UT’s Student Government Association is a voice representing the student body for issues on campus. Though coronavirus may have muffled that voice for a time, SGA is still running and still holding elections.
However, the outbreak has affected the organization’s operation in multiple ways.
Student Body President Natalie Campbell, a senior majoring in legal philosophy and disability studies, said that SGA is still working for the student body’s well-being — with an emphasis on providing accurate information.
“I want every student to know that student government is still working for them,” Campbell said. “Most of my days consist of meetings with administrators, academic policy committees and communication officials. Our focus is amplifying the university’s message, driving students to a centralized source of information — the Chancellor and her office — to make sure students know where to get reliable information.”
She also said SGA bodies are still meeting regularly over video conference to discuss issues.
“We still have weekly Executive Cabinet meetings as normal and [are] still proceeding with business as planned. The topic of that business has changed, but exec is still hard at work,” Campbell said. “Senate had a meeting two weeks ago over Zoom. First-Year Council’s having a meeting tonight, and Student Service Committees are still functioning.”
News of class cancellation reached SGA at the same time as everyone else, around March 11.
At that point, Campbell met with Isaac Holt, student body vice president, and Emerson Burd, student services director, to determine SGA’s new function. The Executive Cabinet placed special importance on communication — a more difficult task now that in-person assembly was off the table.
“We first wanted to make sure we communicated with our members. We sent an email explaining what we were doing with Senate, First-Year Council, different events we had planned — making sure they knew we were still working and that they should still pursue initiatives they were passionate about,” Campbell said.
With SGA assemblies still meeting, focus has shifted toward how best to provide students with resources.
As of writing, elections are two weeks away — a fact of which SGA is aware. Campbell assures students that SGA remains on track and prepared.
“At this point in the semester, we’re preparing how we’ll transition to the next administration. I feel like our tempo is consistent, all things considered,” Campbell said.
SGA elections were most significantly affected by class cancellation. In years past, candidates campaigned physically.
SGA Election Commissioner Nicole Painter, a senior in journalism and political science, described how plans changed over time.
Until March 16, physical class was to resume on April 6. This presented issues; April 6 was also SGA Election Day.
“If we were back on the sixth, that’s when the elections were supposed to happen. That wasn’t feasible, and it was unfair for students to come back and immediately start campaigning,” Painter said. “We decided to push elections back to give campaigns time to hold speaking engagements and have that physical presence on campus.”
Elections were pushed to April 15 through 17. As of writing, those dates still stand.
However, Chancellor Donde Plowman announced an extended class cancellation through the spring and summer, leaving the election’s future in the air.
According to Painter, some in SGA questioned the need for elections during a pandemic. After a discussion with the Senate and other SGA groups, the election schedule remained in order not to harm student representation.
“We ultimately decided to proceed with elections. Student voice and student representation is always important and most definitely important in this time of uncertainty,” Painter said. “We just knew it wasn’t fair if students weren’t represented through summer and the beginning of fall semester. I think every campaign understands the importance of representing students during all times, and we’re in a very unprecedented time right now. Student voices need to be at the forefront of every conversation.”
Elections were already fully online — and will remain as such during the outbreak — but an inability to physically campaign altered standard rules of engagement.
Debates will now occur over Zoom, though will only be available to the general public via recording due to technological concerns.
The Election Commission will release results to campaigns online before SGA announces them publicly, via social media and “The Daily Beacon.”
The loftiest changes were found in communication and the Election Packet, a yearly ruleset that campaigns need to follow. The Election Commission works to uphold the rules and procedures present in the packet, but the circumstances warranted significant alterations.
SGA had already placed resources into their communications team, an effort, Campbell said, which granted a 50% increase in social media followers over the last two semesters.
Campaigns and the Election Commission now communicate almost entirely via social media, with SGA also considering student body-wide emails.
However, the Election Packet contained rules against mass communication with classes and student organizations. Under normal circumstances, campaigns physically meet with student organizations and discuss their policies. That not being possible, the Election Commission met with all three campaigns — Change, Promise and We Hear You UT — to discuss the situation.
“After we decided it would be all online, I met with all three campaigns at the same time to open [the decision] up to them. Although a few of us on Election Commission have either ran for positions or helped manage a campaign, the people actually running these campaigns were ultimately the most important voice,” Painter said. “We changed the rules around mass communication in the packet. We understood some of the challenges they would face now if we kept the packet as it was.”
The altered Election Packet now allows campaigns to provide their campaign materials to organizations, under the caveat that only those organizations’ executives distribute them. That way, candidates could campaign more easily while elections maintained their structure and integrity.
“Hopefully it reaches more students at once,” Painter said. “We wanted to uphold the integrity and normal processes during election time while giving more freedom with how they communicate.”
Despite continued changes, Painter encouraged students and campaigns to do their best during the outbreak.
“I continue to encourage everyone to remain hopeful and flexible, and to remain creative,” Painter said. “We will all get through this together. It’s just going to look a little different this year. Keep in mind that our main goal is for students to elect someone they want to represent them.”
The first SGA debate will occur tonight, with the recording later posted to SGA social media.