With senior Tara Bansal's tenure as president of the Duke Student Government drawing to a close, The Chronicle spoke with Bansal and asked her to reflect on the past year's DSG projects, low voter turnout and the organization's demographics. 

TC: What would you say is the accomplishment you’re most proud this year?

TB: I think the creation, piloting and expansion of the living learning community. I think that is a project that really has the potential to change the social culture on this campus. It’s a pretty visionary project, and it’s also a collaboration between students, faculty and administrators, so it’s pretty large scale. It’s also particularly exciting because it’s a totally free and non-exclusive housing option that develops intellectual engagement in a new way.

TC: What do you think have been the three most important projects this year that impact the student body?

TB: Apart from the living learning community, the first would be that we worked with Academic Affairs to completely rewrite the course evaluations. This is the first time they’ve been rewritten in nearly a decade, and they’re a lot more useful to students in terms of getting information out of them. The second thing is we’ve worked with admissions and Dean [Steve] Nowicki to ensure that undocumented students are treated as need-blind domestic applicants, rather than international applicants. The third big thing is that we’ve negotiated with student affairs a new group alcohol amnesty policy, where if you’re having a social event and you needed to call [Emergency Medical Services], you would get amnesty for doing so. There’s been a verbal agreement, and we’ve been allowed to publicize it. The official policy change will happen in about a month.

TC: If you had one main critique of what happened this year, what would it be?

TB: Internal affairs and internal decisions can be misinterpreted by external actors. I think to some extent you can’t do much about that, you just have to focus on the work. We’ve tried really hard this year to better communicate what we’re doing with the student body. If you’ve seen the new website, the new blast, all the infographics that go out on the social media pages—the more we can do that the better. I definitely want to keep encouraging students to pursue communication before judgment. There’s sometimes just going to be judgment of internal decisions that doesn’t always have all the facts.

TC: Could you give an example of when you think a decision was misjudged this year?

TB: The decision when DSG approved the Sexual Health Center. There was a lot of pushback because of just one specific part of what that health center was going to incorporate, which was about sexual health and included demonstrative models of sexual health. I think that really eclipsed the broader idea of what the center was going to do.

TC: What do you think is the president’s role in handling these sorts of controversies?

TB: I think the first thing is making sure that students are aware of what’s on the docket. So, we’ve started including in the blast those updates so students know about them. And I think providing forums for students to be able to give their opinion. We have public forum and office hours every week for those types of opportunities. But then at the end of the day, it’s the president’s job to make a decision about whether, with all the facts, they believe that that project or funding allocation should move forward or not.

TC: Voter turnout in this last election was pretty lowlower than that in prior years. Why does this continue to be an issue and what steps will be taken and have been taken to address this?

TB: At the end of the day, it can’t just be about getting people to vote on the day of. It’s really about people believing that DSG is valuable and it's worthwhile to get to know the candidates and vote. The more that throughout the year you see DSG is making progress on projects, which we are doing slowly but surely, I think voter turnout will increase over time.

TC: A column was published earlier this week in The Chronicle that criticized how difficult it is to get elected to DSG as an unaffiliated student. How big of a concern do you think that is, and what can DSG do to change that?

TB: I do think it is a trend. Obviously having a larger network of people, the larger the network is the more likely you are to win, and being affiliated does give you a larger network. I think there’s an element of correlation without causation, where a lot of times the type of people who are engaged and extroverted enough to run for a position are those who are affiliated. So a lot of the time the people who run for these positions are affiliated, although that might be because unaffiliated people are unsure about their potential for winning. I’m not sure. The things we’ve talked about are which positions can be made meritocracies instead of democracies, so they don’t have to run for a position. For example, the entire cabinet is all a meritocracy, and we try to have a lot of diversity in the cabinet, so trying to increase the number of positions that aren’t elected is an effort that we’ve made.

TC: What have you learned the most as president?

TB: I think that students would be surprised at how low the barrier is to change some issues. There are some things that are harder for students to get passed, but there are some proposals and policies that you only need to bring to administrators once or twice and they’re willing to listen and make those changes. So, I really recommend to any student, even if you aren’t interested in student government at all—if there’s something at Duke you think could be better, even just writing someone an email and letting them know is a really effective way of making change. I was pleasantly surprised by how many initiatives my team or I personally advocated for that did end up happening.

TC: If you could redo one decision you made this year, what would it be?

TB: I think what I would have done differently is probably try to engage first-years more at the very beginning of the year. Given the number of freshmen who run for DSG, there’s obviously a lot of enthusiasm about DSG when they first come to Duke, but if you don’t hear about student government after that, I think you end up losing interest. So, trying to capitalize on those first couple of weeks, and also partnering up more with the Graduate and Professional Student Council and Duke University Union. We’ve been coming together more at the end of the year, coming up with ideas for a collaborative platform for communication, but I do wish we had done that earlier in the year.