Duke Student Government had its last meeting of the year April 26. The Chronicle's Gautam Hathi sat down with outgoing president Keizra Mecklai, a senior, to discuss her successes and failures.
The Chronicle: You’ve said in previous interviews that you feel DSG candidates make too many specific promises in campaigns. How would you measure the success or failure of your presidency, if not by fulfilling campaign promises? And how successful do you think you’ve been?
Keizra Mecklai: A lot of it is about leadership, which sounds so funny, but a lot of it is about how you handle the team of 12 people that’s on the executive board and the way that you inspire them to make change. I would say this year has been a success, and the way I think about that, at least for myself, is there were a lot of loose ends with the organization that I think we tightened up a lot, and that meant a lot to me. For example, nobody had taken a look at our accounts in years, and there were thousands of extra dollars just sitting there because nobody looked to see if we had money in the accounts before we put more money in. So I fixed those things. We thought about spending the surplus, which was another loose end that had been left open. We thought about the way that we educate each other on the things we accomplish. We are going to fix the training for the new senators next year based on the things we learned this year and are putting together a DSG archive. So a lot of it was a lot of internal stuff that nobody would ever think about or really be able to evaluate my presidency by.
TC: Is there anything about where DSG is right now that worries you?
KM: The only thing that we should be thinking about a little more is the bureaucracy part of it, and the way we treat each other and our initiatives in the Senate. Our Senate meetings have become a ton longer than they ever have been before. There’s a line between argumentation to improve something and argumentation for the sake of arguing, and I’m a little bit worried that we’re on the worse side of that.
The other thing that I learned this year, which I changed my mind about very drastically, is the way that DSG handles [Student Organization Funding Committee]. SOFC is obviously this committee of people that has been tasked with spending $700,000 on student groups. When I first became President, one of the first things I told the Senate was don’t just unanimously pass the things that SOFC gives you because obviously they’re being brought to you for a reason and you need to think about them. And now, watching the way the Senate handled annual budget, I think we’ve gone too far in the opposite direction and just fund anything for anyone who walks into Senate. If we have a habit for doing that now and not thinking about the guideline that SOFC has for funding, then next year 20 groups are going to come in and the year after that 30 groups are going to come in. Clearly, we need to think harder about the way we manipulate what SOFC has decided on.
TC: DSG's reputation has taken a hit lately after things like Senate attendance issues, backlash over funding for nap pods and massage chairs and controversy over the Peer Advocacy for Sexual Health center. Why do you think there was a series of things that came up that have had an effect on public perception of DSG?
KM: One thing that I’ve had to realize is that no student body is going to be universally happy with their student government. I never take those things personally. Since I’m not in the Senate, the decisions of the Senate are not mine. For Chanticleer, which mattered a ton to me, I vetoed and there was some drama around that. But I sort of watch these things happen and let the Senate do things itself. So if there’s negative public perception, to me it doesn’t feel like it is reflective of me. But obviously I am the face of the organization, so I could be taking those negative pieces of perception more seriously.
I think it’s really good that the students have been speaking out because, number one, it means that they’re finding out what we’re doing, which I think is great, and number two, a lot of our decisions which they didn’t like we have reconsidered. For example, we didn’t fund the nap pods because of the negative student opinion about it. Obviously the PASH funding stayed in place, but I think the people who are in charge of PASH have a much better idea of what the student body is frustrated about and can change the way they’re running the organization based on students’ concerns about things like sex products and stuff like that. Even though I think PASH is going to be an incredible thing and is going to be successful, what we learned is that we need to be getting ahead of the media in this conversation a little bit more. With PASH, if we had published the 30-page report about why we wanted to do this and how successful it has been at Stanford, maybe students wouldn’t have latched onto the “dildos for everyone” soundbite.
TC: DSG does a lot of things that students do not know about, and the things many students do know about also have large behind-the-scenes components. Do you think that students are unhappy with what DSG is actually doing or are they just not seeing everything that’s going on?
KM: I think that it could be either. For example, with the nap pods, we saw a ton of people on Facebook saying, “Oh my God, we need nap pods,” so we brought a bill to Senate to fund nap pods. But then the actual student sentiment was very much like, “Oh my God, don’t spend $20,000 on this.”
I think it’s not that students don’t understand the issues that are placed in front of them, it’s that there’s are so many miniscule things that are cool and really impactful for students and student communities and we are horrible at communicating them. A thing that I did not fix this year that I really hope Tara [Bansal, new DSG President] and Ilana [Weisman, new Executive Vice President] tackle full force is the communication of things we are working on. Something we did start this year was we had a form at the beginning of the year where each of the VPs told the presidents of the House Councils what they were going to work on, and the presidents of the House Councils ranked those things. I think it was really cool for the time being, and for the month after we were all like, “No the students don’t want that, yes the students do want that,” and made sure we worked on the things they wanted. I think that doing those more frequently and making sure we hear from students more often will make our work so much better, because we sometimes go off of what we think students want, and we can be very wrong.
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TC: Can you explain what happened with your veto of the annual budget in response to Chanticleer funding and then the rescinding of that veto?
