President Harry Truman kept a walnut-wood sign on his Oval Office desk engraved with the words, “The buck stops here.” The words referenced Truman’s belief that he was ultimately responsible for managing the United States. Policy decisions, and the consequences of those decisions, were his burden. The sign was emblematic of his leadership, and Truman referenced the words in his 1953 farewell address: “The president—whoever he is—has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That’s his job.”
For most decisions at Duke, the buck stops at the Allen Building—the amorphous group of administrators who are clumped together when we point fingers. The administrators make the final decisions on this campus, whether it’s regarding the house model, West Union renovations or tailgating policy. Duke Student Government doesn’t really make that many decisions—we do more lobbying than governance.
I’ve heard many students complain about the Allen Building’s hegemony over student life. The sentiment is unsurprising given the amount of cultural, programmatic and infrastructure changes the Allen Building has initiated over the past year. Duke Student Government knows the sentiment exists, and it’s why so many student candidates scapegoat the administration in their messages and platforms. Many think the strong candidate is the one who promises to wrench the administration’s power from their hands, the one who will storm into the Allen Building and demand the old Tailgate back, the one who promises to let Duke be Duke again. It’s a message of power, conviction and force—who wouldn’t like that?
At the Duke Student Government president and executive vice president debate last year, all of the presidential candidates bashed the administration but didn’t go after each other. They promised to turn back the decisions in motion, to take a stand against those nebulous administrators. It was a debate without substance, partly because the candidates didn’t have significantly different platforms. In a race where candidates differed on leadership style, rather than ideological grounds, the candidates did surprisingly little to distinguish themselves from their opponents. Without any conflict the debate lacked entertainment, for sure, but also substantive discourse. In some ways, a government with members who are sensitive to partisan rancor will be a government with members who mutually respect and cooperate with each other. But in this debate, every candidate made vague inflated statements, and broadly lambasted the administration’s repression of student life.
I participated in the debate as well, and in my closing remarks, I castigated the presidential candidates for their lack of substance and their cheap shots at the administration. I thought it was bold; some saw it as brash. I didn’t intend to be sensational or controversial. Rather, I was just appalled by the blatant passing of the buck. Reprimanding administrators who don’t have the chance to defend themselves is unfair, weak and not constructive. It’s also hypocritical, because at the end of the election, every candidate knows they’ll have to receive administrative approval to get anything done. They know that an amiable partnership with administrators is an efficacious partnership, and they’ll eventually tread back on their criticism.
Yes, the Allen Building and our Board of Trustees almost always make the final decision. Part of that is the structure of Duke’s bureaucracy. But another part comes from our campus leaders. The administration is always one step ahead of us and we are always trying to catch up. It doesn’t have to be this way—instead of responding to administrative decrees, what if we influenced them before they were ever initiated? What if we elected student government leaders with visions, goals and aspirations, rather than candidates who promised to fight back? We don’t need student leaders who point fingers—that’s what we have on Capitol Hill, and it’s abysmal. We do need student leaders who set the agenda, and move us forward with confidence.
When I spoke up at the debate I probably could have been less bombastic, but I was angry. I was frustrated that there was no one sitting on that stage that would take responsibility for the past and promise to move forward. Maybe my comment was a gaffe. But gaffes on the campaign trail, whether they’re about the inability to make decisions on Russia’s foreign policy, the unvetted approval of gay marriage, “legitimate” rape or the 47 percent, reveal the true, unfiltered sentiments of candidates. My comment was unfiltered, it was a raw demand for someone to take responsibility. Because the buck shouldn’t stop at the Allen Building—that’s cheap leadership.
Patrick Oathout, DSG executive vice president, is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Tuesday. You can follow Patrick on Twitter @patrickoathout.