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Press Clipping: University of Central Florida - UCF Student Government weighs in on why it doesn’t have political parties

UCF Student Government weighs in on why it doesn't have political parties

May 2, 2023
By Jonathan Taylor

UCF Student Government lacks political parties, something almost every large-scale Florida university has, an expert said.

UCF Student Government members swear the university is better because of it.

Sierra Holmes, the UCF speaker of the senate, said she has been in Student Government for three years. She said she thinks the lack of political parties makes UCF the best student government in the state.

"Uniquely, our student government does not have political parties, unlike older Florida universities, which contributes to the cohesiveness of our senator body and other branches," she said in an email.

The American Student Government Association collects data on hundreds of schools' student governments nationwide. Butch Oxendine, the executive director and founder, said there's as many as 809 schools across the country involved with the association. Oxendine said his research includes 85 schools that have political parties. All are large-scale state universities, and 10% of them are in Florida, he said. He said most of them have a structure like they have at the University of Florida.

"Political parties tend to be dominated by large interest groups, such as Greeks," he said.

At UCF, the student government is set up differently. Instead of voting for representatives by party, each candidate enters individually.  

During an interview Holmes, political science sophomore, she said instating political parties at UCF would do more harm than good.

"I believe that creating those political parties (would) kind of deter us away from the real focus of the student government, which is the students," she said.

Holmes said if political parties were created, they'd need to be modeled like UF's and away from the traditional American political ones. Still, she said they would change how Student Government operates.

Other senators such as Ethan Temple, sophomore economics major, agree with Holmes. Temple represents the College of Business. He said based on his past two years with Student Government, he thinks the group performs fine without parties.

"UCF Student Government has a more collaborative culture," Temple said. "It doesn't confine students to some ideas or some policy agenda. Students are able to come in with whatever they wish."

Temple said he previously served as the Government Affairs and Policy Committee chair. Temple said without the parties, UCF Student Government can focus solely on its students.

"The whole core tenant of UCF Student Government is that we want to work on student body," Temple said. "The student body takes priority over everything."

Oscar Perez is the senate president at UF — the leader of the school's legislative branch of student government. The junior criminology and political science double major said UF's student government is made up by two main ideologies: the system and the independent. They're represented by two main political parties, he said.

The system, as described by Perez, mostly comprises the Gator party. The independent finds itself in the Change party, he said.

"The system party is usually the party that is backed by the fraternities and sororities and by the communities which include other ethnic minority groups," he said. "The independent party is mainly represented by basically anybody who's not part of the system."

Perez said the system party usually has a grasp, or control, over Student Government. He said they appoint members of their party to a lot of positions within the organization, even what he described as nonpartisan ones such as a place on the school's supreme court. Perez said he is the first senate president to represent the independent party.

UF Student Government is set up with two sets of 50 senators. One set of senator elections is in the spring while the other is in the fall. In the spring, senators are elected by college or classification, and in the fall, senators are elected based on location. Perez said the university's portion of Gainesville is divided into districts, and students choose someone to represent their district.

Perez said the A and B districts of the school hold most of the Greek life. Perez said these districts have a voter turnout of around 50%, one of the highest at the school.

In these two districts, 13 of the 16 representatives are from the Gator party.

Perez said the two parties usually agree on issues such as those involving student safety and diversity, equity and inclusion but differ on budgetary issues.

"Once you get into nitty gritty things like trying to ensure that funding is allocated properly in our student government budget, that's where we see a lot more pushback from the system party," he said.

Perez said he thinks the political parties at UF are beneficial.

"Political parties tend to actually help," Perez said. "I think that political parties are usually redundant, but I think that here at UF at least, they're a good way to indicate who is a part of the system."

Natalie Reichenberg, UCF hospitality management sophomore, said she thinks the lack of political parties is a good thing.

"At the end of the day, I think that we should just focus on what the candidates are doing to better our campus — better our student living," she said. "When you put labels on parties, that's what really divides people."

Oxendine said political parties have pros and cons.

"You can unite for similar views and issues; you can get a group of people to marshal their time and resources and money," he said on some of the positives.

Oxendine said the negatives include the impact on individuals who want to run.

"So schools which have political parties — it's harder for an independent student to be able to run and win," Oxendine said.

Even without official parties, UCF's recent presidential election saw candidates in positions similar to UF's Gator and Change parties. The members of the winning ticket, Student Body President-elect Brandon Greenaway and Colby Smith, student body vice president-elect, are both from fraternities while the two candidates from a losing ticket are not. Nathan Lax and Michael Kostis ran for student body president and vice president, respectively. Their campaign made a point to mention their non-Greek background and their removal from what people at UF call "the system," Kostis said.

When reflecting on the race, Kostis said his ticket should have done more to go against the frat brothers.

"Even though we were different, we just needed a lot more planning when it comes to coming up against Greek life," he said.

One of the benefits Oxendine suggested that political parties influence is voter turnout. Citing his research, Oxendine said that schools with political parties generally see a higher voter turnout in elections. He said the national average turnout is 4%, but some schools with political parties, such as the University of Alabama, have as high as a 40% voter turnout.

"Student government has a lot of power, a lot of authority, a lot of participation in shared governance," Oxendine said. "But the general student doesn't care at all. They have other fish to fry; they have other things they care about."

Reichenberg said she voted in the most recent election. She said she also thinks political parties would encourage a higher turnout at UCF.

"When it comes to labels, people either really love them or really hate them," she said. "When you put a label on a party, that's when most people are more inclined to vote because they're like, ‘I'm on this side; I want them to know I'm on this side.'"

Oxendine said he thinks UCF's low voter turnout and previous year's uncontested presidency race are concerning, especially with UCF's over 68,000 students.

"If you can't get two students to run for president at UCF, that's a big issue," he said. "That speaks to a bigger issue with student government."

Oxendine said the low voter turnout could speak to something outside the singular ticket.

"The general student body obviously doesn't care enough to vote, and that speaks to something," he said.

Oxendine said while they may not help, he thinks instituting political parties at UCF may be a good idea. He said seeing the other schools in Florida, they probably wouldn't hurt but couldn't say for sure if they would help increase voter turnout.

"It might be worth experimentation, particularly since (the school) had that uncontested race," Oxendine said.

As for students like Reichenberg, she said she just wants the group to keep its focus on the students. She said she doesn't know the effect political parties could have.

"I think that the concept is there," she said. "It could really go either way."