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St. Olaf’s student government needs to avert a doom spiral

St. Olaf’s Student Government Association (SGA) is in trouble. SGA’s fall senate elections had few contested positions. Spring 2021 executive elections had record low turnout. SGA’s budget has been cut by St. Olaf’s administration. There is a movement within SGA to replace many of its elected positions with an unelected board. These issues seem separate, but they are all symptoms of a more fundamental problem — a doom spiral of inaction and disengagement. 

The loop is simple. SGA gets low student participation and with it a weak mandate to represent the student body. The administration recognizes this and cedes no ground to SGA’s activism, preventing any serious change. SGA is then seen as an organization which can’t produce meaningful reform, and students tune out. In this multi-year process, caused by a confluence of factors, neither SGA nor the student body at large are blameless. 

When was the last time SGA had a big victory? When was the last time SGA successfully enacted change contrary to the immediate desires of the administration? Perhaps one could point to last year’s Board of Regents Student Committee (BORSC) presentation on mental health, which was followed by the addition of TimelyCare to St. Olaf’s mental health resources. It’s hard to really substantiate this as an SGA victory, however, as St. Olaf’s administration had set the plan to bring TimelyCare to campus significantly before BORSC’s presentation in the first place. 

It would be hard to imagine St. Olaf’s nonzero but scant progress on its anti-racism efforts as either SGA-caused or a serious victory for the student body. Anti-racism has been a touchpoint issue in official language and in the committee boardroom for years, and despite student activism, those are the two places it has largely remained. 

Perhaps the little-recognized change to St. Olaf’s investment policy to slowly divest from fossil fuels was SGA’s largest recent success. But this victory was largely on the back of St. Olaf’s Climate Justice Collective (CJC), and was a tenuous one, seen by many student activists as not going far enough. St. Olaf’s investment policy doesn’t even prohibit the college from investing in index funds invested in the fossil fuel industry—it only asks the school not to prefer those that do. It’s also notable to mention that the CJC has far and away been the most effective student organization for causing change on campus. Nobody’s protests got more attendees. Nobody else got the Board of Regents to change their investment policy. This victory, incremental at best and misleading at worst, is the biggest win for campus activism in recent memory. 

Where does this leave us? It has become obvious that SGA’s victories are either at the hands of other student organizations or came when SGA suggested something the administration already wanted. 

It wasn’t always this way. In May 2018, St. Olaf’s administration was considering outsourcing mental health resources to a third-party provider in Northfield rather than maintaining counseling at Boe House. This move was prevented by an SGA resolution—and, of course, a litany of non-SGA student activists. This was an instance where the students and the administration went head to head and the students won. So what has changed since? 

SGA lost a fight with the administration. In fall 2019, white supremacist stickers were placed all over the St. Olaf campus. The administration waited to mention their existence, figuring it more useful to not pay them attention. This was met by frustration from students, who felt betrayed. SGA Senate passed a resolution rightfully condemning the Administration’s response to the stickers. The administration did nothing, and SGA never pushed the issue forward, despite still significant frustration from the student body. SGA passed a resolution against the administration, and nothing happened. SGA angered the administration, and students still felt betrayed by SGA’s inability to cause change. 

That instance, in retrospect, caused many student activists to lose their engagement with SGA, to imagine it ineffectual. Without another large-scale victory from SGA in the 2019-2020 school year, and with tensions between the student body and the administration simmering, people stopped buying into SGA. Students either decided they didn’t care about changing St. Olaf — and got sucked into the narcissistic tedium of campus—or they thought fighting on a different front was more sensible.

For the 2020-2021 school year, SGA changed their strategy. President Melie Ekunno ’21 and Vice President Imani Mosher ’21 decided to engage in more outward conflict with the administration, publishing demands early in the year in response to the Seven Feet For Seven Shots protest. Since the bridge with the administration had been burned, it was a calculated risk. The hope was that student activists would side with SGA, and a grassroots movement would be enough to force the administration to take action to implement anti-racist policies on campus. 

The risk, at this moment, didn’t seem to pay off. The student body didn’t get behind SGA. There were not widespread protests in the wake of the new demands. The grassroots movement failed to gain traction. This is the position SGA is in now, and it describes its present issue with enacting change on campus. If the student body and SGA can’t work together to gain some grassroots victories, SGA will never gain enough support from the student body that the administration feels that they need to listen to them. 

I am not blameless in this transformation. SGA is an organization where starry-eyed idealists join, find themselves incapable of causing change, and leave. I was the same way. I made the mistake of turning the engagement problem inward by co-writing one of the largest bills of the 2019-2020 school year, to change dorm senators into class year senators. SGA now continues to tear into itself and restructure itself, only alienating students with its internal complexity and constant reorganizations. The St. Olaf Activities and Planning — or SOAP — initiative was one such attempt, which originally aimed to place most of SGA’s operation in the hands of an unelected board. When turnout is so low, and the doom spiral is in full vision, it is easy to simultaneously see why removing elections may be appealing and why it would be disastrous. SGA needs more connection with the student body — not less. 

Similarly, I oversaw as election commissioner the spring 2021 executive elections, which had a record low turnout of 24 percent of the student body. An election where the president and vice president roles are uncontested — as they were in spring 2021 — spells disaster for SGA’s mandate, regardless of the obvious qualifications of President Andy Nelson ’23 and Vice President Michael Paredes ’22. As a veteran of SGA, I was part of this problem. 

I hope now the solution to this problem is obvious. SGA and student activists need to get on the same page, and, as soon as possible, work together on a grassroots movement for change on the St. Olaf campus. The administration has many advantages. The administration holds all the institutional power. They can simply outlast activists, waiting for them to eventually graduate and leave. All we have is our numbers. If we can’t utilize that advantage, SGA and student advocacy will both fail, and we will live in a world of milquetoast incrementalism — and things won’t get better for the students who are already marginalized by St. Olaf.


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