Top CSG positions see ongoing lack of diversity

By Rachel Premack, Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 25, 2015

This year’s Central Student Government election will set a record — though perhaps not the most progressive sort. For the first time in recent decades, regardless of Thursday’s results, seven men in a row will serve as president of Central Student Government.

That’s one of the findings of a Michigan Daily analysis, which detailed the racial and gender identities of each CSG president and vice president since 1993. Each incumbent disclosed his or her racial and gender identity to the Daily. In limited cases, where the executive could not be reached, their gender and racial identity was considered based on membership in cultural organizations or other information listed on the individual’s social media profile, or through colleagues who said they were comfortable confirming how the individual identified.

Highlights

Students from a range of backgrounds have represented their classmates as CSG president and vice president. In 2000, a 26-year-old Japanese international student was elected president after holding signs on the Diag reading, “Tell me your concerns.” Other highlights from the last few decades, which have witnessed the end of affirmative action, include the first gay president in 2011 and first Black female president in 1993.

Former CSG leaders interviewed by the Daily, however, agreed on the need for increased diversity.

“The purpose of CSG is to represent all 42,000 students on campus,” Business graduate student Omar Hashwi, CSG vice president during the 2012-2013 academic year, said. “By not having an adequate amount of representatives or leadership on CSG, CSG absolutely cannot fill its purpose. It is not possible for CSG to fill its purpose if it can’t represent its students. There are certain needs that the different communities require and if those people are not on student government, it’s really hard to identify those needs and execute on the appropriate strategies to fulfill those needs.”

Comparing CSG presidential and vice presidential representation to the student demographic breakdown reveals disparities in almost all categories but white students.

“The environment is not always created on CSG to be welcoming of very different perspectives,” said LSA junior Meagan Shokar. Shokar served as speaker during her freshman and sophomore years and as vice president earlier this year before stepping down due medical purposes.

The student demographic breakdown was obtained through averaging racial identities of the student population from 1993 to 2015, using the years 1995, 2000, 2005, 2014. Data was obtained from the Office of the Registrar.

Numbers prior to 1993 were not available in accessible formats, constricting the comparison years to after 1993. The comparison was also limited because the University does not recognize certain nuances in ethnicity and gender. It does not report how many students do not conform to the gender binary, nor the ethnicity of international students (called “non-resident aliens” in the Registrar’s data), nor how many Arab students attend the University — who are classified as white. Asian students are grouped into one category despite the differences among, say, Pakistani, Malaysian or Korean communities on campus.

Also complicating the concluding analysis is an “unknown” category, totaling 7 percent of the scope between the four years averaged between 1993 and 2014 .

The Daily’s analysis found that Asian American and Black students on campus are well represented compared to their respective populations on campus. Black presidents and vice presidents have accounted for 10.7 percent of presidents and 7.1 percent of vice presidents in the last two decades, 66 percent higher than the Black population.

As international students are not ultimately sorted into racial categories, it may be that Asian students in general are actually under-represented as CSG executives due to the large proportion of international students from Asia.

LSA senior Alex Abdun-Nabi, CSG treasurer, attributed these groups’ proportionally large representation on CSG to their legacy as activists campus wide, particularly the Black Student Union’s activity in the past year.

“It doesn’t surprise me that they're involved in CSG because it’s a prime way to make change on campus,” Abdun-Nabi said.

Other groups have less vigorous representation. No CSG president or vice president for the last 20 years have identified as Hispanic or Native American. These groups have comprised, respectively, 4.18 percent and 0.53 percent of the student body on average.

Three Latina students noted the general lack of Hispanic students as a barrier for greater CSG representation.

“I don’t think it’s lack of interest in CSG, it’s the lack of support,” Nursing junior Anna Pokriefka said as to why more Latinos were not leaders of CSG. “They don’t feel a sense of community or feel discriminated by the majority population.”

LSA senior Sarah Ballew, co-chair of the Native American Student Association, wrote in an e-mail interview that she does not think CSG is representative of her and others.

