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Leaders represent break from past

Aaron Steiner and John Tierney | Thursday, December 11, 2008

Themes of new leadership, new directions and new perspectives were central to presidential campaigns this fall.

While those themes weren’t part of their campaign, student body president Bob Reish and vice president Grant Schmidt could have used them, as their administration represents a shift within student government, marked by a break from past administrations.

From their resumes to leadership styles, Reish and Schmidt have brought several changes to Notre Dame student government this fall.

The ‘outsiders’

Reish and Schmidt came into office with experience in student government, but that background doesn’t come from the Office of the Student Body President, like previous presidents.

“The last two presidents were either vice presidents or chief of staff” prior to being elected, Reish said.

Reish and Schmidt rose through the programming ranks of student government. Both men were their respective class’s class president last year.

That background is reflected in their increased coordination with class council presidents.

“I think it helps that we’re really good friends with the class councils,” Schmidt said.

Cooperating with class councils has helped Reish work on programming (organizing events) as student body president, even though past presidents focused mostly on policy (administrative work).

“We’ve had some programming events that have been fun and educational while also being able to do policy,” Schmidt said.

Reish said that his administration’s focus on programming is intentional.

“I think from our perspective you’re just seeing a transition between a more policy-focused administration to becoming more programming,” he said.

Schmidt said that some of the programs he and Reish have supported – such as the mock election and the “last lecture” series – could only have been accomplished by their office.

“Who else besides student government would be able to organize that?” Schmidt asked. “I can only think of that being from student government because it’s representative of the entire student body.”

Reish and Schmidt have brought an outsider’s view even to their work on the policy side of student government.

Reish said that he is not concerned that students are not aware of some of the finer points of student government, such as the difference between student government and student union, or where to find a copy of the student constitution.

“I don’t think that knowing the student constitution is indicative of the students’ apathy towards student government,” Reish said. “If we had said, do you know there’s a student government, I mean you’d have different answers.”

Chief Executive Assistant Karen Koski agreed that knowledge of some of these finer points is actually a good sign for student government.

“We’re focusing on other things besides how we operate internally,” Koski said.

Schmidt said that as an outsider, it was initially difficult for him to understand the importance of some procedural items. He said that he wants to balance a focus on “keeping it realistic and practical” and being “formal, and [getting] through those things that you just have to do.”

Schmidt wants to work for “what the students really care about as opposed to these constitutional amendments that students may not really care about that don’t directly affect them,” he said.

Despite the administration’s emphasis on direct service to the student body, it does understand that the procedural aspects of the policy side should be designed to affect students in the long term.

“I think that a lot of the constitutional amendments that we have had have been relevant,” Koski said. She cited the policy change that now allows student political clubs to use University funds to campaign for particular candidates.

This policy change contributed to a greater sense of activism on campus during the 2008 election, Schmidt said.

“When we were campaigning, people said Notre Dame’s campus was politically apathetic,” he said. “I think now allowing people to talk about President-elect Obama or Sen. McCain and support them was a small step” to increasing activism.

In addition, having little attachment to previous administrations, Reish and Schmidt are not married to some of the policies and programs that have been embraced by those administrations. They’ve been able to objectively evaluate programs and work on those important to students.

“We really want to see what is the need of the student body,” Reish said. “If this really isn’t a need, then we put it to the back burner.”

A new leadership style

One possible reason why Reish and Schmidt embody a new type of student leader is that they have a different academic background than their predecessors. Reish is a finance major, and Schmidt is a political science and economics double major.

Previous presidents Lizzi Shappell and Liz Brown were both political science majors with peace studies supplementary majors.

“I think I look at student government more from a business model,” Reish said. “From my perspective … I’m always looking at inner workings and how the structure should work.”

In addition, Koski said that Reish, Schmidt and all student government leaders have worked to increase accessibility and approachability.

“The approachability factor is huge and all three of us try to do that,” Koski said.

She added: “As a result I think our committee chairs feel like they’re more a team member.”

That leads to a more collaborative relationship between members of student government.

“I know Bob and Grant are open to new ideas that the committee chairs might bring up,” Koski said. “Whereas in the past I kind of experienced that the student body president and vice president were a little bit more ‘These are my personal passions,'” Koski said.

She added: “I feel like they see all the committees as really doing something worthwhile and valuable.”

That collaborative nature extends beyond internal student government relationships to the relationships Reish and Schmidt have developed with University and community leaders.

“I see Bob and Grant as really relating well, to even our advisor, or to just Student Activities in general,” Koski said.

Schmidt said that he and Reish work to establish personal connections to each of the outside leaders they meet.

“When we do meet with administrators, it’s just two guys talking, with [Food Services Director] Dave Prentkowski, or [Vice President of Student Affairs] Fr. Mark Poorman,” Schmidt said.

He added that it was important to get to know these leaders on a personal level, “to where things run smoothly.”

Reish agreed that they have tried to work cooperatively with administrators this year. He said he approached Poorman several times prior to passing resolutions, which are submitted to Poorman. This helps translate resolutions into tangible results, he said.

“When we get [to submitting resolutions], we’re not, ‘This is what we want, and this is the only way we want it, and we’re only going to take this or not,'” he said. “It’s more of a resolution that has been compromised to the extent of, ‘Here’s something that is achievable.'”

Schmidt said that strong partnership with administrators – in addition to representing the student body – is important to achieving results.

“At Notre Dame, in order to get things done, you have to make sure you’re working well with the administration, you’re also working well with the students,” Schmidt said. “And the only way you can get things done is if you have support on both ends.”