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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

UF Student Government is corrupt, opaque and ineffective. What do we do?

Opinions generic
Opinions generic

The current problem

The Student Government experience for most students is getting harried, or for some coerced, for votes. What I have seen is that SG is a corrupted body treated more like a party planning committee than an autonomous arm of shared governance. It serves as bread and circuses for UF, not a serious organization with a seat at the table.

People often like to say how powerful SG is. I would correct that to say how powerful it could be — and how it refuses to embrace that power, on behalf of the status quo.

Efforts by upstart students in SG at uplifting student orgs failed by our funding model, rent relief or bills aimed towards transparency have all died. This is sometimes due to insipid intervention by the UF administration who prefer the status quo and at other times due to SG partisans.

I am making no discoveries here by saying SG is corrupt, opaque and ineffective — it is a fact the university itself has acknowledged with little attempt to fix. The Alligator has reported on this intentional opacity for decades, noting how SG has had unceasing chains of backroom deals to select student body presidents. Sketchiness is not new to SG: it is by design.

In 2012, The Alligator interviewed multiple sources in SG and noted the problem of anti-meritocratic practices. Namely, SG has a problem with the same in-groups always getting positions and thus the access to thousands.

A prominent example of this comes from the accusations against ACCENT and SGP. The fraternity AEPi has dominated the leadership of the agency. This was reported twice by The Alligator, in 2005 and 2014, as well as by the Gainesville Sun in 2010 and The Tab in 2017. A similar phenomenon occurs with Theta Chi and Student Government Productions. 

Cross-referencing lists of brothers to the past chairs proves the continuation of this pattern today. As noted in a 2013 Alligator column, there is nothing intrinsic to those fraternities that predisposes them to the agencies’ duties.

At different universities, this anti-meritocracy takes on different names. At Florida State, they have the ‘Burning Spear.’ Alabama is infamous for ‘The Machine.’ 

Potential solutions

In previous columns, I slammed the lack of financial transparency as well as the judicial branch’s anti-democratic practices. I wrote those not believing change would occur, but instead to detail what I saw, similar to the work of famed former SG Senator and Alligator opinions editor Zach Chou. Toward the end of his time at UF, Chou detailed steps to fix SG.

First, Chou suggested divorcing university committees, small deliberative bodies within UF’s administration, from SG. Student members are appointed by the SG president. I agree, given that many people I know from SG serve on the committees and do nothing.

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Chou also suggested a tighter leash from the UF administration. I partially agree, but there needs to be serious thought as to who oversees SG. Some members of Student Life have been part of this scurrilous history, most notably Dr. James Tyger during his time as a student — he is allegedly the first voice on the 2010 Unite tapes. In the tapes, people are heard pressuring students to vote and praising starving pledges by one sorority. Tyger currently oversees SG.

I find regulation unlikely to occur, however, given how easy it is for the UF administration to work with those who usually rise to power. The rabble-rousers who would seek to upend the rut are not good bedfellows for UF’s status quo. Thus, by inaction, the administration can perform student governance while granting them few substantive powers.

An example of this occurred a few months ago when an email was sent to several South Asian organizations. In it, senior SG adviser Jerome Scott II described bills that would have attempted to fully fund certain cultural events of those organizations as “not a viable path forward.” Scott then provided, in paternalistic language that frankly should insult anyone, the contact for financial officers in SG. 

Scott’s emails were written in a way that assumed the leaders of these organizations failed to do the process properly. No, the process failed these student organizations. The UF administration, through actions like this, only intervenes to maintain the status quo, not improve.

I have a third option: rethinking how our system is democratically organized. Power needs to be decentralized. Other universities operate under distinct models for their SGs. Any would be better than our nepotistic system. One promising option is the model at Leeds University Union with a multi-member executive and decentralized bodies. LUU and others use sortition — random selection — to form policy-drafting bodies, a solution to cronyism.

Save all this, our failed democracy may simply need abolition. Only twelve states vest significant power in student governments. Florida SGs, save for UCF and NCF, seem to be uniquely captured by this phenomenon. Students need to rethink what power we give to such a group, especially when it is failing to be the student’s voice time and time again.

I suspect these same concerns will be raised in the future until the student body disabuses itself of the idea that SG is the voice of students. 

Ronin Lupien is a UF biomedical engineering senior

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