“I don't think it is representative, exactly, because it doesn't have an adequate number of members that are WOC/Native American,” Ballew wrote. “This would inhibit representation because that viewpoint is missing.”

Abdun-Nabi noted that, of the hundreds involved in CSG, there is representation at levels other than president and vice president.

“President and vice president are not the only people,” he said. “Sometimes they're not the people doing the most work.”

One-fourth of presidents and less than one-third of vice presidents have been females, who comprise 52 percent of the student body.

“I would argue very strongly that we have amazing female leaders on this campus with all sorts of racial identities and sexual orientations, so why are none of them running for president or vice president seat this year?” Public Policy senior Carly Manes said. She was a representative in the 2013-2014 academic year and ran for CSG president.

Students of similar identities tended to succeed each other as CSG leaders. For instance, from 2002-2006, every vice president was female. In 2009, 2010 and 2013, every president identified as Asian. Similar trends applied for other identities, indicating that students could set trends for representation on campus or bring their own social networks into CSG.

Many former or current CSG members who were interviewed pointed to that trend in particular, framing it positively or negatively.

Party politics

The process for earning the CSG presidency or vice presidency often starts with being identified by existing CSG members as a candidate. Often, that’s done with a political party, not unlike national politics.

Business graduate student Michael Proppe, who was CSG president during the 2013-2014 academic year, said CSG parties generally last about two years in name and are grouped by two ideologies. According to Proppe, one is typically based on tangibility, accomplishing goals that are feasible during the candidate’s one-year term. The other, he said, is typically more idealistic. Members of this party may, for instance, focus on making campus climate more comfortable rather than things more easily measured when reviewing the year.

Abdun-Nabi, who is not affiliated with a party, described these parties as a good way to enter and lead CSG.

“A lot of the gatekeepers in CSG are not exercised by CSG,” Abdun-Nabi said. “They're exercised by the party.”

Proppe, who ran with youMICH, a party that has won the presidency two years in a row, said the groups are generally positive. He said they promote diversity, and to win the election, candidates must have a diverse slate of representatives.

“The parties are actively recruiting people and talking them into running, either because they think they’re very intelligent and hard workers or they think they have a great network that will go otherwise untapped,” Proppe said. “And so, the party leaders try to tap into as many networks as possible, which leads to a greater diversity of candidates. If you did not have the party system, you would see similar types of people running for CSG because no one would ever talk them into running.”

Shokar said this practice can be dangerous because students begin to be “tokenized,” valued for their networks rather than their talent.

“Tokenism is a big thing that happens on this campus,” Shokar said. “It’s an exciting thing when a person of color runs, or a woman runs, or a woman of color runs. It’s the most exciting thing for a lot of people, but that’s so sad that we should be excited that that’s so far from the norm.”

Moreover, though parties may allow diversity at the representative level, they do not guarantee that the executive committees are diverse. Both Proppe and Public Policy senior Carly Manes agreed that executive committees are often comprised of like-minded associates of the president and vice president.

Though Proppe said he didn’t find this problematic, Shokar felt differently. She discussed how, as speaker her sophomore year, she was the sole woman of color in a committee of white men and women. Her views were not always affirmed by her peers.

“Something I experienced time and time again in my two and a half years very involved in CSG, I’m in a room with four guys and we’re meeting and I’m the only woman and the only person of color. We’re all sharing our perspectives and I’ll share something and the response is, ‘That’s great, that’s interesting, but this is how we think and this is how we’re going to proceed.’ And it’s like, okay, so I’m interesting, but I’m not actually worth taking into account? That’s what it feels like.”

Campaigning pains

Some have found success running without a party backing. University alum Manish Parikh and Business graduate student Omar Hashwi, president and vice president in the 2012-2013 academic year, were independent candidates.

