Examining a transitional year for ASMSU

Sitting in a recently renovated office in the SUB, newly inaugurated ASMSU President Garrett Leach adjusts to his new space. He opens quickly, “Geneva and I ran on a platform of ‘students first.’ No matter what we do, that is going to be at the front of our minds.” Leach and his running mate, Geneva Zoltek, took office with nearly twice as many votes as their opponents during the general election. Now that they’ve taken office, they must decide what they want to accomplish in the position.

 

Nearly a year ago, a different executive team sat down in this same office and charted out their coming year. Then-junior Gwynn Simeniuk and then-sophomore Levi Birky assumed office in April 2015, an ambitious duo who pieced together many student groups in their competitive bid, cobbled together through Simeniuk’s gravitas and social presence as well as Birky’s significant internal experience as a senator.  

“Gwynn and Levi had a very specific plan when they came in, and it was engagement, stewardship and service,” Marianne Brough, the ASMSU director of operations, recounted. “They were great because they did all their envisioning over the summer, so they came in saying we’re strong, we know where you wanna go, we’ve got a good network … whereas sometimes it might take a group a month or two to do that.”

However, after just a handful of months in office, Birky ascended to the presidency when Simeniuk resigned on Oct. 1 after a DUI arrest in August. The transition period, the first in recent memory, represented a shift in leadership, but also a shift in leadership style. Birky, an aspiring government teacher from Kalispell, was thrust reluctantly into the spotlight, now the highest profile student on campus.

Simeniuk did not resign immediately after the incident, which she explained in a statement she released to the Exponent. Instead she remained in office for a month after the incident. It wasn’t until a number of students and groups on campus demanded her resignation, both through public comment at senate meetings and a number of petitions, that she stepped back from her position. The year was not off to a steady start for ASMSU.

Over the course of Birky’s six months as president, ASMSU shepherded through a number of reforms, both large and small.

As I end my term and as I get ready to pass on the baton, it made me reflect on the year, to think about the things we accomplished and say, ‘Wow, we’ve accomplished a lot,’” Birky contemplated.

He then highlighted a few of those accomplishments. ASMSU revived the hospitality degree program, oversaw revisions of their constitution and bylaws and passed a student bill of rights. But no event garnered more press than the battle with the Gallatin County Commissioners to move the student polling location to MSU’s Shroyer Gym from Hope Lutheran Church. The commissioners dragged their feet at every turn, obstinate in their reluctance to move the polling location.

“I think the papers called it a spar [with the commissioners],” Birky interjected wryly.

However, students and voter advocacy groups felt that the proposed location at Hope Lutheran was inaccessible to students and community members without cars due to its distance, lack of public transportation or sidewalks.

The battle lines were drawn on the issue nearly a year ago, but it wasn’t until late October that ASMSU became actively involved. Progress on the issue was slow, but as influential individuals such as MSU President Waded Cruzado aligned to make the move feasible, the inevitability of the move became apparent. The Gallatin County Commission had to back down or face significant public backlash. While ASMSU certainly played a role in the outcome, the student government was only one piece of many moving toward change.  

But ASMSU is responsible for far more than petitioning county government. Unknown to many students, they oversee a staggering number of programs and activities from the Streamline bus service to campus entertainment to club funding. The challenge though, is to make students aware of these programs and the many functions of student government. Both Birky and his appointed vice president, Holly Capp, stressed the importance of outreach as a key function of their positions: “What Levi and I tried to work on was reaching out to students rather than students coming to student government … Most of the work is educating, but that is a challenge in itself,” Capp said.  

 

Student government, arguably more so than any other type of government, is a cult of personality. Only the ambitious seek office, and only those savvy and personable enough can wrangle in the many ‘type A’ personalities that make up the voice of the students. In this respect, Birky is an outlier. “[Levi’s] the kind of guy to say, ‘all right, what’s the big picture here?’ What do you want and I’ll be the resource and the guide to get you the tools to get there.’ He didn’t want to lead like directing, so what we got was a plurality of things that represented what each senator was interested in,” Brough remarked. Brough is now entering her third year as the ASMSU director of operations, acting as anything from observer to planner and everything in between. “There’s a stereotype about student government of cliqueness and drama, and maybe for a reason, but there’s always going to be fighting,” Brough continued. “When we’re doing our work well we’re fighting about issues, when we’re doing our work poorly we’re fighting about personal issues.”

Put enough driven and forceful personalities in a room and conflict becomes inevitable. This year, ASMSU was no exception. At one senate meeting, the disagreements became so heated that some individuals resorted to profanities and insults to demonstrate their differences of opinion. “That puts some friction on the team,” Birky said. “A lot of the people that I was friends with a year ago, that’s not the case anymore … While those relationships haven’t lasted, others have been formed.”

