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The SGA’s crisis of confidence


A few weeks ago, the St. Olaf student body headed to the polls to vote on key leadership positions within the SGA. What should have been a competitive election to demonstrate a popular mandate with the student body resulted in what can only be described as an overwhelming show of no confidence in the SGA. An abysmal 13 percent of students voted. The true tragedy is that St. Olaf has the makings of a politically engaged campus. 

In the 2022 government midterm elections an astonishing 87.6 percent of students voted, 21 percent higher than the national average. If we can get almost 90 percent of students to vote for someone to represent our concerns to Washington D.C., how has the SGA managed to mobilize only a fraction of them to represent our concerns to the school administration? The conditions for an engaged student body exist. The SGA should be the largest beneficiary of that passion, but it has insulated itself in a wall erected with red tape and bureaucracy to become a barrier to students who want to become involved. 

It is not just the student body who show a lack of faith in the so-called student government, but the leadership of the SGA itself. Most of the positions in the last election ran uncontested, including the position of SGA president and vice president. Perhaps if the lack of willing candidates to run vital organs of the student government was the only issue, maybe they could right the ship. Maybe if the leaders of the SGA could be asked to encourage dedicated candidates to run who would represent students and restore confidence to the organization, a year of few contested elections might simply be a single rough patch not representing a more systemic failure.

This is not the case. Not only has a lack of willing candidates been mentioned in the opinions section of this paper for years, some of the candidates who “win” their largely uncontested elections resign or are removed for not showing up to senate meetings. There is a lot that could be written on the issue of a hypothetically representative body increasingly being made up of winners of uncontested seats or unelected replacements selected by the SGA administration. Instead, I want to focus on the plight of the several senators who resigned or were removed for being uninvolved. The senators not attending senate meetings or being uninvolved in SGA activities more broadly are likely doing the most authentic job of all the senators in representing the student body’s feelings towards the student government. A government where a meaningful amount of the leadership resigns or is replaced is not a signal of an institution where leaders feel empowered to create change. How can students have confidence in the leadership of the student government if the leadership has no confidence in itself?

The most visible reforms made by the SGA in the last couple of years have primarily been to excise all of its components that served to connect students to the government. Some of the most popular SGA branches like the Programming Board or the Pause managed to get off the sinking ship, although their departure left a student government which seems vehemently uninterested in finding new ways of engaging the student body in student government.

The St. Olaf Student Government Association is in crisis. This crisis is not an acute or imminent danger, but the slow atrophy of institutions which have the ability to meaningfully represent the student body. At its best, a student government should have the ability to wield a popular mandate and use its support from the student body as a credible threat to negotiate with the administration. A government elected by just more than one tenth of the student body risks functioning more like a rubber stamp than a counter-weight to the interests of the administration. 

We do not need a new petition or policy proposal to fix student government. We need a recognition that we must do better in the future. The SGA needs to rapidly build confidence in the student body or risk becoming even more irrelevant. The new leadership of the student government association should not measure its success against previous administrations, but against how well they meet the demands of their constituents. There are reasons to be hopeful. The underclassman election for the honor council had a better turnout than the election for SGA leadership. St. Olaf has repeatedly had one of the highest percentages of students voting in government elections in the state for several years in a row. The demand for an active, engaged student government clearly exists. The only question is if the student government association is willing to engage with the students to commit to the hard work required to meet those demands.

Ben Finnestad is from Omaha, Neb.

His major is political science.

Ben Finnestad