BY: TONY LIU
Pictures of former student body presidents line the walls of the executive branch of student government located in the Union here at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Each picture represents a unique era of UNC, reflecting the cultural, political, and social climate of the time. However, while each administration is unique in its respective platform, team, or agenda, the position of student body president has also maintained a longevity that has lasted throughout the University’s history. While the position of student body president represents the fundamental outlet for students to express their desires on an administrative level, the actual position of student body president has its limitations.
You may not be aware of these limitations if you looked at platforms during some of the most recent campaigns. Many candidates have high hopes for policy initiatives that they can implement during their year in office.
Yet the experience of past student body presidents has exposed a different reality. Will Leimenstoll, student body president from 2011-2012, says he faced a plethora of institutional limitations. “When it comes to policy changes you’re limited by what the University Administration, Board of Trustees, and ultimately the Board of Governors want for the University,” he says. The University has four groups who “think the University exists to serve them,” Leimonstoll says: students, staff, faculty and alumni. “More times than I could count, the leadership of these bodies at UNC came together for common goals to support one another, but there were definitely some issues where all involved did not see eye to eye,” he says.
Not only must the student body president and his administration appeal to various factions, as the the president and the administration attempt to represent the student body population, they are also limited by representative limitations.
The student body president has negligible voting power when it comes to the North Carolina General Assembly, the Board of Governors, and the larger policy decisions of the university. In an interview with Christy Lambden, the outgoing Student Body President, Lambden says his power was limited — although he doesn’t see a problem with this. “The student body president has no real power over policy, as they probably shouldn’t, given that they’re students,” he says. Given the priorities of the university, granting the student body president power over large scale administrative decisions would be against the interests of the university not only because the position is filled by a student, but also because of the time limitations of the role.
While the student body president may not have the power to affect significant change in certain policy areas, a disparity exists between the student perception of what the president can accomplish and what the president can actually achieve. Lambden stated that “there are a lot of unrealistic expectations [placed on the position of student body president].” When commenting on what expectations are placed on the student body president, Lambden stated “I received a couple of emails indicating that it was actually me who increased tuition rates. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t the university. It wasn’t even the university system; it was the state legislature, and I’m quite a few steps away from the state legislature.”
Part of this discrepancy may arise from how the student body president elections function. Each candidate runs his or her platform based on what he or she wants to see or achieve for the Carolina community. The 2014 student body president candidates have platform proposals that range from completely changing the online student system at Carolina, to reversing how classrooms function, to resorting to social networking platforms which emphasize student participation in affecting change here at Carolina. Nonetheless, as Lambden noted, candidates may not “take into account the practicality of trying to get those things enacted when [one] gets into office.” It is in the best interests of the candidates to advocate for their platform and vision of change even if the actual implementation is impossible – an agenda emphasizing the inability of student government to affect change would not garner support from the student population looking to have its voice heard.
This begs the question of what the student body president can genuinely accomplish and practically achieve. While the answers may vary, at the core, the duty of the student body president is to represent the student body, express its concerns, and advocate for the possibility of change, even if that change comes up against institutional barriers. Lambden noted how issues that the student body president face “generally transcend each administration” referring to the sexual assault policies passed on from the Leimenstoll administration. Thus, the student body president must tackle the challenges that the Carolina community faces while still attempting to implement his or her platform.
In one sense, the most necessary function of the student body president happens behind closed doors, occurring behind the scenes of the Carolina community. When asked what accomplishment the Lambden administration is most proud of, Christy responded with “the relationships [they’ve] built” noting how “student government has stronger relationships with the administration, the board of trustees, the board of governors, with general administration than [Carolina] has ever had before.” In this light, it is essential for the student body president to not only advocate for the position of students, but to also emphasize the positive changes that are happening at the Carolina community.
The position of the student body president is a complex one where expectations are high and the ability to affect change is low. Nonetheless, even if important policy changes can not occur, the student body president must create important relationships with the higher decision making bodies advocating for the student interest. To rule out the ability of the student body president to carry out his or her agenda or create institutional change on campus would be unfair to not only the candidates running but also to future ones as well. While the potential for change is minimal, the student body president serves a role of significant importance, maybe now more than ever – that is creating strong relationships with our legislative assembly, speaking for the student’s desires and fears, and most importantly, advocating for a stronger future for all of the Carolina community.