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USAC’s focus on election politics hurts the student community it is meant to serve

Even during a global pandemic, it seems as if election politics have taken priority over student concern. This should not be the case for a government ultimately meant to serve the students. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Andrew Raychawdhuri

April 21, 2020 7:33 p.m.

As the world struggles with the devastating effects of a pandemic, people are looking to their leaders for support and guidance.

For UCLA students, that support and guidance don’t just come from university administration or state legislators – it should include their student government as well, the Undergraduate Students Association Council.

USAC may not be the natural choice when it comes to who to turn to in the midst of a crisis, but now more than ever, USAC has a vital role to play in the lives of all undergraduates.

The time has come for USAC to reaffirm its commitment to the students it was elected to serve. At a time when the UCLA administration has been far from perfect in reacting to this COVID-19 crisis, students need their government to advocate for them.

But for USAC to effectively fulfill this role, it can’t afford to be distracted by its upcoming election. Shifting the focus too much to election politics runs the risk of alienating students who need help right now and are looking to their student government in this time of crisis. USAC needs to leave campaigning to the candidates and do the job that it was sworn in to do – which is to advocate for students.

Unfortunately, it seems that some of the council members seeking reelection are more focused on their campaigns than their current contributions, as the Elections Board had to sanction candidates who were recruiting for their offices before the election had even taken place.

This, coupled with potential new student fees and attacks on students over criticisms regarding it, will only further alienate its voters at a time when USAC needs to reestablish itself as an ally for students.

And preferably, it should do so without the distractions and squabbling that comes with an election and new referendums.

“I think that USAC’s public image is heavily dependent on what we do at this time because a lot of students are watching and a lot of students at this time do have a strong opinion about the things we are working on,” said USAC General Representative 2 Orion Smedley, a third-year physics student.

It has been clear from the beginning that almost everyone was unprepared for this situation, UCLA included.

The university was insisting that in-person classes would be back by the second week of spring quarter when universities across the country were in the process of moving classes online for the rest of the year.

In an effort to recalibrate its response, UCLA went to the other extreme and announced via tweet that commencement would be canceled and a virtual ceremony would take its place.

But not without an unsympathetic quote to soften the blow.

“That whole ‘the day does not define the journey,’ that was said from someone who doesn’t get it,” said Helen Bui, a fourth-year psychobiology student. “There are (first-generation) students and people have struggled so hard just to graduate and it means a lot, and to have that taken away from you was really upsetting.”

When the graduation decision was made, USAC urged UCLA to reconsider its decision and circulated a petition to gather students in opposition. During the uncertainty surrounding finals during winter quarter, USAC lobbied the administration to be more lenient with students.

USAC stepped up and advocated for students’ needs and its actions surely improved its reputation among the student body temporarily. But now, it must show students how USAC can serve them on a more permanent basis – and in doing so, illustrate its continued commitment to the UCLA community.

But as of now, it has failed at keeping that momentum going. Instead, the council has been distracted by a contentious referendum on the USAC elections ballot.

Angelynn Nguyen, a first-year political science and microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student, said that she wasn’t happy when she found out about a proposal on the ballot to increase student fees by $15 per quarter.

“I feel like students expect the student government to step up – they should function like any other government. When something like this happens, you turn to the people in charge and see what they are going to do, Nguyen said. “In this case, I don’t think USAC is responding appropriately.”

Regardless of council members’ personal beliefs on the referendum in question, USAC has little room for error – especially with current levels of engagement on campus looking increasingly dismal. After all, only 16% of students came out to vote in the last election, and now, students won’t even be on campus in the first place.

“There’s this metaphor of the ivory tower, of these people sitting up in this ivory tower making decisions and just not caring what everybody around them is saying,” said USAC President Robert Watson, a fourth-year political science student. “We need to make USAC accessible. Give students the opportunity and they will show up and they will show out.”

The job of a student government representative is difficult even in normal circumstances and USAC has certainly done its part to help alleviate the stress of students – but that work has to be sustained in order to ensure USAC’s success in the long run.

However, council members need to focus on the jobs they have now – that is, being student body representatives – as opposed to the bickering and infighting of an election season that pales in comparison to the struggles students are facing in the current moment.

It’s no secret that USAC isn’t the most trusted or well-liked organization on campus, but that comes with the territory.

But right now, the council is at a crossroads – and the survival of UCLA’s student government hinges on the choices that are made at this critical moment.

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Andrew Raychawdhuri | Opinion columnist
Raychawdhuri is an Opinion columnist.
Raychawdhuri is an Opinion columnist.
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