Early in spring 2004, the Students’ Association Congress was poised for the most anticipated time of the year – the budget meeting. The $115,500 proposal awaiting student leaderÂ approval was the highest the school had ever seen at the time and still outweighs semester budgets proposed today.
But the meeting wasn’t just climatic for the senators and representatives in Congress. It was the story of a college career for then-editor in chief Paul Anthony.
After the budget was presented, members were granted a brief recess before deciding on it. However, the vote didn’t end up taking place until a week later.
“By the time the break was over, they didn’t have quorum,” Anthony said.
Congress was comprised of 46 members, but only 22 remained after the recess. It had lost quorum, meaning not enough people were present for the vote to count.
Fewer than half of the Student Congress fulfilled their duties to their constituents that Feb. 4, effectively creating a limbo until next Wednesday’s meeting when they all, or at least 23 of them, would attend to vote and pass a functioning budget. Two days later, that story made the front page of the Optimist and the editorial of that issue was titled SA: a laughing matter.
“They were a joke,” Anthony said. “The members didn’t take it seriously, so how was the student body supposed to?”
The relationship between SA and the Optimist stands steadily though on thin ice. The two organizations serve as the movers and shakers on campus, and while they have paired for the good of the student body, conflicting goals inevitably lead to friction between the two.
While it’s not every year that SA is called a laughing matter on the opinion page of the school newspaper, it is always the role of a journalist to be objective and keep a watchful eye on the governing body.
Doug Mendenhall, twice editor in chief of the Optimist from 1980-82 and a current instructor of journalism and mass communication, said he’s faced this challenge personally.
“You serve a watchdog function,” Mendenhall said. “You’re there to tell everyone what’s going on.”
Coming out of the 1970’s, Mendenhall enthusiastically entered the field of journalism with the Watergate scandal fresh on his mind. The evidence of mischief wasn’t unearthed by a campaign committee or by police but by reporters at the Washington Post. For him, the profession was a force for good.
“You want to make a change in the country, in society,” he said. “You could go into journalism and wipe out the evil in our country.”
Journalists serve the people as political representatives do but in a different way. This relationship between the media and governing leaders is parallel to the Optimist and SA. John Tyson, SA president in 1981 when Mendenhall was editor, recognized the natural conflict.
“In a democratic society, there are always different points of view,” Tyson said. “Tensions arise from that.”
When Conflicts Arose
Ron Hadfield, assistant vice president for university communication, served as editor of the Optimist during the same time Barry Packer was executive president of SA. Packer has gone on to become chair of the university’s Board of Trustees.
“I wouldn’t expect the Optimist staff and executive officers to have lunch together on Fridays,” Hadfield said. “The media is a protector of public interest.”
Hadfield, a two-time Optimist editor in chief from 1977-1979, was a student body president at his former college before transferring to ACU. He said that experience brought him a different perspective to the job.
“I had more than a passing interest in student government,” Hadfield said.
Hadfield was the first editor in over two decades to publish in the Optimist a roll call that included what members were in attendance, who was late or left early and their voting record. He chuckled as he reminisced about his years as an editor mentioning he, or his staff, were probably not the most popular people in school.
“We felt like we were doing our job as student media to shine a light on how elected students were doing their jobs,” he said. “I’d like to think it helped improve attendance.”
But there were other times when conflicts came up on campus where the Optimist and SA fought for the same cause.Â The Office of Campus Life in 2002 presented a five-year plan for Chapel to SA executive officers behind closed doors.
A member of SA Congress leaked the information to Anthony and thus sparked the fire of two years of controversy debating the role of Chapel. The new plan would move Chapel to academic credit, change the meeting time and essentially make it more of a worship service and less of a community gathering.
“When things like that come up, the Optimist and SA can work well together,” Anthony said. “The Optimist put pressure on Campus Life by continuing to report on changes made to Chapel.”
This coverage was to the benefit of SA because, along with other major changes, the new rules would have prohibited campaign speeches in Chapel from candidates on the day of election. The allowance of campaign speeches was lost for a period of time but is allowed again today thanks in part to the efforts of both entities.
Putting it in Perspective
Both former editors and presidents remember their time in leadership similarly to how college students look back on childhood experiences. This bond sometimes helps each understand the other, said Rob Sellers, SA executive president 1982-83.
“We understood that they had a job to do,” Sellers said. “Even though we may not have wanted the publicity for any particular thing, we knew it was necessary.”
Both ends of the playing field are able to appreciate the work the other did because, despite the differences in tactics, both answer to the people.
“You end up with two organizations that are trying to help the student body but end up on opposite sides,” said Anthony.
Anthony said he remembered living in the same hall freshmen year as Jonathan Wilkerson, who would later become SA president while he was editor. Anthony said he didn’t want to pick up the phone and call Wilkerson during some difficult times as editor, but he knew there were questions that had to be asked.
Despite the friction of the time, Anthony said he still receives Christmas cards in the mail from Wilkerson.
“I think the Optimist and SA have gone back and forth,” Anthony said. “It’s a natural tension, but one thing you can lose track of is that we’re all in college and we’re just people trying to do the best we can.”