This past summer, USC’s Undergraduate Student Government faced severe scrutiny after allegations of microaggressions and racial misconduct surfaced concerning several USG leaders. In the end, not only did former President Truman Fritz and former Vice President Rose Ritch resign, but the entire executive cabinet agreed to step down to pave the way for better representation in USG leadership.
Today, USG is in rebuilding mode with a new president and vice president, senior Gabe Savage and junior Trinity Moore, respectively. The executive cabinet has also begun its rehiring process to find students to fill the cabinet positions. While this may seem to be nothing more than a roster change for the organization, this step has the potential to revitalize USG’s position on campus by strengthening its core mission: to redefine the student experience.
USG, with a staff of 140 students and a budget of $2.4 million, has been behind many notable initiatives including fall break, fryft, and the First Generation Plus Center to name a few. These and other projects are made possible by USG’s three branches interacting with one another. However, the general direction and focus of the organization are dependent on the elected senators, president and vice president. These elected positions legitimize the organization’s commitment to the student body by having required office hours and meetings with students to find initiatives to lead. Their roles, in essence, are there to understand student interest to then decide what USG dedicates time and resources to.
Senators align themselves with standing committees, which are bodies of students dedicated to one specific kind of impact. The legislative branch is where having a diverse set of perspectives becomes a true asset as this is the branch that dictates the impact of USG. This is why it is integral that the perspectives taken into consideration by this body are fully representative of this campus. The system that governs USG acknowledges that, and that is why the positions of senators, president and vice president are elected positions. The integrity of the branch itself depends on those who participate in the voting process for these positions. Without a proper voter turn out, these positions can’t gather the full extent of the student experiences that are possible here. As in any democracy, voting is a sacred right that is essential to the process and success of it.
Voting for USG is typically done via a digital device. For a week in February, Trousdale Parkway is covered in campaign signs with campaign members running around trying to catch those who regrettably chose to walk. The frenzy continues 24/7, all in the hopes of every stopped individual pitching a ballot toward the USG election. However, the 2020-21 USG election saw a voter turnout of around 23%. This trend is not novel, with the 2019 and 2018 elections also having low voter turnout. This is a clear example of the fact that USG is not known on campus. Nearly 75% of students did not vote for USG elections, which means 75% of students were unable to individually consider and vet the students who were running for paid positions to represent them. When such a large group of students plays a blind eye, we run the chance of having a representative who is not at all who we need in power.
As in any government, citizen participation is the only way to align systems with those impacted: It holds not only people but also the organization itself accountable to its mission. When only a quarter of the student body participates in elections, USG loses a critical opportunity to gain insight into who our student body actually is. That loss of perspective makes the organization more prone to glossing over critical issues and losing the ability to recognize systemic issues. When that happens, students get left behind and their experiences suddenly are not recognized. That is the opposite of what should happen when there is a form of government. If USG had a much higher voter turnout, that could have resulted in a larger pool of candidates as well. The benefits of having more voter turnout continue.
While voter turnout is one sure way to increase the visibility of who our candidates are, the recent events surrounding USG point to a clear need for genuine conversations about race and representation. Whether that is on the macro-level of an organization or at the micro on friendships, conversations need to broaden people’s minds around the reality of systemic issues. Education like this includes pointing at systems we have come to rely on, acknowledging inequities in bodies of authority and educating students on microaggressions. The approach to point to problems should be done with purpose. These conversations should be recognized as a valuable insight instead of being written off as a personal opinion.
The way these kinds of conversations are dealt with and approached dictates the organization’s culture. Consulting firm Bain & Company has published several works on the culture within organizations in relation to their operational success. According to Bain, “Companies that create a winning culture are 3.7 times more likely to be top performers.” Success in the context of USG is a measurable impact. Having that impact is only possible if the organization has more students voting and more students talking. People finding pride in the organization enough to debate and exchange ideas about it pushes everyone forward as long as we can account that we have everyone. USG is having one of those moments of accountability right now.
Inciting organizational change is no easy task. But it is essential for organizations to have periods of reflection and dissection if they want to hold a reputable place in the future. USG certainly has a long way to go — however, there is a clear commitment to embarking on that journey.
Disclaimer: Rohit Bolla serves as an associate director of Digital Strategy in USG.