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Running for Duke Student Government, unaffiliated

guest column

This past Friday I received a phone call around 3 p.m. I had lost in my DSG election for a committee’s vice president. Though disappointing, this news was not at all surprising. Duke Student Government inherently favors affiliated students. I ran as an independent. This is my experience.

When you run as an independent student in any contested Duke election, you expect to lose. For independent students trying to break into campus politics, there is no greater challenge that highlights this plight than running for a DSG position. Even though we do a lot of good, DSG presents a host of problems when it comes to accurately representing the student body.

This year, DSG has made significant efforts to combat representation problems when it comes to race, major and socioeconomic class. However, once again, not a single unaffiliated student was able to win a contested election for committee VP. When the current president, senior Tara Bansal, was probed last year about independent students’ lack of representation, she responded, “I would emphasize that this conversation is not meant to discourage independent students from joining DSG—rather a call to action for more independent students to run and vote.”

I heard this. I ran.

You should not need to rush a social organization to be able to represent your peers in DSG. I am proud to be an independent student. Thanks to my independent status, I live in a community where selectivity has no home and where I am fully able to pursue relationships with a diverse array of people from all areas of campus life. We need more independent students in DSG because they bring this unique and encompassing perspective.

It is hard for DSG to represent the true interests of the student body if it is not fully aware of certain viewpoints. Since shifting the housing model in 2012, DSG has long tried to equate the experience of living in a selective group’s housing to living in an independent’s housing. However, DSG has not had an independent student in the VP of Residential Life position since 2013.

So, why are independent students unable to penetrate the executive board of DSG?

The first reason is Facebook. Social media is a visible manifestation of the inequities that exist between the privileges afforded to affiliated students. Sure, you will vote for and support your friends. This is okay. The problem arises when people blindly share photos to help endorse members of their affiliated groups.

For example, it is a common practice for first-year students to be “encouraged” to vote for and endorse particular candidates. In last year’s presidential election, according to Chronicle reporting, 82 women were awarded a merit point by their Greek organization for changing their cover/profile photos to support a candidate in their organization. Annie Adair, the independent student who ran against this affiliated student, lost by only 51 votes. Although supporting members of an affiliated group is a common and not necessarily unethical practice, unaffiliated students naturally do not have this privilege of automatic support on social media campaigns. It creates a huge obstacle that is virtually impossible for us independents to overcome.

The second reason is that reaching independent student voters is a difficult task. Any candidate running in a DSG election will tell you that that candidates focus largely on SLGs, given their central accessibility. It is impossible to get a group of 120 independent students in a room on a Sunday afternoon for a 3-minute stump speech—but it is possible to gather affiliated students.

Furthermore, students do not have access to knowledgeable endorsements. This year, The Chronicle’s Editorial Board cancelled its endorsement meeting with all candidates running for committee VPs. Although the Editorial Board has not had much effect on results for committee chairs (last year, all the candidates they endorsed lost), it still instigates debate and sheds light on candidate platforms. At least in presidential elections, students rely on these endorsements to make educated decisions.

The current trend is that the presidential winner is the one who gets the most endorsements. The past three DSG presidents—Riyanka Ganguly, Tara Bansal and Keizra Mecklai—all won the majority of endorsements. Therefore, we need more endorsements to increase representation, especially for committee VPs. Equipped with these educated opinions, students can make true and informed decisions. In turn, this would increase representation on campus.

People are tired of DSG. We spam your newsfeeds, occasionally spend money irresponsibly and take your consulting jobs. But considering that DSG manages your money from the student activities fee and serves as the liaison between administrators and students, it really does have immense power to shape the student experience.

Overall, the purpose of this article is not to criticize Greek Life, selective living groups or DSG. These are all organizations and groups that try and do make the Duke experience better for a lot of students. The purpose of this article also is not to say that the candidate who beat me did not deserve or earn her win. I have worked closely with her and I truly believe she can bring change to Duke’s campus.

I simply am bringing to attention the fact that independent students are trying to represent their peers on this campus. Independent students care. We are voting and fighting for a better Duke that benefits all of us. If we want all voices on this campus to be heard, we need to start thinking about ways to make DSG more representative.

The first step is to encourage independent students to run. One way we can do this is to change the campaign process itself by focusing on platforms as opposed to friendships. By collaborating with student groups, we can change the campaign process to be more about direct student outreach as opposed to popularity. We can continue to enhance outreach campaigns similar to the efforts of Riyanka Ganguly and Will Hardee, who reached out to students in fun and unique ways while also bringing awareness to the issues.

Through social media, we can share ideas faster than ever. Let’s share websites instead of profile pictures. Let’s share candidate visions instead of cover photos.

We cannot break this endless cycle of affiliated students comprising the entire executive board unless we participate in the system. Even if we lose nine elections out of ten, at least we won one. And if you want to see change on campus but do not want to be so bold as to join DSG, the solution is even easier: vote.

Monika Dharia is a Pratt sophomore.


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