For next SGA president Akshay Kapoor, a title, a voice and a challenge

By Chris Shores

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Akshay Kapoor – a 21-year-old Boxborough native pursuing a pre-med track as a public health and sociology double major – will become the next president of the University of Massachusetts Student Government Association tonight during an inauguration ceremony at the SGA Senate meeting.

He will assume a position designated in the SGA by-laws as the “chief executive of the SGA.” It’s an office that, according to SGA Speaker of the Senate Jarred Rose, acts as student government’s “agenda setter,” a post held by an individual who represents, in the eyes of the University’s administration, the opinions of the entire undergraduate student body.

Yet less than 6 percent of the UMass undergraduate student body voted for Kapoor and vice president-elect Garrett Gowen, according to election data.

The ticket received 1,237 votes – 255 more than the second place candidates, obtaining 42.27 percent of the vote in an election that overall saw a 14.04 percent turnout.

Kapoor and other members of the SGA – including Lydia Washington, assistant director of student activities and involvement and advisor to the SGA – were pleased with voter turnout, citing an overall improvement in numbers from past years.

But when Jean Kim, vice chancellor of student affairs and campus life, arrived at a pre-election debate to find a relatively empty auditorium, she couldn’t help but feel disappointed.

“I engage in an informal way with a fair number of students,” said Kim. “More often than not, they have no clue as to who SGA folks are or what they do.”

In a 50-person poll conducted Saturday by the Massachusetts Daily Collegian at the Worcester Dining Commons and the Blue Wall Café, 39 undergraduate students said they had never heard Kapoor’s name.

A large majority – 46 out of the 50 students polled – could not identify the SGA president, Yevin Roh, who has served in the position since April 2011. And when asked if the SGA president makes an effort to connect to the undergraduate student body, 43 respondents said no.

The role of the president

The answers are in stark contrast with what Roh said he stood for during his time in student advocacy at UMass, culminating in his election as SGA president in March 2011.

It’s been a goal of the SGA to increase student involvement this year, he said. The outgoing president expressed a hope to inspire others to make changes on campus, attempting in the past year to rally students in campus-wide efforts to repeal changes to University Health Services and Residential Life programs.

“The biggest challenge I had was … convincing people that they had power in themselves,” said Roh. “We may not have loud voices individually, but cohesively … we are by far the loudest voice on campus, and not only do we deserve to be heard, we need to be heard.”

Just how exactly the president goes about making those voices heard depends on the individual, said Brandon Tower, who served as the SGA president from April 2010 through March 2011.

It involves collaboration in two different arenas, said Washington. The president must actively communicate with University administrators through weekly meetings and committee involvement. He or she must also navigate through SGA waters, forming working relationships with appointed executive cabinet members and an elected legislative body of SGA senators.

Past presidents have repeatedly struggled to deal with both internal and external affairs at the same time, she said.

But for the first time ever, a vice president will assist the chief executive in making decisions. While Kapoor will still be in communication with his cabinet, it will be Gowen that will oversee the internal dealings of the executive, branch said Washington. This will allow Kapoor to focus more on external affairs, such as working alongside University officials.

Communicating with administrators

According to Washington, when University committees are formed to discuss a topic  – such as possible enforcement for a tobacco-free campus policy slated to go into effect next year  – administrators reach out to the SGA president to contribute student input.

And Kim said she has weekly meetings with the SGA president and student trustee – a UMass representative on the University’s Board of Trustees. The meetings provide an opportunity, according to the vice chancellor, for both students and administrators to bring each other up to speed on the latest topics of interest.

For the relationship to be successful in Roh’s eyes, the outgoing president said he wanted administrators to not just hear him, but to “actively listen and follow through.”

“Communication is all for naught if we can’t collaboratively come together and share an equal seat at the table,” said Roh. “I don’t need the administration working for me, I need to work with them and they need to work with me.”

But there were times this year when Kim saw interactions as “student versus administration,” a climate she felt was not accurate or helpful.

“We have shared goals, we are here for the same reason,” she said. “We want to make sure the students’ needs are met and the voices are heard.”

