As Mary Cooper and her supporters cheered in jubilation after her resounding victory in the student body president runoff election Friday night, Hogan Medlin watched quietly in the corner.
It was in that room in Carroll Hall that Medlin, the current student body president, emerged victorious by a nearly identical margin one year ago.
In the weeks following his election, Medlin set to work on a strategy for limiting tuition increases looming on the horizon.
But after months of planning and proposals, he cast the lone dissenting vote against a measure to raise tuition by 6.5 percent, the maximum permissible percentage, in a meeting of the Board of Trustees.
It was a glaring instance of a student body president who was unable to deliver what students wanted most on the issue they cared the most about.
This, along with an election cycle that seemed at many points petty and bizarre, challenges the position’s perceived influence and suggests that the role of the student body president in the tuition process is — like Medlin’s vote — merely symbolic.
Medlin, former student body presidents and administrators alike said the top student leader does levy influence through persuasion, but that their power is easily trumped by larger forces.
“The student body president has no power,” said Bob Winston, chairman of the Board of Trustees. “It has the power of persuasion — the power of the ability to speak to the board at length and to be involved in the process of setting tuition.”
Power through persuasion
The student body president interacts with top-level administrators, most notably on the board, and occupies the lone student seat.
“The student body president has a vote, and that’s power,” said Winston Crisp, vice chancellor for student affairs.
“But that one vote is one vote out of a number of votes, so is it itself enough?”
This involvement paves the way for relationships that can slowly work to change policy, said David Bevevino, former student body vice president.
“In so many situations, the student body president ends up being the only student in a room full of administrators,” he said. “Those small interactions add up.”
Medlin emphasized general rhetorical ability as key for the student body president, so much so that he said issue-based debates should no longer make up as much of the campaign season.
“Your ideas are great and your platform is great but in terms of your job and your biggest priority, that’s when you want to elect someone who can talk,” he said.
Far fewer students voted in Friday’s runoff election, highlighting the age-old issue of voter apathy in campus elections and lack of engagement from students in student government.
Instead of conducting broad surveys of student opinion, Medlin said he interacts with as many student groups as possible.
‘Not a campus issue’
Each year, the board approves a tuition proposal to pass on to the UNC-system Board of Governors and, eventually, the N.C. General Assembly.
Medlin said statewide economic forces will always outweigh the importance of any campuswide effort to limit tuition increases.
“It’s not a campus issue, honestly, anymore,” he said.
“Obviously, the strategy of campus-based tuition is one that we shouldn’t be focusing on.”
Jasmin Jones, Medlin’s predecessor, whose tuition recommendation of a 5.2 percent increase was adopted in 2009 before the legislature tacked on an additional $750, agreed with Medlin.
“It all depends on the pressing issues around the state,” she said. “All those pressures add together in how you are able to be successful or unsuccessful. It varies year to year.”
With about a month remaining in his term, Medlin said he now believes that lobbying would be most effective with the Board of Governors and state legislature.
The extent of the student body president’s influence on tuition deliberations boils down to one voice among many, Winston said.
“The persuasion is important but it doesn’t always win the day,” he said.
“Everybody has an opinion and the opinions are usually a collective group that form around an opinion and that’s usually what gets passed. This is the way politics works.”
Staff Writer Victoria Cook contributed reporting.
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