What Happened to SGA? I’ll tell you.

Audrey Johnson, Staff Writer

In an issue with so much news coverage dedicated to the upcoming Student Government Association (SGA) elections, I felt it was time to offer my opinion on SGA. I resigned from the Senate in January after nearly four years of service and dedication to the organization. Due to my proximity to many of the decisions and projects that SGA has undertaken, I am privy to many of the pitfalls of the current executive leadership, as well as the failures and successes of prior administrations.

Putting it simply, this year has been nothing less of a disaster for SGA. It all began with the all-too-familiar Instagram post made by SGA President, Jake Statom. He shared the now infamous quote “Born This Way? You Must Be Born Again” juxtaposed under a rainbow – right in the middle of Pride month. Though this Instagram post gained the most attention, a slew of other posts on Twitter reflected this discriminatory view, along with a host of other insensitive comments regarding prominent social issues. With the click of a button, not only had he stained the reputation of the UNA community, he also permanently divided the Senate and threw our organization into a leadership crisis.

Over the summer, several efforts were attempted and failed at conducting damage control and finding an acceptable solution to the situation in which he had placed us. In every conversation held with my colleagues, Statom repeatedly attempted to characterize the backlash against his remarks as a simple misunderstanding only to then default his bigotry to a higher power when pressed for further explanation and empathy.

In August, the majority of SGA Senators voted to impeach President Statom as a result of the controversy generated over the summer and his lack of personal responsiveness and responsibility. Unfortunately, two votes shy of the required two-thirds threshold, Statom narrowly escaped the consequences of his actions and was able to remain in office with a sense of galvanized hubris.

The shockwaves that were created by this internal turbulence opened the door for SGA Vice President Kayla Walton (who ran unopposed) to emerge as the de facto leader of the organization. She served several years on SGA working in various roles within the Student Welfare committee, including Chair during last term. However, the pendulum had swung from incompetence to uncompromising as she was grossly unable to meet the moment; instead, she further disintegrated the ties that bound the members of the organization together through her lack of leadership and inability to compromise.

Lost in this chaotic cacophony were the Committee Chairs, myself included, feeling caught between incapable leadership and a splintered body of Senators. Budget and Oversight Chairwoman Ansley Brooks largely left everyone in the dark. Frequently in meetings the only words she had to provide were “no report.” Legislative Affairs Chairman John Shinholster relegated himself to repeating University talking points on the perennial funding issue, Project 208, without any substantive efforts being brought before the Senate to discuss and debate. Student Welfare Chairman and most-senior Senator Carson Brite, who lost to Statom in the 2021 SGA Presidential election but returned to the Senate, became disillusioned with Statom and Walton. He transformed from being an active former Vice President into a guerilla bureaucrat who fought the system by intentionally doing nothing to advance the goals of the administration (think Ron Swanson’s motivation in “Parks and Recreation”). Academic Affairs adapted to a new Chairwoman, Amber Sandvig, after their former, Makenzie Bullard, ghosted them and resigned from her position overnight.

I went through the motions wondering how we had gone from working with the university to respond to COVID-19 and transforming the constitution to implement a new elections structure, to debating technicalities surrounding absences and discussing the nuances of the Senate dress code. The work became droll, and the environment Walton created became borderline abusive.

Today, SGA continues to promote their goal of “transparency,” which I put in quotation marks because no one can seem to define or execute this goal. Although this aim was set in August in the immediate aftermath of the Jake Statom public relations nightmare, they’ve only latched onto it recently as a frail attempt to withstand vocal accusations against the organization’s leadership for mistreating its members (including myself), failing to address the real needs of the student body, and dismissing campaign violations committed by candidates.

How transparent was SGA when they turned off Instagram comments amid the impeachment trial on a post that featured Statom (August 20th)? How transparent are they today when the last minutes current Secretary and Presidential Candidate Javia Warner has posted are from early September? This last point, for the record, is a violation of the SGA Code of Laws Title V, Chapter 402.7, but who’s paying attention?

This is the hypocrisy of SGA. Though, I’m not sure why I’m surprised. Statom pled for forgiveness but admitted to then-Senator Ellen McDonald that if he had an opportunity to go back and not post, he would have still shared the image. At one of the first chairs meetings of the semester, John Shinholster looked into my eyes and admitted he agreed Jake’s offenses were impeachable but that he just could not vote against him. Kayla Walton berated the chairs about excuses for absences, but repeatedly showed up to meetings over half an hour late, sometimes longer. These examples are just a few of the many, but they exemplify the environment that the current leadership created: a place where integrity struggles to survive.

Arguably the worst part of all is the realization that none of this was necessary, and all of it could have been prevented if we had leaders who were capable of exercising a modicum of critical thinking, self-control or humility. To the student body, I implore you: elect better leaders. Hold them accountable. Know who represents you. Ask questions. To everyone in SGA: be better.

Among the current candidates running for office, only two have served in chair positions: Amber Sandvig and John Shinholster. Though both Kennedy Edwards and Javia Warner have served on the executive council, as the Diversity and Inclusion Advocate and Secretary, respectively, neither have any experience in Senate leadership that comes with holding a chair position. Vice Presidential aspirants Grace Hafner and RJ Myers are both first-year Senators and have no leadership positions related to SGA, whatsoever. Jake Statom also fell into this group.

Though unbelievably disappointed in SGA this year, I am hopeful the organization can rebuild in the future. I believe their new-to-them advisor, Dr. Tammy Jacques, who advised the organization in the 00s and early 10s, will steer SGA in the right direction. I’m confident in my successor, Aliyah McCrary, in her ability to execute elections and recruit strong Senate candidates for next year. And Senators like Mackenzie Martin, who inherited a mess but are determined to leave the organization better than they found it.

If there is a silver lining to all of this, let it be the fact that there are still committed students serving on Senate and the next generation of leaders will be arriving on our campus in the fall. With fresh minds and new perspectives, hopefully SGA will be able to thrive on our campus once again. Until then, keep persisting towards a better and brighter tomorrow and hold on to the idea that the future can still be bright.