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Apathy is a constant battle for student leaders

Katie Perry | Sunday, December 11, 2005

As candidates during last year’s elections, student body president Dave Baron and vice president Lizzi Shappell spearheaded a campaign that sought to lessen apathy toward student government – a goal they hoped would create “One Student Voice, Eight Thousand Strong.”

But midway through their terms, Baron and Shappell have learned that apathy is hard to combat, and that 8,000 strong might be too lofty of a goal.

The official Baron-Shappell campaign Web site features a photograph of the Notre Dame student section at a home football game. With the arms of thousands raised unanimously to a blue-grey October sky, the campaign slogan is fitting.

“Not only is the student section an impressive sight to behold, it’s a force that can bring about a change in the outcome of a football game and also improve student life at this University,” Baron and Shappell said in a letter posted on their Web site. “The ability of Student Government to do anything meaningful is nothing more than its ability to unite the entire Student Body in one direction.”

Nearly 4,300 votes were cast in the February student governmental elections, or 52.7 percent of the undergraduate student body. Voter turnout increased in 2005, with 763 more voters than in 2004 and 574 more voters than in the 2003 elections.

“We got a little over 2,100 votes, which means we’re only one quarter of the way there to create one student voice that is 8,000 strong,” Baron and Shappell said in a post-election Web site statement.

Less than perfect voter turnout – or governmental apathy for that matter – is nothing new. U.S. Census Bureau records said 64 percent of citizens voted in the 2004 presidential election, a number deemed as high in comparison to previous years.

Contrary to other student organizations, Student Union Board (SUB) director Jimmy Flaherty said the group’s results are “action oriented,” meaning students are more aware of visible successes and improvements.

“You can see our events. You can see us in Debartolo Quad. You can see us at AcoustiCafe. You can see us throwing concerts,” he said. “Students can see the results of what SUB does for them.”

Flaherty said SUB is unique from Student Senate and other forms of student government in this regard.

“Senate and other student government [organizations] do things differently,” he said. “We’re able to capitalize on action.”

Shappell said there has been some “improvement” and people are generally more in tune with student government than in previous years.

“Increased coverage with [University President Father John Jenkins’ September] inauguration [and] our involvement [gave] student government a more visible face on campus,” she said. “[But] it’s still a challenge bridging that gap [between student government and the student body]. That will take time.”

The amendment passed in July to South Bend’s disorderly house ordinance forced students to “stick with one voice” and unify because of eviction fears, Shappell said. Six Notre Dame students received eviction notices from their Turtle Creek apartments in October, instilling both concern and anger in many students.

Although Flaherty said students are closely connected with SUB programmers and staff given the group’s nature, he said at times apathy is felt through a lack of appreciation.

“If there’s any apathy, it’s when [students] don’t realize what goes into events,” said Flaherty, who lauded students who put in 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. shifts, place catering orders and make 4:30 a.m. “airport runs” to ensure concerts run smoothly.

Baron said the apparent apathy students have toward government organizations is not necessarily deliberate.

“People in college are busy,” he said. “Student government is our thing, but everybody else has their thing, too.”