Opinion | Myth overcame merit in SGB elections

By Jack Troy, Staff Columnist

Eric Macadangdang, the president of Student Government Board, looked drained on Tuesday night when the results of the day’s elections were to be announced. I don’t blame him.

Up until Feb. 28, SGB elections were a tale of robust debate and productive disagreement, if not a bit of apathy from the student body. Tyler Viljaste — the Brightside slate’s presidential candidate, as well as the current vice president and chief of cabinet — appeared to be on track to win the board’s highest office. The Vision slate’s Joe Landsittel and independent Harshitha Ramanan seemed to offer only token opposition.

Then the wheels fell off. SGB’s elections committee received a report of Vision distributing slate-branded shot glasses in a predominantly first-year residence hall on Sunday night, a violation of both the board’s election code and common sense. Vision was found guilty and disqualified on Monday night, a verdict they unsuccessfully appealed in a process that lasted from Tuesday at 1:45 a.m. to 5:10 a.m.

Landsittel was livid and quickly took to social media, imploring students on the Pitt subreddit that “we must elect Harshitha Ramanam [as] the next President of SGB.” Ramanan, a long-shot candidate with a background in residence life, largely remained silent online. Landsittel’s post was laced with incendiary language and helped seed a variety of threats against Brightside candidates, who had no hand in the elections committee’s decision.

Unfortunately, the hate translated into votes. When Macadangdang ended his prepared statement before the results and ceded the floor to Elections Committee Chair Olivia Bartholomew, she announced Ramanan as the next SGB president.

I love a good progressive populist victory as much as the next guy and I’m willing to bet more. This story seems like it falls into a neat David and Goliath dichotomy. Unfortunately, that is not at all what happened here. In reality, an inferior candidate rode a wave of ignorance and misinformation to the SGB presidency.

For starters, Ramanan’s platform is vague and oddly peripheral when juxtaposed with Viljaste’s. Her signature proposal seems to be increased disability access both on campus and through Flex@Pitt, a legitimate issue for many Pitt students. But both her posted platform on the SGB website and her debate performance offered little in the way of solutions.

She also leaned on a philosophy of prioritizing awareness surrounding clubs and student resources over increases in more tangible resources. This led to a bizarre and troubling ambivalence on the debate stage towards the creation of a larger LGBTQ+ resource center in the William Pitt Union. Statements such as “space is just, like, a quantifying thing” indicate that she is quantifiably uninformed and clumsy at best when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues on campus.

In contrast, Viljaste’s platform spoke to his expertise and focus on core issues. He founded and chairs the LGBTQIA+ task force, which has put together a formal proposal for creating an LGBTQ+ resource center. He understands that the Rainbow Alliance’s current shoebox in the Union, a “quantifying thing,” isn’t enough to provide a comfortable space and expansive resources to LGBTQ+ students.

He also campaigned on including more non-SGB students in major decisions through the student leadership database — an underused defense against accusations of a supposed SGB monopoly on power. Viljaste also planned on using excess funds to endow scholarships proposed by the Black Senate and pushed for more transparency relating to fossil fuel divestment and dining contracts. Ramanan couldn’t even be bothered to take what had become the in-vogue photo-op for SGB candidates in front of the Fossil Free Pitt Coalition’s South Oakland billboard.

Viljaste’s merits apparently weren’t enough to overcome the tide of misinformation. For posterity, I want to very clearly and deliberately dispel several myths surrounding this election.

First of all, SGB’s elections and judicial committees are standing committees, meaning they’re under minimal influence from the board at large. Furthermore, there is not an iota of evidence suggesting that Macadangdang, Brightside members or anyone outside of the elections and judicial committees had a hand in the decision to disqualify Vision. Viljaste simply reported the unauthorized distribution of branded shot glasses, which was Vision’s second breach of the elections code. This temporary system of distribution approval is in place to keep campaigning compliant with the University’s COVID-19 operating posture and applied to all campaigns, “insider” or otherwise. Vision almost certainly knew in-person campaigning was irresponsible and against the rules, yet they did it anyway. Any defense of this is self-defeating and requires admitting to ignorance, desperation or a disregard for the safety of students.

And why the eagerness to take down Brightside? This year’s SGB, in which Brightside’s four members all rank highly, has done a phenomenal job. Landsittel in particular liked to sling mud at Viljaste over purported issues with the allocations committee. Meanwhile, allocations have been transparent and efficient under Brightside board member-elect Aboli Kesbhat’s leadership. Student organizations are now granted more flexibility in how and when they use funding and allocations procedures have been updated to make more information public about approved requests while protecting the confidentiality of organization leaders.

Other major SGB initiatives have included creating the Civic Advising Program, which helps connect students with service and organizing opportunities. Additionally, the 2020-21 SGB members lent their support to proposals for a mandatory three-credit Black studies class and increased police accountability in Pennsylvania. This has been a prolific year for SGB because it’s brimming with merit and experience.

That’s not to say there aren’t some underlying issues with SGB. Five out of eight new elected board members are involved in Greek life and the average student remains unaware of SGB activities, whether by fault of the organization or general student apathy. Elections turnout remains strikingly low, only narrowly clearing 20% this year. This is hardly a license to reject experienced candidates who can successfully implement bold and impactful initiatives.

I wish President-elect Ramanan nothing but success. I honestly mean this — I’m not rooting against her. While I firmly believe that she does not measure up to Viljaste, this election was ultimately an indictment of the electorate. Forcing candidates to fear for their own safety is beneath us. Supporting a poorly thought out and underqualified candidacy is beneath us. Electing a president with few formal plans for advancing the needs of LBGTQ+ and minority students on campus is beneath us. Acknowledgment of Pitt’s diversity and inclusion shortcomings is common, but apparently that only matters in theory.

We rejected Viljaste on the basis of misinformation and unfounded hate. I just hope we don’t pay too much of a price for this moment of misguided populism. 

Jack Troy primarily writes about politics and environmental issues. Write to him at [email protected].