Illustration by Ania Webb
Illustration by Ania Webb

While all student governing bodies grapple with member turnover and voter engagement, UC Santa Cruz’s Student Union Assembly (SUA) had at least five members  — including the president — resign this year. Amid the turnover, the SUA also struggled to define its role amid an upswing of student activism.

This week, students will elect a new assembly and officers. But some students don’t feel the SUA represents their voices and wonder how this election, like the rest, will affect them.

“[The SUA’s purpose is] advocating for students when we need them to [and] want them to, I feel like that doesn’t always get done,” said third-year Cowell College student Austin Duncan. “When it gets done it’s done without everyone’s voice in it. They don’t really ask all the students how they feel about issues, they just kind of say, ‘This is how students feel.’”

The SUA was founded in 1985 to represent undergraduates in hopes of organizing a “collective student voice,” according to its website. It was established as a student-led and student-funded body to address campus needs through activism-based campaigns. Past campaigns include resisting student fee hikes and campus growth and defending affirmative action.

From 2008-10, when UCSC alumnus Kalwis Lo was the SUA chair — now the position of president — the assembly was able to break student voter registration records in state and federal elections, Lo said. They were also able to reform undergraduate general education requirements.

Lo believed they did this by prioritizing “activism on every front,” while still maintaining a relationship with administration. While in office, Lo said the assembly would make every decision in relation to how it would benefit UCSC students and if there was no good answer, they wouldn’t spend their time on it.

“We [had] to give up very large projects like hosting concerts and events on campus in light of tuition increases and limited funding,” Lo said in an email. “We didn’t see how we could serve students with large, expensive social events.”

Like Lo, the SUA chair following him, Tiffany Dena Loftin, believed the SUA had a duty to be involved with student activism.

“We weren’t always the ones leading the resistance against attacks on students,” Loftin said, “but we were facilitating it. We were aiding it. I was giving markers and blue tape, I was reserving rooms for the student organizations.”

Despite the SUA’s activist roots, recent years in the SUA have been marked by a different philosophy —one that requires close collaboration with administration, promotes social events and shows a reluctance toward student activism among some SUA officers.

“Sometimes I don’t show up at protests,” said current SUA president Tias Webster, “because there are members of the administration I work with who would probably not take kindly to that and might stop working with me.”

Webster said “the pendulum” of differing schools of thoughts is possibly swinging in the other direction — potentially ushering in an era of student leaders more reminiscent of the assembly’s original purpose.

Some past and present SUA members said this clashing of ideologies started in 2013, when the SUA requested to be moved from the advisement of Student Organization Advising and Resources (SOAR), Student Media and Cultural Arts and Diversity (SOMeCA) to the Dean of Students (DOS). In hopes of being a “level closer” to the chancellor, the SUA requested to be advised by the DOS, according to a letter written in 2013 by then-SUA chair Shaz Umer.

But some believe it was a mistake that ultimately hindered the assembly’s ability to represent and serve students.

“As a student organization we have chosen to be placed under the Dean of Students rather than SOMeCA, severing our ties with SOAR groups and placing an immense impediment to our goals as an activist body,” said former SUA representative for Merrill College, Jay Semana, in his resignation letter.

Semana resigned this April because he thought the SUA wasn’t fulfilling its mission of promoting student activism, but he is running for vice president of diversity and inclusion. Other members of the SUA have voiced that the assembly has shifted away from this focus on activism and toward working more closely with administrators like interim Dean of Students Lucy Rojas to coordinate events and projects like a campus-wide food pantry and a pop-up concert.

“If students say [they] want that money to be spent on concerts and events and food banks, then I think it’s selfish of us to not move in that direction,” Webster said in reference to a survey of the student body. “And getting those things done does require working pretty closely with admin.”

Yet many, even those within the assembly, have questioned the purpose of focusing on programming rather than activism.

“When admin need something, the SUA is the first group of students they go to and if we are not responding to current events, if we are not showing support for the students that are being affected, then what are we doing?” said former SUA Kresge student representative Max Jimenez.

Jimenez said she didn’t continue in the SUA this past year so she could work with other student organizations and more activism-based groups but has since decided to run in this election for SUA president.

While Jimenez and other SUA candidates and members are seeking to redefine the relationship between the assembly and the administration, past SUA chair Tiffany Dena Loftin said the SUA is a powerful force in persuading the administration. She thinks the SUA has recently lost a lot of its weight and influence.

“There is room to work with both,” Loftin said. “The SUA — the student officers — it’s their job to know who the [members of administration] are, have relationships with them and ask them real questions and connect them with the larger student body.”