As the Presidential Primary churns along, another campaign will soon sweep Duke—the race for the Presidency of Duke Student Government (DSG). Today marks the deadline for campaigns to submit 100 signatures from supporters so that they may enter the running. Then, from now until election day, a frenzy will ensue as each candidate conducts a relentless selfie stop campaign, traversing campus with canned rhetoric, ear-to-ear grins and well-timed daps.
In theory, DSG Presidential candidates are supposed to run substantive campaigns where they make affirmative commitments to pass concrete proposals. But in my experience, DSG Presidential campaigns boil down to boring biographical contests, a competition of resume-waving and credential-claiming.
Ostensibly, politics is about using power to benefit the body politic. But you wouldn’t know it from DSG’s Presidential elections. Here, power and its uses are subordinate to vacuous liberal virtues and their public reiteration, ad nauseam. Hence why so few DSG Presidential campaigns are defined by signature proposals for how to improve student life.
In all fairness, candidates are surely cognizant of the limited powers of DSG’s Chief Executive. The shortage of ambition may just be a function of humility, of candidates recognizing the limitations of the office to which they aspire.
Nonetheless, what the DSG President lacks in direct instrumental power, they make up for in communicative influence. The President of DSG is the student body’s voice, the articulate champion of their interests. With such power over campus discourse comes a responsibility to lobby for change, for ideas that will shift paradigms at Duke.
Does this necessarily mean that the DSG President’s proposals will be realized? Of course not. That kind of power mostly lies with the Duke administration. But a penchant for forceful, determined, borderline confrontative, advocacy should be a required characteristic of any candidate. The DSG President is not elected to dither their term away while playing nice with the Duke administration, accomplishing little other than adding bullet points to their resume. They are elevated to foment change! To that end, I humbly submit some policies for consideration.
The next DSG President should prioritize low-income students and advocate for their wellbeing. Research demonstrates, counterintuitively, that the knowledge and skills accumulated during an undergraduate education do not drive the monetary value of a degree. Rather, the social connections developed during the undergraduate experience are the primary source of value. The Harvard Career Center agrees with that notion, pointing out “[if] you’ve ever had to pick people for your group or team, chances are you asked your friends to recommend people they know. In much the same way, recent studies indicate that nearly 80% of the positions available are filled through personal referrals.”
As of now, low-income students do not have close to the same opportunities for networking and socialization. As other columnists have pointed out, bills at restaurants, memberships in social organizations and cover charges for clubs often represent intolerable costs for many students. All candidates must prioritize bridging the socialization gap that pervades Duke social life.
DSG’s President must mitigate the inadequacies of Duke’s social system. As I have previously argued at length, our social system belies the full extent of Duke’s diversity. To fix this, we should liberalize the approval process for new social organizations, enabling students to create as many SLGs, Greek organizations and SSGs (selective social groups not tied to a living space) as possible. Every Duke student should be able to join or create a community that suits them.
Each candidate for DSG President should also commit to serious, deliberate action towards ending sexual assault on campus. Although Duke continues to grapple with this pressing reality, the administration is still not taking every action possible. Currently, the Student Experiences Survey, a report that analyzes “sexual assault and other forms of sexual misconduct” at Duke, is conducted on an opt-in basis. But as anyone in intro statistics can tell you, conducting statistical analyses on an opt-in basis can lead to wildly inaccurate conclusions. As Stanford Researchers confirm, “opt-in sample surveys done via the internet [are] always less accurate and [are] sometimes strikingly inaccurate.”
Given the shortcomings of the current approach, we should address sexual assault on campus with the severity it deserves: the Student Experiences Survey should be conducted on a mandatory basis (with limited exceptions for those with demonstrated trauma) and administered through Duke Hub as a prerequisite to signing up for classes. There will surely be many understandable objections to this approach, but do any such concerns surmount the crucial imperative to collect accurate information? We can’t be sure that we are making a difference if the information that informs our policies is intrinsically flawed.
DSG Presidential candidates should support reforms to DSG itself. As I addressed in my column on how to improve DSG, the structure of representation in the DSG Senate is inane. There is no reason to presuppose a collective political interest based on class year, for instance. Instead, representation should be based on living groups so that like-minded students can elect authentic representation. This would spur turnout, promote political accountability and give campus politics some actual grounding in the needs of the student body.
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To candidates and constituents alike, I ask this: throw the cynicism, the belief that DSG is an utterly ineffectual, careerist institution, aside. That outlook is a choice, not a reality. Worse still, it’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is nothing to be lost by taking the race for DSG President seriously. If anything, candidates might differentiate themselves both by proposing bold initiatives and by committing to doggedly fight for their beliefs.
Reiss Becker is a Trinity junior. His column, "roused rabble," runs on alternate Thursdays.