Each year, Kim issues challenges to SGA administrators. In fall 2010, she asked then-President Ngozi Mbawuike to remove African, Latino/a, Asian and Native American (ALANA) Caucus appointed SGA seats and to change elections to an online-only format. The Mbawuike administration was able to achieve both goals, Kim said.

During Tower’s presidency, which began in April 2010, Kim created new challenges – an overhaul of the SGA senatorial election process and the creation of a student-funding plan for on-campus buildings like a new Student Union. Neither was accomplished by the Tower administration, the vice chancellor said.

“Just because she asked for something, doesn’t mean that we assume that’s a directive we must obey,” said Tower. “I didn’t agree with the organizational changes she wanted, so I made a decision not to pursue that kind of massive overhaul of structure.”

The same challenges were then offered to Roh’s administration but again, neither of them was accomplished, Kim said. A referendum question, which would have established a mandatory student fee to pay for the new Student Union building, failed during the SGA election last month.

The vice chancellor will offer Kapoor the same challenges. The president-elect said he has a great working relationship with administrators and has already had phone conversations with Kumble Subbaswamy, who will succeed current chancellor Robert Holub beginning this summer.

Internal SGA affairs

Unlike the SGA Senate, the president has no voting power, said Rose. He or she does possess the ability to veto a motion passed by the Senate, but otherwise has little effect on Senate meetings.

To Modesto Montero, who served as speaker for two years during the Mbawuike and Tower administrations, the president’s most important power comes in the ability to appoint nine cabinet officials.

Kapoor and Gowen are currently in the process of accepting applications for the positions, and the president-elect is seeking a mix of students from inside and outside the SGA.

Some posts, like attorney general and secretary of finance, realistically require previous SGA experience, said Kapoor. But other positions – such as secretary of diversity, the office Kapoor held this year – may benefit from someone who can attack problems with a fresh approach, he said.

Kapoor believes that the executive and legislative branches worked well together this past school year and will look to continue the working relationship into his presidency.

But individuals have suggested that prior to Roh, the past two SGA administrations saw internal struggles.

According to Rose, Mbawuike “had difficulty managing her staff.” And Kim said that one of her greatest challenges was “managing the internal SGA politics and issues.” Mbawuike could not be reached for comment.

Tower’s administrative approach – although lauded as a step in the right direction by both Rose, who served during the fall as a special assistant to the president, and then-Student Trustee Mike Fox, who was Tower’s election running mate – was questioned by Montero, who said the president’s heavy involvement in Senate affairs created an “interesting, if not hostile, environment.”

“The president used every power at his disposal to ensure that his policies and procedures were in place,” said Montero. “It was definitely like playing a game of chess in student government, and as speaker, I was not in the mood to play chess.”

Tower refuted this claim, saying, “We had a great relationship with a lot of the senators, and I never felt any overt hostility.”

A voice for the students

Kapoor believes he is up to the challenge of addressing students’ needs this year. Last summer he attended orientation to discuss ways of involvement with incoming students. And he viewed his Sober Shuttle initiative – a referendum approved by a student vote last month that establishes, through funding from student fees, additional buses to take students home from Amherst bars – as a victory for students.

And while previous presidents also believe they have achieved successes for the students, Montero is unsure if SGA officials really listen to what students are asking for.

“We got caught up in the game of SGA politics,” said Montero, “when in reality no one outside of our little bubble of friends that were obsessed with student government really cared what we were doing.”

Roh, however, noted that students’ interests can be achieved by anyone, not just a student government president.

“If you’re waiting to become president to finally advocate for students and if you’re waiting to become president to make change, you’re doing student leadership wrong and you’re doing student advocacy wrong,” said Roh.

It’s a philosophy he hopes Kapoor will remember when the president-elect begins his term tonight.

“Anyone that becomes president, they need the reality check that just because you’re president doesn’t mean you’re going to be making sweeping widespread change,” said Roh. “Being president is great and all, [but] don’t undermine and don’t monopolize student advocacy. … You don’t need to become president to create meaningful change in the lives of students.”

Steffi Porter contributed to this report.

Chris Shores can be reached at [email protected]