Former SGA Vice President: Here’s 6 tips to improve Student Government

I recently read Kate Barton’s articles entitled “SGA vice president dismisses gallery despite open meeting” and “SGA attempts to impeach student body president, fails on technicality”, As an alum, former Vice President of the Student Government Association (SGA), and the original author of its accountability code, I wanted to share some insight to what may be perplexing the current elected student leadership of our campus

Some might ask a perfectly honest question: why care so much for an organization that matters so little? As someone who has managed to take my interest and skills, developed in part through SGA, to political campaigns, both on the state and national level and now issue-based advocacy, it’s critical that the next generation of our leaders learn valuable lessons during such critical formative years in college. Given the current dysfunction and paralysis in Washington, maybe we should expect more from ALL elected officials.

Much like the ingredients that constitute the perfect cake, key elements are crucial to ensuring organizations such as SGA are in sync and deliver on their promises. Conversely, a few foul ingredients and the cake is ruined. Governing, like baking, would seem to be an art. This isn’t to suggest that only a select few have the knack, passion, or talent, but rather that it takes a deliberative, cautious, yet nurturing approach to governance.

When my Senate colleagues and I agreed in 2009 that transparency, skill and accountability were critical to effective leadership we arrived, at the time, to a seemingly radical approach for self-serving elected officials: let’s decide what “success” is as an organization, agree upon how we measure success, and then hold every one of us accountable. If we didn’t uphold our end of the bargain, others would potentially show us the door. It was this thought that led us to creating the modern day accountability code.

SGA clearly communicated expectations to any and all interested students that wanted to join. It was important to us to encourage diversity and value into what was (and might still be categorized as) an insular, cliquish group, while still maintaining core values and expectations.. If an elected leader failed to meet expectations, there were several options: first and foremost, students would be able to exercise better judgment at the ballot box or recall their representative. Or as an organization, SGA could provide the necessary guidance and support to a troubled colleague. As a last resort, we could remove a colleague for failing to honor their sacred contract with the organization and their fellow Hilltoppers

While policies have arguably changed, it’s important to stress the value of this real-world accountability. Seldom are individuals ambushed with being shown the door in any successful organization. Similarly, SGA wanted to bring the best practices of the real world by seeing if our colleagues were on track, where we were succeeding, where we needed to provide support, and what remedies were appropriate.

It appears to this casual observer that there are other factors at work and possibly some solvable internal conflicts within the organization. Here are some quick recommendations to the organization from someone who has been through it before:

• Understand the importance of organizational unity. While there will always be room for vigorous debate on policy grounds, it’s critical to emphasize SGA is a collective body that aspires to do (and can do) great things. Don’t send mixed messages unnecessarily, it invites division and gets you off task and away from your core mission or “North Star.”

• Fear and distrust signal a lack of collaborative decision-making. Your opponents are in fact not your enemies. You’re playing for the same team; they’re your colleagues and teammates. One of the most valuable lessons I learned, and what I considered a very humbling experience was a very critical critique from a colleague. In the end, it significantly improved the policy I was advancing and by opening up the process to reflection, created the necessary buy-in that others could share and ultimately advanced a good policy.

• Never make politics personal. It’s petty and short-sighted. I have found that most individuals serve for noble and honorable intentions. Many of which, I am proud to call friends to this day. While we didn’t and still don’t agree on various issues of our time, we all agreed that presenting a positive, solution-orientated approach was what was best for our campus.. Besides, you never know when you might need yesterday’s scorned colleague’s help.

• Politics is a team sport. Match individuals with their passions and strengths to maximize effectiveness and synergy. Sure, you can score a few points on the scoreboard yourself but you can’t and likely won’t be the All Star for your entire career. Building the bench ensures continued success after you decide to retire.

• Never underestimate the power of transparency and candor especially in difficult times. A willingness to own up to weaknesses and genuinely resolve problems in an open and transparent manner can restore the public’s battered trust.

• Don’t bring up a problem unless you have at least one solution This isn’t an excuse to ignore something you honestly don’t know how to solve, but mentally sketching something out will start the creative process and likely be the catalyst to either you or a colleague’s future solution. 

I hope these arm the current elected student leadership or even ordinary Hilltoppers to pose serious, tough questions that might nudge SGA out of the doldrums. As someone who has “been there, done that” for over three-and-a-half years in SGA, I remain cautiously optimistic that both SGA’s and St. Edward’s best days are ahead, not behind us. 

Chris Duke was born and raised in the northern suburbs of San Antonio where his passion for politics sparked a career in public service. Chris has worked for several key national and state policymakers, managed several political campaigns, and currently works for a non-profit advocacy organization dedicated to improving public education in the Lone Star State. Chris is a proud 2010 St. Edward’s University honors graduate where he received his B.A. in political science.