Evaluating the OES Student Body Presidency

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by Abe Asher

As we approach the beginning of March, we approach a new election season here at OES. Policy Board is currently working on setting an election calendar for 2016 for a number of positions.

Most notable across those positions is the role of Student Body President. The Presidency is the most visible elected role at OES, and this upcoming election will be the second held since both the voting system was reformed last year.

At the moment, after a difficult year, questions of both why we elect Presidents and what we elect Presidents to do are becoming increasingly important.

“Five or six years ago, we started to ask questions about the old structure of student council. We were concerned about gender equity and gender roles,” said Deb Walsh, Dean of Students and Policy Board Advisor.

Those were, and still are, pressing concerns. The last female Student Body President was elected nine years ago in 2006 — and it’s not that women aren’t running for President. In the last three years, six girls have run for the position and lost.

With an eye towards the lack of gender diversity in student government, one of the key tenants of an original proposal to reform the structure of Student Council was to do away with the Presidency entirely and mandate that one of the board chairs be female. It didn’t happen.

“Students revolted. Students across genders — primarily young women — rejected that idea. Young women spoke out against that idea as being a form of Affirmative Action,” Deb said.

Instead, the process would be reformed in different ways.

Last year’s OES Presidential election foretold, in many ways, the current mood of the US Presidential election.

In our election last year, an insurgent candidate who had no previous experience in student government — Cyrus J. — beat a large field comprised of a number of establishment candidates.

That victory was fueled by a widespread frustration with the way student government worked. Much of Cyrus’ campaign was about prosecuting what he and others saw as a lack of dynamism in the Student Council.

The election also exposed a number of potential downsides of the new alternative vote system which was passed through Policy Board last year.

The alternative vote, in which voters rank candidates in order of preference instead of voting for one person, works tremendously well when candidates are distinguished based on ideology.

In a national Presidential election, for instance, a liberal voter can rank the Green Party nominee first, but still have a voice by ranking the Democratic candidate second.

But our Presidential candidates hardly have ideologies, hurting the main motive for the alternative vote system — and when you combine a small electorate of some 315 Upper School students with a large field of candidates (eight last year) the ranking system begins to show its flaws.

Since the election last year was extremely close, the winning candidate’s number of first-place votes fell below 50%. There was no guarantee that the winning candidate even had the most first-place votes. It ended up mattering how students ranked their least-favorite candidates.

Should it matter if a person ranks a candidate sixth versus seventh? Seventh versus eighth? Can we reasonably expect students — especially underclassmen, who many not personally know the candidates — to form educated and thoughtful opinions on every single candidate?

The alternative vote is meant to build in a series of run-offs. But there’s very little doubt that voters weigh the choice between two candidates differently than they weight the choice between candidates four and five on a bigger ballot.

The alternative vote system is widely heralded throughout the world, and it may be the system best supported by political scientists in this country. It was thoroughly vetted by Policy Board last year. But it might not be a great fit for our unique voting situation.

Reforming the voting system was a reaction to the school Presidential election of 2014, in which the previous system — where the top two vote-getters compete in a run-off — was challenged in particularly bitter and acrimonious circumstances.

The old system — akin to a primary followed up by a general election — represented the votes of students in different, but possibly more impactful ways. But for the moment, the alternative vote is here to stay — and in a way, it accomplished one of its main goals.

“Students were definitely paying attention to questions of gender equity. Students said that the alternative vote is known for giving groups traditionally not in power,” Deb told me.

So while a woman wasn’t elected last year, an outsider candidate certainly was.

“People are generally satisfied with an alternative vote system. We haven’t reexamined it this year. Even though we want to remain in those conversations, we need to give systems predictability and stability to run.”

“What Policy Board is really thinking about right now is voter education,” said Deb.

That doesn’t mean the Board isn’t looking into fixing problems with the system. There was no absentee voting last year, a situation Policy Board is currently working to fix for the upcoming elections.

However, write-in candidates — a particular point of contention in 2014 — are no longer allowed. There was no space on last year’s electronic ballot to write a candidate in, meaning that the election fell somewhere short of completely free and open.

Because OES doesn’t release vote totals, we don’t know the breakdown of who voted for who last year. But it seems probable that women disproportionately vote for female candidates, and that underclassmen voted for a different candidate than upperclassmen. In any case, the electorate was most likely as splintered as its ever been.

That brings us back to square one: Should we even have a President?

The vast majority of his campaign promises long forgotten, Cyrus himself has changed his tune.

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Cyrus told me, “We should have a president, because the leadership that the position provides when it comes to gathering, events, student council, and school spirit is valuable.”

But in his campaign statement last year, Cyrus struck a different tone. He said, “I understand that the president and the board don’t have infinite power, but that is no excuse… I believe the president is influential.”

He went on to write, “The faculty at OES listen to the president and Policy Board, and, while they won’t accept whatever Policy Board proposes, they will listen to logical arguments supporting ideas that students want, and I’ll make those arguments. The president needs to refocus the board and put what students care about first.”

