Sunder is the safe betDuke’s political climate is hotter than it has been in years. Frustration with Duke's out-of-touch student government has launched students who once avoided politics into the fray. And yet, despite this wave of enthusiasm, none of the candidates for DSG president has quite the right mix of pragmatism and panache needed to bring meaningful changes to Duke Student Government and campus life. One of the contenders will, however, assume office. So, picking from a crop of smart but imperfect candidates, we offer a qualified endorsement of sophomore Lavanya Sunder for DSG president.
Sunder has served in DSG for almost two years, and her success with past initiatives, knowledge of government processes and rapport with administrators will allow her to operate the DSG machinery well enough to make improvements to student life. But Sunder is conventional, and her proposals are uninspired. She glosses over issues with a practiced charm, but her platform is too broad. DSG presidents spend most of their time addressing only a small fraction of their policy priorities. Sunder’s priorities are not only unrealistic, but troubling. In our meeting, Sunder identified dining and tailgate as next year’s most pressing issues, choices that reflect, in our view, a misreading of student concerns.
Junior Lawrence Nemeh has verve, and we admire his challenge to traditional models of leadership. But Nemeh seems unfocused, and we question his ability to take hold of the unwieldy DSG apparatus and put it to good use.
Junior Will Giles is Sunder’s closest competitor. An outsider committed to making DSG more accountable to students, Giles has a novel and refreshing vision of what student government should be. He understands student concerns and cares about internal reform. But his policy solutions—like eliminating at-large senate positions and appending an equal rights amendment to the DSG constitution—seem weak, vague or ill-conceived. Moreover, Giles lacks strong ties with the administration—a prerequisite for effective advocacy—and has little experience with DSG politics.
In some ways, this year’s presidential race recalls the 2006 DSG election. Dissatisfaction with DSG was running high, and Elliott Wolf, a charismatic outsider who promised change, squeezed out a victory against a set of more traditional candidates. There are no Elliott Wolfs in this race. Unlike this year’s would-be reformers, Wolf recognized that meaningful institutional change requires an expert understanding of existing procedures, strong relationships with administrators and a willingness to descend from the realm of big ideas to grind out solid policy. Wolf sought to change DSG, but, instead of crying vaguely for reform, he took command of the existing structure and put it to work for students.
As Jimmy Soni wrote in 2007 of the DSG presidency, “rabblerousing means little without skillful and diplomatic negotiation to match.”
We agree. The real choice, in our view, is between a typical DSG candidate and a newcomer who desires change but lacks the experience and connections to see it through. If you want new blood in DSG and are not afraid to take a serious risk, vote for Giles. If, however, you want a conventional candidate who has enough experience to make small improvements, vote for Sunder. We endorse Sunder, but do not expect student involvement in campus governance to increase during her administration. We hope she proves us wrong.