A year in the "echo chamber": ASG looks back

    Photo by the author.

    A FEW DAYS before Mike McGee, then Associated Student Government president, tossed power over to Claire Lew, he was looking like anything but a lame duck. The Communication senior blasted away at his computer, five g-chats open at once. His to do list for the next few weeks: write up transition papers, clean the office (which includes motivational posters, a photo of JFK and a plush doll of Stewie from Family Guy), audition student commencement speaker candidates and try to sell administrators on ASG’s proposal for a new student center.

    Photo by the author.

    There was a box of 5-Hour Energy shots on his cabinet. He said it had been some time since he was hooked on the stuff — he started drinking the vitamin-enriched elixir on the campaign trail last year, when Neal Sales-Griffin and Lew gifted him with a pack. Now, he said, he keeps a box around as a “reminder to be productive.” But he’s still a 5-Hour Energy advocate. “I’m trying to get a cult of people using 5-Hour Energy drinks — from students to administrators,” he said.  He counts Hiro Kawashima, the new vice president, as one of the devotees of his energy drink-pushing scheme.

    That fascination with energy helps account for McGee’s reputation for being a workaholic. “Mike was legendary for staying in the ASG office” as academic vice president last year, said Mo Safdari, his successor in the position. “Mike did a lot of the work, and we kind of clapped.” McGee described his schedule last year: “I’d wake up and go to class and be in the office working until three or four in the morning and go back to Plex and then repeat that cycle for the entire year.”

    And even though he called his presidential term an easier ride than AVP, he leaves ASG with a stack of achievements: reformed shuttle routes with GPS tracking, changes to CAESAR, the rough draft of an unofficial student guide online, steps toward improving minority enrollment and a plan for a new student center nudging its way into the cogs of the administration, among others.

    At the same time, McGee departs with other projects unfinished. The plan for a resource center for off-campus students fell short of its mark — becoming just one of the multiple duties of the assistant dean of students, said William Banis, vice president for student life. Online open courses, Islamic Studies and American Sign Language as a Weinberg-approved language distro are yet to become realities.

    As Lew and Kawashima assume their positions at ASG’s helm, they’ll inherit some plans — like those for the new student center and an environmental studies department — that will take years to complete. McGee and Smithburg will also pass on the old gaggle of ASG quandaries (fair or unfair): How much can student government actually get done in a year? With the topmost offices seemingly closed to outsiders, does ASG really represent the student body? And with so many initiatives, programs and Web sites “in progress,” is the whole venture just one big boondoggle of a letdown?


    Photo by the author.

    “PEOPLE HAD THIS SENSE coming out of last year’s election that this was a cutthroat group of people that was going to tear each other up or something,” Safdari said. During McGee’s runoff election against Bill Pulte, Safdari had accused the Pulte camp of pressuring voters, which almost resulted in an impeachment trial for the academic vice president-elect. But looking back, Safdari painted a rosy picture. “This year we had no drama. It was just the chillest organization,” he said.

    Part of the reason might be the friendships among many of the officers. Safdari and McGee were freshman year suitemates in PARC, and even now they live in the same apartment building. The past three presidents — Lew, McGee and Sales-Griffin — have collaborated on ASG for years, creating the position of vice president together and serving together on Morton Schapiro’s inaugural committee. Before the election, McGee and Sales-Griffin praised Lew in a joint letter on North by Northwestern. “We made sure not to run against each other, but help each other out,” McGee said.

    Which might account for the accusations that ASG is an “insider’s club.” Over the past few years that notion has been a rallying cry for losing presidential candidates. Alessio Manti took a swing at ASG’s insular culture during the debate, saying, “There’s kind of the mentality that ASG has lost itself on the third floor of Norris.” When Scott Burton, who lost to Sales-Griffin in 2008, endorsed Pulte last year, he praised the former vice president for having “the reform-minded ideals of a student government outsider.”

    McGee defended Lew’s experience, and the idea that the best candidate comes from inside the organization. “You need to have a deep understanding of the organization that you’re going to be leading,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that once I give her the keys, she’s going to keep driving the same way.”


    SAFDARI DISCOUNTED THE IDEA — often spread during campaign season — that the president imposes change easily from the top. “People think that the president should just come down and run it,” he said. “It’s a much more decentralized organization,” he added. Even at the top, ASG is more collaborate than coercive. McGee and Smithburg divided and conquered many of their big plans, from reforming the shuttle system to proposing a new student center. “Whenever I mention shuttles, I mention Tommy first,” McGee said. Smithburg worked with administrators to cut the number of stops and increase stop frequency.

    For the new student center initiative, McGee did much of the research and Smithburg put together the Web site. They wrote a proposal advocating either renovating Norris, adding a student life area to the Jacobs Center or building a new student center in the parking lot of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

    McGee reviews the proposal for the new student center. Photo by the author.

    Some plans remain unfinished. Safdari mentioned a plan to bring online open courses to Northwestern. “If you [...] just lived in anywhere, and you were just like, ‘Hey I want to learn kind of like Northwestern kids do,’ you’d just go online and learn it,” he said. But the idea fell by the wayside when ASG, the Undergraduate Budget Priorities Committee and the Student Advisory Board proposed different methods for expanding online course materials.

    And then there’s the old debate over how much students care about ASG. Students cast more than 500 “no confidence” votes out of 3000 in the races for both academic vice president and student life vice president. And that’s in addition to the handful of write-in votes for such notables as Dickie Humps, Jesus of Nazareth and Abraham Lincoln.

    “There’s 8000 students, and not everybody knows what ASG does,” McGee said. “And it’s not necessarily because we don’t reach them.” ASG now emails quarterly reports to all students. “It’s just — we don’t connect with them.” Smithburg said a student could try to browse through online resources — like the unofficial student guide — and say to himself, “Oh my God, I’ve never even heard of this Web site.” He’s made a point of collecting ASG’s vast online resources into a Web site that “builds trust with the student body.”

    Looking back, Smithburg said what he and McGee lacked the most was time. “You can’t do everything in one year,” he said. As a result, ASG operates in what Safdari called the “echo chamber,” where ideas bounce around among administrators, ASG, the UBPC and the SAB — sometimes for years — before they become realities.

    “That year that they have in office goes by very quickly,” Banis said. “The ASG folks have to come in, and figure out what they can do in a year, or what they can at least get started in a year, and hopefully that somebody else will pick up and carry forward.”


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