Though colleagues — and even Birky himself — may describe the outgoing president as more of a facilitator than a visionary, he received accolades over the course of his tenure. Named a Newman Fellow as well as a Truman Scholar, his accomplishments as well as his working relationship with Cruzado earned him recognition and prestige. A reluctant leader, Birky steadied ASMSU during a crucial and tenuous period, but will those accomplishments stand the test of time?

 

Evaluation inevitably includes bias. No one can look at a list of accomplishments and objectively speak to the merits, except in broad strokes. Furthermore, inaccessible or unreliable records make sheer quantitative analysis of a term difficult. Birky, Brough and Capp each described the year as an accomplished one, and no one cited any notable shortcomings — there were no large projects or goals that fell flat.

Aside from the rocky start, it is difficult to pin a flagship event on the 2015-16 ASMSU executive team. For each big step (polling location move and QSA facilities request to name a few), the credit does not fall squarely on any one group. Student engagement is still on the low end. Voter turnout, while higher than last year and near the national average for a school of MSU’s size, was still only 13.6 percent at its peak. The senate struggled with attendance issues at times, even having to remove four senators from office due to excessive unexcused absences. If one were to levy a criticism against Birky and Capp — either from a place of ASMSU’s role or on an individual level — it would have to be the lack of a clear and focused executive direction.

However, where one student may see this as a drawback, another may see it as a boon. “Nothing happens overnight, and you’ve got to move inch by inch,” Birky explained. “Ask the average Joe student if student government has made a difference in their lives … however, I don’t know if the repercussions or ripple effects are being felt on a broader student level.” But Birky also noted that, “I think I was able to leave the organization in a good place for the next people to [make broader impacts].”

 

Just days into their presidency,  Leach and Zoltek have hit the ground running. Their success could be credited to their internal experience — they both spent the past year working together in ASMSU in a different capacity, as senators. Leach, a sophomore majoring in finance and accounting from Missoula, was a senator for the College of Business. Zoltek, a junior from Kalispell majoring in liberal studies, was a university studies senator.

Leach was originally interested in continuing with ASMSU in a different role, and had considered applying for the business manager position. However, Zoltek approached him him with the idea of running together, and he decided it was the right choice. “I saw how much you can change campus through student government and the more I thought about the opportunity the more excited I was,” he said.

Zoltek said part of the reason they decided to run was because “we wanted to see all representatives taking more action with their roles.” She cited the successful ASMSU events that she and Leach organized. She created Major Madness, an event that allowed undecided students to explore possible majors, and Leach coordinated Sub Pub, an event that allows students to partake in responsible drinking on campus while engaging in different activities. “Through our experience we can show the legislators what they should be doing and how to improve the activity and engagement aspect of ASMSU,” she said.

Both Leach and Zoltek were quick to cite how their different personalities will better their leadership. “Geneva and I couldn’t be more different. There is a lot of difference and diversity but that difference of opinion makes our decisions stronger and helps us represent the story better,” Leach said. Similarly, Zoltek explained how she is more drawn to the people side of campus issues, and Leach excels in the policy side of issues — making them a well-rounded team.  

Their unique perspectives as senators provided the pair with a front row seat to the successes and setbacks that ASMSU experienced over the course of the past year. As mentioned, there were internal spats which resulted in palpable tension at a few senate meetings. Both Leach and Zoltek emphasized that they would focus on clear and effective communication between the executives and the senate to strengthen their internal relations. We won’t always agree but having a good working relationship will allow us to constructively address problems that arise next year, because, undoubtedly, there will be problems,” Leach said.

Brough is confident that Leach and Zoltek have the knowledge and the tools they need to succeed in their roles, partly due to Birky and Capp’s contributions. “Each generation of  leadership builds on the space that was left for them by the previous generation of leadership … Garrett and Geneva have this cool envisioning power to start addressing culture on campus now which is a luxury that they wouldn’t have it if the prior leadership before them didn’t set them up well,” Brough said.

The team has outlined a variety of issues they want to focus on, but they especially seemed to gravitate towards outreach. “It is unfair to expect students will come to us, we have to go to them. I think that one of the biggest challenges for us is engaging with so many student groups on campus, making sure their voices are heard and informing the student body about ASMSU,” Leach said.

In addition, Leach emphasized the importance of having strong relationships throughout MSU: “building relationships with administrators, students and student leaders is vital to our success as a student organization. I want to focus on building relationships that will do good not just in my term, but the next ten years so it’s easier for the following teams to make impactful changes,” he said.

The new leadership is undoubtedly passionate and enthusiastic for the coming year. They ran on an ambitious platform and boasted their experience as a catalyst for change — now is their time to see what they can accomplish. “The great thing about student government is every day is different, you never know what will come up next. It is always a surprise,” Brough said.