When the presidential and vice presidential candidates for the Michigan Student Assembly came to the Daily for their endorsement interviews a couple weeks ago, it dawned on me how few students actually come face-to-face with them. If I weren’t a member of the Daily’s Editorial Board, would I recognize MSA Vice President Arvind Sohoni on the street? Worse still, would I know the name of the incoming LSA Student Government president? Do you? (It’s Leslie Zaikis, by the way.)
Beyond chalked Diag endorsements and tell-your-friend-to-vote-for-my-friend tactics, candidates for MSA’s executive office have little interaction with the thousands of potential constituents at the University. And considering that only about 6.4 percent of eligible students voted in last week’s elections, the constituents don’t seem particularly engaged either.
It’s a chronic problem, one with which national candidates have struggled: How do you reach out to a group so large you can’t to shake each constituent’s hand? Some of the most recent attempts have aimed to directly involve the public, like CNN’s YouTube debates last year. The debates featured questions solicited from voters nationwide, theoretically giving them the chance to directly ask the candidates about the issues most important to them.
So where was our YouTube debate?
We didn’t have one. But just down the road, Eastern Michigan University did. Last Wednesday, EMU’s candidates for student body president and vice president appeared before a crowd of students and debated topics like their campus-wide ban on smoking. They responded to questions, which ranged from broader inquiries about diversity to more pointed interrogations about their absence from campus events. And most importantly, they answered directly to the students wielding the power to elect or reject them.
There wasn’t even a debate at the University of Michigan this year, let alone one allowing students to ask the questions. In 2007, WOLV-TV hosted its debate in South Quad between presidential candidates Maricruz Lopez of the Defend Affirmative Action Party and Zack Yost of the Michigan Action Party. However, it was poorly attended (mostly by members of MAP), and according to debate moderator and WOLV-TV News Director Katie Woods, it didn’t garner much student response.
However, Woods assured me that the lack of feedback was not a factor in the decision not to have a debate this year. “We couldn’t fit it in the schedule,” she said, explaining that WOLV-TV had been busy covering the Graduate Employees’ Organization walkout. Meanwhile, outgoing MSA President Mohammad Dar said MSA “wondered why” they hadn’t heard from WOLV-TV about doing a debate this year but took no steps to organize its own debate.
Especially considering the scandals that have wracked MSA throughout the past couple of years, holding a debate would seem like the perfect way to keep candidates accountable from the start. Instead of coming up with new ideas about how to attract and involve students in the debate, though, the campus media put the whole thing on the backburner, while MSA dumped the onus of keeping itself accountable on the media. This certainly doesn’t bode well for a new year of student governance.
EMU has proven that YouTube democracy can be easily translated into campus democracy, and it is an example that our university’s student government should strive to follow. Holding open, public debates would allow students to directly question candidates rather than leaving them to hope that WOLV-TV or the Daily will intuit what the students want to ask. It would give them a forum to personally examine the credibility of the candidates and make better-informed decisions.
Considering the insignificant change in voter turnout over the past two years, it would be na’ve to argue that holding a debate this year would have made a big difference in convincing students to vote. However, the fact that the debate slipped through the cracks this year is unacceptable, almost as unacceptable as MSA and the campus media’s apparent inability to plan an engaging debate.
It is the responsibility of MSA to be accountable and the responsibility of the campus media to hold it accountable, a task with which the students have entrusted both parties. But if they can’t handle that responsibility, then it’s time for the students to speak for themselves.
Emmarie Huetteman is an associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.