations, she said. She thinks having only the president and vice president run together in a ticket system could be beneficial.

The University of Oklahoma’s student government association, which uses a ticket system, has also worked to improve inclusivity, said Student Body President Daniel Pae.

He said they’re implementing freshman diversity training for senators and hosted an open mic style event on the anniversary of a scandal that involved fraternity members making racist comments on a bus. Pae said this event gave students a chance to share how they are feeling and what they think needs to change, giving the student government insight about what more they need to do to support minority groups on OU’s campus.

“It was a very emotional and very powerful night,” Pae said.

At KU, Student Senate has made it a priority this year to make student government open and accessible to all students, said this year’s president, Stephonn Alcorn. Among the steps taken, he said, they have created a multicultural board of advisors to increase communication with the multicultural community.

He said his administration has also reached out to student groups to ask how they can help and will listen to what they have to say on a regular basis.

“That really helped us build relationships amongst the multicultural community,” Alcorn said.

Last year, Student Senate approved a measure to fund a Multicultural Student Government after students of color argued a separate organization was necessary to effectively represent their needs. But the funding legislation, which would have amounted to about $90,000, was later vetoed by the chancellor.

Nate Thomas, KU’s vice provost for diversity and equity, supported the creation of the MSG but said he now stands behind the chancellor’s decision. Thomas also praised the efforts of the current Student Senate to become more inclusive and representative of all students at the University.

“All the work they are doing, such as working with different offices that impact students, is key in accomplishing that goal of being supportive of students and students with diverse backgrounds,” he said.

Differing views

Richie Hernandez, a Hispanic student from Kansas City, ran unsuccessfully for student body president last spring as part of the CareKU coalition. He said it seems a Greek coalition gets an automatic 3,500 votes from students involved in Greek life. With that in mind, he said, non-Greek candidates know they’re hard to beat, and ultimately lose motivation to run. Neither Hernandez nor his running mate, Johnny Castellaw, were in fraternities.

“From my experience students do not see a point running against the Greek coalition,” Hernandez said.

But Michael Wade Smith, who identifies as black and Mexican, was president of Student Senate during the 2010-2011 academic year, said rather than trying to overcome the Greek system and its voters, he was able to get elected by connecting with them and other communities on campus by networking and communicating a vision other students could get behind. As a result, he said, he was able to form a more diverse coalition than there had been in previous years and won without being a fraternity member himself.

“There’s of course influence from the Greek community because there are a whole lot of them and you can communicate easily at group meetings, but that’s not the only community Student Senate reaches out to,” said Smith, who is now executive director of marketing and advancement for the provost’s office.

Alcorn, KU’s current student body president, is also black. He is a member of the Sigma Nu fraternity and his vice president, Gabby Naylor, is a member of the Pi Beta Phi sorority. Alcorn said he recognizes how the coalition system can favor students who are part of the Greek system but believes the Student Senate is committed to helping address inequities.

“The Greek system has a network in place that has served Greek students a lot. One of the things we’re focused on is, ‘How do you create those networks for multicultural students?’ I think that’s the next step,” Alcorn said.

But Lang said the conversation needs to focus on changing the current system as a whole not just on getting individuals elected. “This is a systemic issue,” he said. “Electing a person of color wouldn’t solve the systemic issue at heart.”