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In Focus: Istvan, Bell gain experience but lack vision

Amanda Michaels | Friday, January 21, 2005

As candidates, Adam Istvan and Karla Bell had very little experience in student government, and were dogged by this fact all through March’s presidential campaign. A margin of two dorms – the deciding factor in the Senate vote required to end the twice uncertain election results – gave the pair the chance to make good on Istvan’s statement that “We have the experience we need.”

The restructured system, approved only the eve before the start of the new term on April 1, has proven to be a difficult knot to untangle, simultaneously altering the nature the Office of the President’s power and making collaboration with other governing bodies a necessity.

Choosing their chief executive assistant, the first major decision of the administration, was a step in the right direction for Istvan and Bell. By tapping now-junior Dave Baron, formerly campaign manager for the opposing Charlie Ebersol-James Leito ticket, for the job, they gained a seasoned veteran of the Notre Dame political scene who has worked well within the Office’s new constraints.

Nine months later with the end of their term in sight, Istvan and Bell have struck up a strong relationship with the Student Senate and the Council of Representatives, allowing them to make good on several of their campaign promises.

Their gains have equaled their losses, however, as two of their main term goals have fallen short of success. The SYR policy and the Notre Dame SafeBus plan have been significantly altered, casting a shadow on the administration’s record.

Istvan and Bell’s term has been characterized by limited, “instant gratification” victories and the lack of a cohesive, long-term vision that has caused some truly laudable ideas to lose steam.

The hits

In the world of politics, quick and visible gains that deliver on specific campaign promises are key in pleasing the constituency, and Istvan and Bell have peppered their term with such successes.

Continuing the plan hatched during his days as a Huddle student manager, Istvan was a major force in bringing DVD rentals to LaFortune. While several sections within the student government system had been trying to secure some sort of on-campus movie rental, the new administration was able to get the idea up and running by the start of the new school year. According to Istvan, the service exceeded all sale expectations and is self-sufficient, and expanded its rental policy to a two-day time period for the spring semester.

The appearance of Fair Trade coffee in campus eateries, though not the sole effort of Istvan and Bell, was successful and so well publicized in part because of their involvement. The palatable and justice-conscious result came just days after the DVD rental appeared – two campaign promises fulfilled in the first weeks of the school year.

The Office of the President (including the Senate committee heads integrated by the new constitution) had its hand in other small positives, like the success of Sexual Assault Awareness week and the approval of a non-discrimination amendment to the constitution that calls for equal treatment regardless of color, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, social or economic class and nationality.

Concentrating on detailed issues has helped the Office of the President garner quick approval for tangible results, but has led it into the trap of trusting in the success of narrow focus even for issues that call for a broader, more general vision.

The misses

“SYR” was the watchword of the election for the Istvan-Bell ticket. The team sold its platform on the premise that it would fight to get dances back in the dorms with the help of a new ‘pledge’ system where students promise not to drink alcohol during the event. But what was once referred to by Istvan as the “Holy Grail” of campus policy has warranted barely a mention since he and Bell took office in April.

When asked about the status of the SYR fight, Istvan said a talk with Vice President of Student Affairs Father Mark Poorman made him realize that the only possible path to gain headway would be to make a big fuss.

“Since the campaign, though, dorms and sections are coming up with other ideas to create the kind of unity that the SYRs used to, and that I wanted to get back by bringing SYRs back to the dorms,” Istvan said. “I still want SYRs in the dorms, but I don’t want to risk a crackdown on these new events that are springing up by starting a fight.”

Though understanding that the issue is approached better at the “grassroots level,” as Istvan said, and knowing when to back off is an admirable leadership quality, the situation does beg the question of why so much weight was placed on SYRs in the first place, and what is left of his campaign platform without it?

The campaign for a Notre Dame SafeBus filled the void left by the absent SYR debate. Part of a four-pronged approach to improving off-campus security presented in Istvan, Bell and Baron’s fall report to the Board of Trustees, the SafeBus proposal featured detailed routes and times, but was missing the bigger-picture elements that the Trustees look for. Though the rest of the report was applauded – including the idea of holding an off-campus safety seminar, encouraging student involvement in neighborhood groups and making off-campus security an additional priority for the Notre Dame Security/Police – the SafeBus concept was effectively sent back to the drawing board.

After it was almost settled by the promise of cheaper student rates and extended routes and hours from South Bend’s Transpo bus line, SafeBus was revived by a bar owner with a refurbished bus and the need for student business. Though certainly a victory in the name of after-hours security, a bus running to and from a single bar in Granger is hardly the ambitious plan originally hatched.

These two proposals were attractive enough to gain student support while addressing the important issues of dorm cohesion and off-campus safety; so why have the initial visions become so drastically different?

The initial visions were too inflexible, leaving little wiggle room for the inevitable administrative revisions. Basing your campaign and the initial push of your term on a specific issue that the administration has soundly and repeated rejected is setting up for failure, and does nothing to remedy the situation. Had the Office of the President started with broader concepts that could be eventually refined to solid proposals, it might have made more headway toward its goals and with the Board of Trustees.

The last weeks

In his State of the Union, Istvan emphasized the importance of focus, and listed a number of things he would like to achieve before leaving office, including forming an ad-hoc committee to focus on the causes and potential remedies of eating disorders at Notre Dame, bringing a national newspaper to campus for student readership and making course packets available for purchase with a student account.

As far as visible results go, all three are entirely possible and desirable. However, Istvan and Bell should hope to leave behind a legacy of more than just myopic successes.

A renewed “focus” on the campaign ideal of reducing student apathy, or a broadening of the off-campus security lens could prove to be lasting priorities long after the next new leaders take office on April 1.