USG aims to increase diversity

Of the last five Undergraduate Student Government presidents, three have been members of the Sigma Chi fraternity. In addition, four of the past five winning president and vice presidential tickets have included one member from Sigma Chi.

The fraternity is one of 23 active houses in USC’s Interfraternity Council. And though other IFC fraternities have not fared poorly in past elections, Sigma Chi easily dominates the lineup.

“I think there’s a very big emphasis [in Sigma Chi] on finding potential members who want to be involved in campus and want to do other things besides just the fraternity,” said Mikey Geragos, who served as USG president from 2012-13 and was a member of Sigma Chi. “There’s an emphasis on that that is placed during rush and during the pledging process and it’s really valued.”


Despite Geragos’ explanation for Sigma Chi’s winning streak, the issue raises an important question as to how diverse USG truly is.

Diversity within the organization can vary depending on which aspect of USG one focuses on. After all, USG is divided into many parts, including an Executive Board, Executive Cabinet, Program Board and Senate, and many of the branches have diversity built into their structures. For example, the Senate, by definition, is required to comprise three commuter senators, three Greek senators and three residential senators.

The organization has recently made attempts to find out more about which areas of USG could benefit from more diversity, and is currently conducting a poll of its members, looking at race, sexual orientation, gender and Greek affiliation. In preliminary results shared with the Daily Trojan on Monday, 59 members had responded. USG Senior Director of Communications Olivia Diamond estimates the total number of USG members at 115.

Of the respondents, 37 percent said they were affiliated with Greek life, a higher percentage than the general student body’s involvement in Greek life. Fraternities and sororities have a combined membership of approximately 4,000 students, according to the Interfraternity Council website. Taken as a percentage, that amounts to 22 percent of USC’s 18,316 undergraduate student body population.

In terms of racial diversity, however, USG’s percentages are relatively representative of the undergraduate student body. In the fall of 2012, the university reported that 39 percent of students identified as white, 23 percent as Asian, 5 percent as black and 14 percent as Hispanic.

The at-large ratios are fairly consistent with the USG survey, in which 39 percent of USG respondents identified as white/Caucasian, 25 percent as Asian/Pacific-American, 8 percent as black and 12 percent as Hispanic/Latino.

Still, USG members said that they have recently prioritized increasing the diversity within the organization.

“I think that [USG] is diverse already, because diversity is more than surface-level diversity,” said Lamar Gary, director of Diversity Affairs and a former Black Student Assembly director. “We all come from different places, we all have different experiences, and I think that that’s valuable. But I think that we can always improve upon that.”

Monica Parra, executive director of Program Board, credited Gary with the recent push for greater diversity.

“I think a lot of the reason [diversity] is such a big issue this year is because of Lamar Gary,” Parra said. “I feel like he really comes from a different perspective in student government and just working really closely with student government and other kinds of underrepresented organizations to help to carry out their causes and what they want to see change on campus.”

Gary said he spent a lot of time at the beginning of the year, even before classes started, recruiting students from different groups on campus by attending new student symposiums hosted by El Centro Chicano, Black Cultural Student Affairs and Asian Pacific American Student Services.

“I have the second largest committee and I’m pretty sure that’s because I went and spoke,” Gary said. “I spoke on behalf of all of USG, but I told them that I was in Diversity Affairs, so that may have helped in getting people for Diversity Affairs.”

Andrew Cho and Taylor Rottjakob, co-directors of elections and recruitment, also have been working this year to attract new students, just through different means. The two said that in addition to an annual open house, they have used social media and reached out to leaders of other groups to encourage their members apply for positions.

“One of the things we’re actually working on is reaching out to as many people as possible,” Cho said. “Part of our goal is to reach out to all the assemblies, to reach out to all the committees and to reach out to as many of the constituency groups as possible.”

A common sentiment among USG officers, however, was that though they could encourage involvement among different groups of the undergraduate student body, they ultimately don’t have control over who decides to apply or run for a position.

“We’re going to try to get the information out to as many people as possible, but when it comes down to who applies, that’s out of our control,” Cho said. “We can’t fill [the application] out for specific people.”

Still, USG is working to attract members in different ways. In a letter to the editor of the Daily Trojan that was published on Oct. 10, USG president Christian Kurth said that one of the two reasons the organization pays some of its members is to ensure diversity.

Kurth later said he is not sure the two have a direct correlation, but he believes that some people in USG would not be able to be a part of the organization if no salaries or stipends were offered. As a result, he believes that paying members creates a wider pool of applicants who are able to take on a position.

“I think there’s a lot of people in this organization who, had we not paid them, [would not be able to] do this because a lot of them are putting themselves through college and they’ve got to pay the bills and what have you,” Kurth said.

Each branch of the system, however, is unique. As director of Program Board, Parra said she notices some diversity issues exclusive to Program Board.

“I would love to see more gender diversity,” Parra said. “I think that’s really lacking and I’m not sure why.”

Parra’s beliefs were reflected in the preliminary results of the USG survey. Sixty-six percent of the respondents were female, while only 34 percent were male. Parra floated the idea of creating a men’s student assembly, similar to the Women’s Student Assembly, which currently works to address gender issues and empower female students,

“We don’t have a men’s student assembly so to even kind of balance out the women’s student assembly, the men’s student assembly, I think, would be really cool,” Parra said.

If created, a men’s student assembly would join eight existing Program Board assemblies and a new assembly that’s slated to be integrated next semester. Each USG assembly represents different populations within the USC student body, ranging from a Political Student Assembly to a Queer and Ally Student Assembly. Program Board will launch a Green Student Assembly next year that will officially become a full-time assembly in the 2014-2015 school year, Parra said.

Though gender balance within Program Board might be skewed toward women, the opposite is true for some elected USG positions. In the last five years, only five out of 30 candidates for president and vice-president were female. Of those races, only two women were elected to serve as vice-president.

“I think it’s so important to keep getting the message out about stepping up to the table, because an underrepresented population is a vulnerable one,” said Kaya Masler, co-director of the Women’s Student Assembly. “Your motivations for being in politics and being in office are personal, and you come to that [position] with your experiences dictating what you want to make out of it. If women’s experiences are not being put into that process, they’re not going to be taken into account in the drafting of legislation.”

The Women’s Student Assembly is working to address this issue. The group is partnering with the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics to host “Lean In,” an event on Nov. 22 that will encourage more women to run for elected positions in student government.

“I think part of the event is just showing women that there’s a community of support around them and if they are interested in running, there are other women who also feel that it’s important,” Masler said.

Ultimately, Gary underscored the importance of making the case for why students who wouldn’t otherwise join the organization should.

“It’s just a matter of breaking down those barriers and telling people why they need to be in USG,” Gary said. “That’s what my recruitment included, just being very candid and letting them know: ‘Hey, this is why you need to be in USG. Don’t just complain about things, be a part of the conversation by being in the room.’”


Follow Isabella on Twitter @IsabellaSayyah