Beyond the Title: A Look at the Presidency

On any given day, Kiah Abbey will spend 15 hours on campus. Arriving at about 9 a.m., the student body president will spend her day running between classes and meetings, trying to find time to answer emails and do homework before finally leaving to go home around midnight. In total, she works an average of 50 hours per week, on top of being a full-time student.

“At times it can feel like a lonely job,” Abbey said of her position.

Tasked with representing over 14,000 students at MSU and overseeing the Associated Students of Montana State University’s (ASMSU) $1.8 million budget, student body president is a position more cumbersome than almost any other on campus.

However, Abbey’s job is highly sought-after. This year’s presidential race boasted four candidates from different sectors of campus. Of those four, Lindsay Murdock and Dillon Haskell will continue from Tuesday’s primaries to the general election on March 5-6.

By contrast, in 2011 only one candidate, Blake Bjornson, ran for the presidency.

Abbey described watching this year’s elections as “funny, nostalgic and heartwarming,” adding, “It’s cool to see that other people are interested in being president.”

The primary job of student body president and ASMSU is to represent students and their needs, a sentiment echoed by both pairs of presidential candidates. “Any job representing students is difficult because we have such a diverse campus,” Murdock said.

The president and vice-president also oversee the ASMSU programs and committees, as well as the student senate. “It’s your job to empower them, and to be involved in many different committees and meetings on campus,” Haskell explained.

Presidential power

At the primary election debate on Feb. 20, Haskell argued that Murdock’s running partner, Lukas Smith, a freshman, did not have enough experience in ASMSU to be vice-president.

But what does it take to be student body president?

“The most challenging aspect is the decision making. It’s easy to forget that you’re the figurehead of a 200-person organization,” Abbey said.

“What I remember most from the position is how hectic and quick it was,” former President Bjornson said. “There are so many things to tend to outside of the initiatives you want to advocate for. Focusing on those initiatives is very difficult, and I wish I’d been better at that.”

While the student body president does oversee the $1.8 million ASMSU budget, he or she does not have control over how the budget is allocated and spent. Most of the budget is allocated specifically to ASMSU programs such as campus entertainment, productions and elections, and the remaining funds from the budget left to the president’s discretion is limited.

“I was very surprised at the lack of freedom this position has,” Abbey said. “Granted, ultimately the decision is up to me as to what we do, but it’s a decision that is laden with not just constituent needs and wants, but organizational needs and wants.”

In addition to the budgeting restrictions, Abbey also noted the social restrictions that go along with the position. As president, she said, you are held to a higher standard of personal conduct.

While there are restrictions and limitations that accompany the position, Abbey said she is happy as student body president. “I love the position I’m in,” she said. “I love being able to represent students.”

Abbey said she has been proudest of the opportunity to represent student groups on campus. “Personally, one of my biggest accomplishments is that I have been able to serve as a voice for those who don’t normally have one, and I hope they feel that way, too,” she said.

Abbey has worked on projects including the non-discriminatory policy change, and is currently working on updating an undergraduate maternity policy. She also takes pride in the work her administration has done to bring events to campus such as the White House Project, an organization that aimed to cultivate women’s leadership.

“I think a lot of [students] don’t realize all the things ASMSU could do for them. I don’t think even some of the people in ASMSU realize what ASMSU can do,” Abbey said. “It’s a powerful force and a force to be reckoned with on campus.”

Looking to the future

To achieve a better ASMSU, Abbey noted, “voter turnout is the most critical component, especially thoughtful voter turnout.”

“In order to have better candidates, we need to have better constituents to hold them accountable,” Abbey said.

Historically, voter turnout for ASMSU elections has been low. Last year’s presidential election had a voter turnout of 7 percent. The highest voter turnout in recent years took place in the spring of 2011, when, along with the presidential election, the campus smoking-ban was on the ballot. Voter turnout for that election was 21 percent.

This year’s primary election on Tuesday had a voter turnout of 8.3 percent, with a total of 1,143 votes cast. While turnout was low, the race was extremely close, with a margin of 10 votes separating three candidates.

The general election between Murdock and Haskell will take place March 5-6. The final debate will take place today at noon in the SUB Union Market.

When asked what she would say to any of the incoming candidates, Abbey responded, “get ready.”