Hashwi said his and Parikh’s campaigns, while ultimately successful, was marred by slander and racism that a white candidate might not experience. For instance, he said a member of the Delta Phi Epsilon sorority sent a sorority-wide e-mail accusing the two men of color of homophobia and anti-Semitism. It was released to the rest of campus, requiring the candidates to clear their name.

“When I say it’s difficult for minorities to attain these high-up positions, I mean it, and mean it based on previous experiences,” Hashwi said. “It all had to do with my race and my religion, not my political beliefs or my beliefs on how to improve campus.”

Hashwi said the pushback he faced was often not based on his views, rather his identity as a Muslim Arab American. He credited his support from Jewish, LBGTQ, Muslim, Arab and other communities to clear his name.

“It sounds cliché, but this was one of the moments where I realized love truly is greater than hate,” Hashwi said.

During her candidacy in 2014, Manes found similar resistance as a result of her and her running mate’s, LSA senior Pavitra Abraham, female identities. Within CSG and as president of Students for Choice, she has led campus-wide discussions on sexual health work. This work, she said, was minimized and mocked during the campaign.

Manes said she and Abraham were also called “the feminist candidates” in a derogatory fashion. Other coded language poked at their accomplishments and platform; they were called idealists without a proven track record, not pragmatic.

“Holding liberal ideals and being a female is perceived as being idealistic, fluffy and intangible,” Manes said.

Such barriers might explain why there’s a negative 48-percent disparity between numbers of females on campus and those leading CSG as president. With current Vice President Emily Lustig replacing Shokar, 2014-15 is the first academic year with a female vice president since 2006.

However, there’s indication that CSG has been more inclusive of females in the past. Females — two Black, one Asian and three white — held the vice presidency every year between 2002 and 2006. What’s missing now, according to the data, is the lack of a pattern of female representation. Until Shokar was selected by Make Michigan to run along current president Bobby Dishell, winning parties had not been in the habit of selecting female leaders, and students have not voted in women.

Yet there was a consensus that a more diverse student government is the most effective sort.

“We have a way to go in terms of gender diversity,” Proppe said. “The University of Michigan is a fairly diverse place, and I think people see a lot of value in electing somebody who is a minority. So much of what we talk about here at Michigan is diversity, and how do we recruit more minority students to campus. Who better to talk than a minority student? I’m a white male, I can’t talk about how to get more Black students on campus, I don’t know that.”

Potential for change?

In favor of a greater range of voices on CSG, Shokar said, “Disagreement can be a really beautiful thing.”

She and Manes both expressed their belief in the power of CSG, despite its flaws as an institution. It is what inspired them to run initially.

“I think when the student government has a lot more voices of people from different backgrounds, who have grown up differently, have experienced different challenges in their lives, you just come together as a stronger student government,” Shokar said. “There’s so much more you can do because you have all of these different perspectives.”

Hashwi, who said he comes from a low-income background, said students like him might be unable to work in CSG and represent a unique while supporting themselves in school.

A lack of communication between CSG and campus organizations may also be at fault. Candace Curtis, president of Latina sorority Delta Tau Lambda, said she’s never been contacted by CSG, despite serving as a leader in seven different Latina organizations.

“I feel like we’re put on the back of priority list because there’s so little in number of us,” Curtis said.

In a potential explanation of this lack of outreach, Proppe said he was not aware of any unified Hispanic student organization.

CSG is students’ gateway to student organization funding and the administration, in spite of perceived or actual lack of representation.

“The government does represent them,” Proppe said. “They may not feel they represent them but the student gov does represent them. It’s the same as President Obama, the Republicans may not say he represent them, but he does, he’s the president of the United States. If you don’t like it, you can work to change it. And that’s really the beauty of democracy. If you look at the current CSG leadership, and you say they don’t represent me, well, there’s a process to get involved and you can work to change that.”

Correction appended: A previous version of this article misstated the party Michael Proppe ran with. It was youMICH. Meagan Shokar's position was also misstated; she was the speaker, not secretary.