In a year of whirlwind national elections, the University’s race for president of the Student Assembly lacked a competitive edge. With Nila Ravi ’18 and Sanam Godbole ’19 running unopposed as a president and vice-president pair, the race was over before it began. This was not the first time in the University’s history where a WSA election featured one choice on the ballot. Most recently, former-President Grant Tanenbaum ’15 and former-Vice President Nicole Brenner ’15 ran in an uncontested race in 2014.
Incumbent WSA President Rebecca Hutman ’17 admitted that while you “ideally want competitive elections,” she believed there are a variety of strategies that student council executives can employ to stimulate engagement from WSA members and the greater University community.
“Having competitive elections is important insofar as it creates a sense of legitimacy for the WSA,” Hutman wrote in an email to The Argus. “But I think there are a lot of ways to legitimacy: effective ability to get stuff done, broad inclusion in decision-making processes, many people running in elections, and many people voting in elections.”
To a certain extent, University elections that lack competitiveness indicate student apathy for participating in student government races and voting to choose their elected representatives. As Hutman notes, low-turnout elections are not a result isolated to Wesleyan community or the year 2017.
“On our best years, the WSA only gets 25% turnout and that’s a problem, but we’re not unique—that’s slightly above the average turnout for local elections nationwide,” Hutman wrote. “Given what feels like an intractable turnout problem, we try to enhance legitimacy in other ways.”
Both Ravi and Godbole are cognizant of this turnout problem and a student body that is relatively disengaged with student government at the University. They plan on mounting a challenge to student disinterest next year, hoping to garner more general student participation in the WSA.
“The WSA is a mediatory body, between the administration and students,” said Ravi. “We are most certainly not the only group on campus speaking with the administration and advocating for change students wish to see. Because there are delineated and streamlined processes in place for the WSA to utilize, I deeply understand the importance of student body input in directing WSA initiatives. We need people interested in working with us, and we are coming up with many plans to ensure that this happens. We want more student interested in and involved with the WSA to make campus better. This definitely includes figuring out how to incentivize more to run for the assembly.”
Ravi noted that some of these changes have already been initiated over the past few years. In particular, during Ravi’s time serving on the WSA, she noticed assembly efforts to engage a more diverse array of voices.
“Sanam and I will continue to actively reach out to people doing important work, and use the WSA to advance their causes,” Ravi said. “I don’t think having competition necessarily indicates more interest in the WSA than a single-ticket ballot. There are many ways to interact with the student government, and we hope to continue bringing people together to make Wesleyan better. We will reach out intentionally and actively to prevent the assembly from operating insularly, and we hope we are continually pushed to do so.”
Godbole reaffirmed Ravi’s sentiments, adding that despite the low voter turnout rates, student participation in the WSA does not completely reflect how involved the student body is with the WSA as a whole.
“Students are doing incredible work, whether that’s in various identity groups or within the Student Union,” Godbole said. “The WSA has always been a more bureaucratic structure, as its members engage with [the] administration and the Board of Trustees. For this reason, many Wesleyan students have been reluctant to be a part of student government as they feel issues are not adequately addressed.”
Godbole, who has not been a WSA member at any point in her time at the University, counted herself amongst the disengaged until recently.
“As I got more exposed to the WSA structure, I came to realize that the WSA platform can help navigate all the powerful work being done on campus,” Godbole said. “As addressed earlier, communication and transparency have been the main reasons for the lack of engagement in student government. As someone with an outside perspective, I hope to tackle the communication issue by making the information discussed in WSA meetings more accessible and relatable.”
Hutman also believes that there are fewer candidates for student government because of ingrained inequalities within University life itself.
“Participation on the WSA isn’t the most accessible, especially for the VP and Presidential positions,” Hutman wrote. “We have a small stipend to offset the time-cost, but any student on need-based financial aid and even some of those not, participation in the unpaid work of the assembly is incredibly challenging. For VP and President, that’s even tougher: the position necessitates about 20 hours of work per [week] and often more during difficult times throughout the year. We need to keep making the WSA more financially feasible if we expect people to be able to run and participate in a way that won’t cut into fulfilling academic and financial obligations.”
While Hutman hopes that student interest in the WSA will pick up in the next few years, she noted that having “two brown women as the heads of the WSA” was an extremely significant and exciting milestone for the history of the WSA, where elections in the past have mostly featured white men.
“You might say that was numerically a more competitive election, but I am really excited to celebrate these incredible women who I think will do wonderful things in the upcoming year,” Hutman said.