But the candidate who derided the role as simply “clapping and pointing” in his campaign has done little more than clap and point in his first six months on the job. In fact, when asked what his most important accomplishment on the job had been to date, Cyrus noted several well-received speeches given to prospective students.

Cyrus also acknowledged that there is a common misconception about the stakes involved in the job. “I believe that the president is a valuable position, yet almost always overestimated in its importance. In discussing the role with my peers, they are often shocked that I have little to no actual power. I don’t even have priority in hearing about cases taken up by the DC.”

Most Presidents, of course, are accountable to their constituents. But at OES, with no re-election and no laws to execute, the President has very little accountability.
That’s not true of other positions of leadership at the school. If Community Board isn’t well run, we don’t have school dances. If The Dig isn’t well-run, we don’t have a newspaper.

Cyrus — and the Presidents that came before him since the implementation of the new system — have made very little long-term impact. In a sense, it matters little that Cyrus hasn’t carried out his agenda.

The truth of the job is that absent a will to get involved, the Presidency is, at least in terms of running the school, unnecessary.

The truth is this: We like having a President. The question is, why?

“It [the Presidency] is a very strong indication of our patriarchal mindset. A lot of that deep cultural mindset is single male leaders who are relied upon to hold up the best of what the community is or should be, and I don’t think that necessarily fits with the culture of OES,” said Deb.

“What I sense from students over and over again is pushback against hierarchical systems. There’s a paradox here that I think students should be grappling with — questioning authority, questioning singular power — and yet having a lot of warm and fuzzy feelings about a Student Body President.”

A lot of that pushback against hierarchical systems and concentrated power has happened this year. It hasn’t, though, happened in conjunction with student government after what amounted to a pushback vote last year.

“I really wish students would dig more deeply into why they are so attached to having a single student leader for the student body,” Deb said.

The original proposal — the one that would have mandated that one of the two board chairs be female — included, as Deb put it, “a shared executive role with different terminology. It was a concept of a shared executive role instead of a sole executive role.”

And in a way, that’s the system we do have. It’s the board chairs who hold virtually all of the power and responsibility in the current structure of student government. The President’s role is extremely limited no matter if the President wants to be heavily involved or not.

When asked why he ran for President, Cyrus said, “The main reason was that I believed it was a role that I could perform better than the other candidates.” Asked if the Presidency had been harder than he thought it would be, Cyrus pointed to the two board chairs.

He told me, “No [the job hasn’t been harder than he thought it would be], and I think a large reason as to why is the absolutely fantastic leadership that the class of 2016 is fortunate enough to have on Community Board and Policy Board. Nathan C. and Regina L… have proven to be incredibly capable and driven leaders.”

Asked why he hasn’t implemented much of his agenda, Cyrus told me, “Once I got elected, one of two things became of the issues I raised in my election: I realized they were overblown, or my aggressive campaign was enough to create the change I called for.”

What we know is that in the current setup, the President doesn’t naturally fit into the government structure anywhere.

“Executive positions work best when the executive has true accountability. It’s hard to have responsibility without creating and carrying out policy,” said Deb.

“I think that is where our current system gives rise to questions.”

 

3 thoughts on “Evaluating the OES Student Body Presidency

  1. Election should be based on merit,not gender. Mandating that certain roles have certain genders fill them is a disservice to the idea that we all are created equal and have the opportunity to fulfill our dreams. Let the voters decide who will fill each role, not an arbitrary and artificial gender standard.

    In a student government system, where the students have relatively little power and are not forced to run things on their own with no one to fall back on, it might not seem like we need a president to make executive decisions. But for better or worse, people like to put a face to certain actions (the actions of StuCo). And I would argue that that face is an important part of the process. The role of president might not be about policy change, but it is about communicating with the students, keeping them involved and believing in the Student government. Because as we’ve seen, when students don’t believe in the student government, they push back as Abe said.

    • I completely agree that we shouldn’t mandate that certain genders fill certain roles. That’s why that proposal didn’t go forward. We should, however, be willing to acknowledge the fact that the winners of the most visible student council role have been overwhelmingly male. We should vote based on merit, but also note that since the president calls for traditionally masculine traits, our perception of who is qualified for the position may be skewed.

      I would challenge, however, your assertion that StuCo has no power. I think this is a misconception, even an excuse, that feeds student apathy.

      The reality is, the students you elect to community board plan all school dances and events. Without Community Board, we have no prom, no rave, no semi, no homecoming dance. We would not have had food trucks at homecoming, etc.

      The students you elect to policy board act as the student voice in regards to all student policy. The reason we still have chocolate milk and dessert in the Upper School is because stuco members advocated for it. Policy board is in the middle of revising the dress code and developing an honor code to essentially entirely restructure our school’s discipline system.

      The reality is that, just like the Presidency, Student Council Representatives have only as much power as they want to have. If the student body elects leaders that are mediocre, you are going to have mediocre policy changes, mediocre community events. On the other hand, if the student body is careful to elect students who want to make a difference in the school, who are passionate about the work of student council, the possibilities for student leadership are endless. Student Council has been and can be very influential in the school, but students have to take advantage of it.