KM: I’ve never been a fan of the Chanticleer. I don’t think that it’s worth, in its most expensive era, a tenth of the student activities fee. SOFC has explicit rules that they will never fund giveaways, and yet somehow the Chanticleer gets tens of thousands of dollars every year. And so I vetoed both of these funding sources and the drama was that you only have five days to veto something, and this case was on the fifth day. If it got overturned, one of the possibilities if the [DSG] Judiciary was willing to rule on this, which they weren’t, was whether or not if I vetoed the annual budget it could be brought back in its last form and amended and re-passed. It was sort of a catch-all opportunity where if they said we could bring it back to the second reading, we could fix the Chanticleer funding and take out that $20,000, but clearly since the Judiciary wasn’t going to rule on our case unless that veto was rescinded, we were at a standstill. And so that’s where a lot of the drama came from, is that nobody really understood what to do because technically during the time of the case, the full annual budget had been vetoed.
TC: Last year a noose was hung on campus, and DSG was very vocal at that time about its support for respect and tolerance on campus. This year DSG seems to have done little to address issues of intolerance on campus despite a large amount of student discussion and activism on the issue. Why is that?
KM: I don’t think that resolutions in support do very much. So we passed a resolution then but do you see, other than the establishment of the Social Justice Fellowship, any longstanding impact of DSG passing a resolution? The answer is no, we don’t have that power.
TC: But some might say that’s because of a lack of follow-up.
KM: Yeah, I think that’s possible. I also think that there’s a difference between a bill and a resolution. A resolution is very much just a statement of support. So we had a bill funding the Social Justice Fellowship and the statement of support telling the Black Student Alliance that we would assist with the establishment of a first-year orientation program and things like that. But since those things never came to fruition and DSG felt like it wouldn’t be appropriate for us to be paternalistic and establish a pre-orientation program for the Black Student Alliance, because I obviously don’t think that would be appropriate, we were sort of at a standstill.
I think this year there’s been a lot more internal communication. Ilana has done a really good job of staying in contact with cultural groups and making sure that they felt like their needs were heard and also helping them with little things that sometimes cultural groups feel they’re not being appropriately helped with, like getting funding from SOFC. I don’t think we’ve been failing cultural groups by being more silent this year. We’ve just been helping in different ways.
TC: Separate from helping individual groups, is there a concern that DSG is becoming irrelevant to the campus conversation, especially with the protests that have happened over the past few weeks? It seems like DSG sometimes passed resolutions but they were weeks behind what was happening and often weren’t all that relevant.
KM: That’s a good question. I think that might be a function of DSG being sorely misrepresentative of the student body right now. When you have a group that is self-identified as predominantly male and predominantly wealthy and predominantly merit scholars it’s sometimes hard for our voice to be perfectly representative of the student body. These are things that we’re trying to fix.
I think that there were a few moments where we were fairly topical. For example when we called on the administration to give amnesty to the students who were protesting inside the [Allen] building. Not only did we pass that out of the Executive Board, but Tara and I also met with Dr. Moneta and Steve Nowicki behind the scenes to make sure that voice would be heard, and amnesty did come. So there were moments when DSG was on time and did actually help to further things.
The biggest issue is that things like these protests are not cut and dry. For DSG to do something, DSG has to agree to something, and sometimes DSG can’t agree to do something. For example, when an individual brought up a resolution saying that Dr. Trask was not in line with the Duke Community Standard, obviously DSG didn’t agree with that. Maybe that resolution was too liberal or too far and that’s why DSG didn’t agree, but I also think the issue is that this group of students sometimes can’t agree on what they’re going to support.
TC: There have been a lot of instances this year where students have seen failures in DSG. Can you point to any specific examples of DSG at its best this year?
KM: One example in the Senate is something that people have been upset with DSG about for years and years and years, which is the surplus. I think for the first time in literally years we made movement on the surplus. We had a ton of arguments and we needed information from the student body and sometimes we had to overturn things and stuff like that. But overall, it was a separate committee from DSG, we took open student suggestions, every student suggestion was kept in mind and we did the best job we possibly could to educate students on what we had spent on. So I was pretty impressed with that move on the Senate side.
TC: Even though the end result was nap pods and massage chairs and Chanticleer?
KM: The Chanticleer part was overturned and the nap pods weren’t funded. So the things we did spend money on were hammocks for the student body, we did massage chairs, we have a wellness room in Perkins and we gave the EMS people a chair so they could transport people from higher dorms. We bought TurboVote to make voting easier. So I do think the conversation focused on these things that were very controversial that we 98 percent of the time didn’t fund and the things we did fund I think will help the student body in a good way, so I’m really excited about that.
The other thing, and this was behind the scenes and not a Senate action, was the living-learning community that Tara and her committee started. One of the things that DSG has always said it’s going to work on and is tasked with working on is making sure that there are not institutional barriers to every student having a great Duke experience, whatever that’s defined by. Obviously housing has been a big issue for students. So the creation of the living learning community and hopefully the pilot of more living learning communities going forward is an indication that individuals who don’t want to identify with selective, expensive Duke culture can also have a community based place to live that nothing to do with doing rush or being excluded or anything like that.
Another example of Senate being successful, which I was really pumped about that I did at the beginning of the year was fixing the Young Trustee Nominating Committee process. The Chronicle’s best graphic every year is the conflict of interest YTNC graphic and for the first time we only had one current DSG person and one former DSG person on the YTNC committee and nobody else. We sent out the emails for the YTNC through Dr. Riddell’s office so we had three times the number of applicants this year than we had last year. We had an incredible slew of YT candidates that were non-DSG related at all. What was really exciting that we had this whole process that got so much better because we removed it from DSG and I think that was proactive of us.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.