Since its creation in 1917, the Associated Student Body has viewed itself as the voice of University of Mississippi students. In recent years, though, students have noticed a disconnect between the makeup of campus and the student groups that are represented in ASB.
About 36% of students enrolled at the University of Mississippi are in Greek life, and about 9% of enrolled students are in the honors college. These are the groups that have disproportionate representation in student government.
The 2020-2021 senate consisted of 49 senators, and at least 71% of them were members of either Greek life or the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. Only 14 senators were not affiliated with either organization.
According to the new 2021-2022 ASB president Morgan Atkins, ASB has recognized this issue for years. She is now working with her cabinet to finally address it.
“We’ve always known. At least, as long as I’ve been a part of this organization, it’s been very obvious to us that there’s a representation issue,” Atkins said. “Myself, as well as my vice president Richard Springer and our attorney general Grace Dragna are going to spend the majority of the summer working on that and making sure not only are there more senate seats, but there are more diverse senate seats to ensure equitable representation.”
Currently, senate seats are divided up based on categorizations in the UM ForUM, which organizes registered student organizations (RSOs) into 26 categories, including honors societies, sports clubs, special interest and more. Under this structure, many large student organizations with differing interests are in competition with each other for senate representation.
For example, the 2020-2021 senate had four open seats for cultural, intercultural and multicultural senators. Organizations that fall under this category include Men of Excellence, The UM Pride Network, the Vietnamese-American Student organization and more — all of which serve distinctly different student groups on campus.
“How seats are categorized isn’t always the most effective,” Atkins said. “Really reevaluating how we categorize things and on the basis of what these are put in is going to be a lot of what the summer is, just trying to make sure that we’re having the most fair makeup of groups for representation as possible.”
ASB attorney general Grace Dragna is working with Atkins and other executive leaders to determine how senate seats should be reapportioned for equitable representation.
Student leaders of groups like the UM Black Caucus came to ASB leadership in the fall of 2019 arguing that they did not have enough representation in the senate, Dragna said. After a series of Zoom calls and discussions, the group landed on the idea of reapportionment.
“That was just kind of where it came from, and so ASB has been trying to figure out how to make those structural changes,” Dragna said.
According to her, the process will likely involve two things: increasing the total number of seats and recategorizing what seats organization members can run for.
Once Atkins and ASB vice president Richard Springer determine specifics on those two points, Dragna said she will work out logistics and get the changes approved by ASB advisors and dean of students Brent Marsh.
“When ASB is thinking about what problems we need to address and how we should go about solving those problems, I think it’s important to have voices in the room that can either bring up problems that the rest of us might not be aware of based on our backgrounds or just provide a different perspective about how to solve those issues,” Dragna said.
Apart from the number of senate seats and other available positions within ASB, Atkins said there are social reasons why students outside of the honors college or Greek life aren’t as represented in student government.
“It’s not even that people who aren’t Greek or Honors College can’t win races, but it’s that they don’t have information to know how to go about it,” Atkins said. “I think it’s something we’ve become really attuned to in the last few years, and so I think making a lot more of an outward effort to meet people where they are and give them every single resource that we can to prepare them for this is really a big focus going into elections.”
ASB leadership is hoping to expand the number of candidates running for positions in the upcoming year by building individual relationships with each RSO on campus. Dragna plans to work with the ASB outreach team to do so.
“(I’m going to be) emailing those RSO presidents and saying, ‘Hey, we have an election coming up. I would love to come talk to the students in your organization about what that means either to run as a candidate or how to participate in student elections,’” Dragna said. “Just to make sure that students from a lot of different places on campus are aware that elections are happening and are familiar with how to get involved so that there really aren’t barriers to participating in our elections like there have been in the past.”