It’s that time of year. The smiling faces of Undergraduate Student Government presidential and senatorial candidates line Trousdale Parkway, Annenberg Media hosts candidate “town hall” events and swaths of friends change their Facebook profile pictures to the business casual-meets-school spirit promotional filters of USG candidates.
Yet, despite its efforts, the intractable problem of USG at USC persists: many students don’t know much about what USG does or what it can do for them. Those who do vote often do so because they personally know someone running for USG or have attended a free food event hosted by USG. And when candidates repeat the same buzzwords — “diversity,” “campus safety” and “sustainability” — it’s easy to see why so many who are engaged are left wondering what exactly differentiates the candidates.
Yet, with its $2.3 million budget and six executive branches, USG, in the right hands, can be a force for transformative change on campus. So it’s important for us to not only choose our student leaders wisely, but also see how the system could be better. Maybe it’s time we took a page out of the playbook of our California university counterparts, like UCLA and UC Berkeley, which have long used political parties as the backbone of their student governments.
The most important impact that political parties could have at USC is to create a pipeline for student activism and engagement. At USC, a slew of institutional factors — chief among them, student demography and administrative lack of transparency — has created an environment of political apathy regarding campus issues. Instead of working on the many campus issues that affect us personally — sexual assault, sustainability, diversity and inclusion and cultural communities — so many politically-minded students take their talents to work for local politicians or organizations. And that makes the work all the more difficult for those who do spend their energy advocating on behalf of students’ rights on campus.
That’s not to say that campus activism at USC is impossible. A racially charged incident aimed at former USG president Rini Sampath yielded a year of diversity initiatives in 2015; now, students are fighting to save an administrative position that the University removed from the Norman Topping Student Aid Fund, which financially supports first-generation students. But the issue is that campus activism isn’t sustainable; Vice President of Student Affairs Ainsley Carry even said last year that he remembered the days when students were “banging down” his door wanting to talk about sexual assault.
Building political parties would create an intergenerational pipeline for student leaders, and it would generate more conversation about who we are and what we stand for. This can only yield positive results.
Greater student engagement with USG, in turn, also informs an electorate; when it comes to elections, political parties serve as indicators of voters of candidates’ values. The organization of policies and platforms, instead of individual candidates running on abstract ideas, creates real accountability. A quick look at political analysis in UC Berkeley’s The Daily Californian, for example, shows that campus political parties engender the same kind of community-driven decisionmaking that we expect from our local, state and national governments.
Critics might wonder whether creating political parties at USC might stifle candidates who would rather identify as independent. Theoretically, it could, but political parties at other schools show that this doesn’t have to be the case. For example, a commentator in UCLA’s The Quad revealed that in the 2017 Undergraduate Students Association election, “a string of passionate independents took on the establishment — and came out on top.”
It’s clear that it’s time to take a hard look at the fundamentals of what drives students to make their campus and community better. And if institutional factors have been holding student engagement back, then let’s fix the institution. We, the students, pay into and vote for our student government, so let’s make sure it’s the best it can be.
Sonali Seth is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Wednesdays.