Students should demand more of their campus leaders

Jack Kappelman, Contributing Writer

As we enter the election cycle for the new members of the Student Government Association (SGA), I’ve been finding it hard to not entirely lose faith in our system at the University. I’m dreading yet another week of getting ambushed by button-peddlers on the Quad and seeing everyone changing their social media profile photos to insincere campaign slogans.

I’m dreading the empty promises that our hopeful leaders are going to tout for a week, before completely abandoning them after they win by their comfortable margin and realize they never have to deliver. After all, who among us will truly hold them accountable?

During my first week as a senator, it became incredibly clear to me that the SGA is not a venue for progress at the University. Sure, there are good ideas passed around every now and then. Sure, there are dedicated members who do an outstanding job of advocating for our university and our students. But, as one former senator told me during my own campaign week, “The real opportunity for change in SGA comes from the email signature. You can use your position to get real work done outside of the Senate, and that’s the only sure route to progress.”

And going into my term as a senator, that’s what I tried to do. But along the way, it occurred to me that we – as students, as leaders and as members of the campus community – ought to hold our campus leaders to a higher standard. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to think of SGA as a place where real change fails to take root. We shouldn’t yet think of the organization as utterly failing in its role of elevating student voices, so long as there are still voices that ought to be heard.

It’s time to rethink what the role of SGA should be.

Instead of scraping the barrel every month for a few extra bucks for need-based scholarships through percentage nights and Venmo campaigns, maybe our student leaders should give up part of their salary to the students who desperately need the funds to make it through the month.

Maybe instead of hosting Greek point events that promote an exclusionary environment for SGA membership, we should expand our outreach into the campus community and host events that build bridges between groups that don’t traditionally intersect but could greatly benefit from collaboration.

Perhaps instead of hosting a lavish awards banquet where SGA members give themselves plaques and scholarships for “service” and “leadership,” we should redirect some of those funds to actually upholding the idea of being “students serving students” instead of students serving themselves steak dinners.

Maybe campus politicians should be upset about alleged labor rights abuses by university contractors. Or, maybe campus politicians should be upset about having buildings named after racists, phrenologists and Ku Klux Klan leaders. Campus politicians should care about the fact that low-income students are being forced to live further and further away from campus because of luxury apartments that are being constructed in traditionally affordable areas.

There are so many issues at the University that could be easily addressed by dedicated members of the student government, and many similar issues are being addressed by students who deeply care about our campus and our community. But until our peers hold our leaders accountable and demand that they address the issues impacting our day-to-day lives, many of these problems will remain unsolved.

I’m sure there are those who will argue that these issues won’t be solved because there simply aren’t leaders out there who will make a difference. I refuse to believe that. If there’s one thing that the SGA has shown me, it’s that there are leaders in all corners of this university who make significant changes and incredible progress each and every day. They selflessly strive to make this campus better, one step at a time. They don’t seek out the recognition brought by self-aggrandizing campaigns more akin to popularity contests because they truly care about the issues they advocate for.

None of this is to say that the SGA is completely devoid of true leaders. That is simply not the case. But those leaders should be lifted up and used as an example for the campus politicians who say they care about important issues. It is these students who are the true movers and shakers of The University of Alabama.

So, this campaign cycle, let’s encourage our peers who are running to represent us to focus on the issues that really matter. Let’s reprioritize our focus and direct our efforts on actual problems. Let’s not get lost in the false promises cooked up in secret meetings between megalomaniacs.

Let’s hold all our leaders to a higher standard.

The University of Alabama doesn’t need leaders who squabble over who should be on what infinitely endless committee or executive board. It needs leaders who advocate for change even when they don’t have a seat at the table. We don’t need leaders who decry negative press or cry foul when they fall victim to understandable criticism. We need leaders of conviction who have diverse constituencies always in mind, who carefully consider the larger contexts of their words and deeds. We need people who aren’t afraid to stand for what they believe in, but who also recognize the privilege of their position. We need leaders who hold themselves accountable to their peers – leaders of great fortitude and great integrity.

So, to the campus politicians who continue to hold their peers back so that they may rise to the top by default and not by merit, I leave you with the eternal words of Thomas Paine: “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”