  2. Excellent journalistic report on the Student Body President! I do have a couple of comments to make on the Alternative Vote critique, however:

    Above, it was stated that the winning candidate had less than 50% of the votes this year, and that the election came down to students’ last place votes. But the same was mathematically true in previous years as well! When you have more than one round of voting, you are in the very same way asking for students’ lower and lower preferences as their favorite candidates leave the voting pool.

    The alternative vote is more formally known as IRV, or Instant Runoff Voting. In essence, it is in every way *equivalent* to having a series of runoffs like in previous years – just done automatically given preferences. Frankly, although it may be far from the best voting method for the job, IRV is far better than what we had – it does the exact same job, but it does it with a whole lot less hastle.

    In mathematical models of voting, no matter what happens, you end up with what are called Concordet Paradoxes. This essentially means that when three or more candidates exist, you can *never* guarantee a majority for any candidate under any voting system – especially under our traditional majority vote. Although the Alternative Vote does have its fair share of problems, I would appreciate a more mathematically grounded and statistical approach to critiquing our voting system.

    Furthermore, you stated that we should not expect students to form opinions on very low down candidates – seventh vs. eighth, for instance. The Alternative Vote in its *pure form* does not require voters to rank past where they want to – in fact, you can even just vote for your favorite candidate and call it good. If I recall correctly, last year there was a mandate for every voter to fill out at least a certain number of candidates. I personally agree that students shouldn’t be required to form opinions they don’t have information for – indeed, if students’ aren’t mandatorily required to vote, I believe they shouldn’t have to vote for some predetermined number of individuals unless they choose to.

    The psychological analysis of weighing voters differently on ballots of different sizes is a good point. I won’t pretend to be a psychologist, but if this is a big issue, we should instead have students fill out a stack of ballots, one for each pair of candidates, then just figure out what their preferences are from there. It sounds a little ridiculous, but if the ballot size is the restraining factor, that can be fixed.

    There are some students in the Upper School with a good knowledge of how these systems work – as a note to the Student Body Government, I personally think leveraging what they know would be of great use to the student body of this year and of many years to come.

    Personally, I agree with Policy Board that the biggest issue right now is voter education. No matter how nice of a piano you have, you can’t play a concerto very well if every key isn’t tuned. How to go about educating the student body about candidates is not a trivial question, but I believe that if a forum is set up that necessitates candidates sharing salient details *critical to how they would act as president*, students would receive the information they need. I believe the debate-like round tables in previous years have done this to a good extent, but a system that by nature requires more rigor in knowledge and less rhetoric seems due to me. Potentially something along the lines of an exposition – I’m talking diagrams, charts, statistics, plans: real, direct knowledge of what each candidate is thinking – would be in order? I’d love to hear more opinions from the student body on whether the round table discussions give them the information they feel is necessary for voting.

    From this angle, it almost seems appropriate that the Student Body President should have little to no power – she or he must be the brain trust, the one whom others come to in order to understand *how* to make change. Although it sounds like the resounding opinion is that the Student Body President is superfluous, I believe that the position of president can be *made* necessary. It is the joining of not only segments of the Student Body Government but of the ideas of the students that the president is responsible for. She or he is there to provide unification, vision, and innovation – much like her or his analogue in the Modern U.S. Presidency.

    Contrary to others’ opinions, I personally believe that the idea of a president can fit in with the culture of OES – we just have to fill the role in the right manner. Rather than upholding the president as a “patriarchal” god-like figure, I agree that the leader of our student body should lead from below, not above. The student body president, female or male, should interact with individual students to get ideas, and act as the *unifying mediator* between the students and other government officials. If the president comes up with all of the ideas, she or he is addressing her or his own concerns, not that of the student body. In other words, when the president acts as a bridge between the students and the government, she or he fulfils her or his role to the highest degree. In this way, even if we have a student body president, the “single leader” mentality can and should be removed from the presidential seat.

    In conclusion, I’ll reiterate a note from the above article:

    “What we know is that in the current setup, the President doesn’t naturally fit into the government structure anywhere.”

    Abe, you’re 100% right. We have questions about the presidency for a reason. Right now, it may seem like the role of the president is a vestigial organ of the ultimately healthy OES government.

    But that doesn’t have to be the case. I believe that we should *not* discard the role before we truly know the limits of what it can do. As a candidate for Student Body President, I want to make sure that the OES student body sees what, in the proper hands, an individual can do – not perched upon the top of the empire, but with his back beneath the chiseled stone. I declare to the student body that together we will be able to change the precedent not only for the Student Body President, but for our understandings of the meaning and capabilities of OES as a whole. My aim is not to perch on my intellectual throne (however fun that position might be) and toss ideas down like bread crumbs – no. I wish to hear all of your solutions. I want to pose problems, inspire individuals, create confidence, and ultimately resolve what is important to each student by being more fully connected with every student in the student body.

    And I hope you all believe I’m the right one for the job.

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