What to Look For in a President
When you step into the online voting booth this week to choose your next AAS president, you should ultimately keep your own counsel and listen to your own advice. You know the candidates better than any alum, even an alum like me who knows the two principal contenders. However, choosing a president for the AAS isn’t something to do own your own. It’s much too important for that. There’s appropriate room for advice from people you trust.
Considering the limited space I have to write this piece, I ask you to trust me. I was, in my senior year, the longest serving member of any of the three branches of the AAS government. As a senator, I served with five presidents over four years. I saw excellent ones and forgettable ones. I saw inspiring ones and let-downs. I won’t name their names, but I’ll draw lessons for what to look for in a president from my experiences working with them.
As a voter, you should seek a president with guts, backbone and sureness of values and principles. This may sound a little overwrought for the AAS; however, there are real value clashes involved in AAS disputes. The ability to stand tall amid a stampede of Senate opinion, sticking to your principles when they bring you scorn, is essential.
My freshman year, we debated our semester budget as a Senate for so long I turned 19 during the meeting. It was near midnight and everyone was tired and frustrated from hashing out budget minutiae. But budgeting was the most important and relevant thing the Senate did, and our president vetoed the budget we passed because he didn’t believe its allocations were right. We howled. But I respected his rare quality of guts and backbone.
A surprisingly simple quality to look for is energy. The president must be able to sustain the weights of governance that sit atop an already-demanding academic workload. Good leaders have this impressive, sometimes amazingly indefatigable trait. I served under a president whose governing style a fellow senator and close friend of mine described as “sleepy.” He was not the best president.
Another set of key qualities includes engagement, openness and approachability. To paraphrase Orwell, all senators are equal, but some are more equal than others. Junior senators often don’t get their contributions and ideas heard if their leader is unavailable to help advocate for them. As a result, senior senators’ (sometimes stale) ideas are the only ones heard. Aloof and remote leaders do not bring out the best in those around them, though this is the chief job of a leader. Students and senators alike need a president they can easily approach.
Some of the hardest traits to keep alive in a presidency are freshness, boldness and creativity. These are among the most important for a president to possess. When you’re in elective office, almost every incentive that comes your way tempts you to simply do enough to get reelected, and no more. A president faces this temptation to just get by doubly so, since they are often a senior and have already won their last election.
A go-along-to-get-along attitude is deadly to a presidency’s effectiveness. It is incredibly wasteful of a tremendous opportunity to manipulate the levers of the presidency to improve student life. Look for someone in whom you see a creative spirit that is unafraid to imagine new, even revolutionary, ways of doing student government. Student government activities carry implications, but not world-historical ones, so experimentation and boldness should be welcome.
Finally, seek a president with supportiveness and enthusiasm for young senators’ and students’ ideas. The Senate, at its best, functioned as a farm system in baseball, where “minor league” senators were recruited, coached, encouraged and allowed to fail, and finally discovered true governmental talent. They matured into go-getting public servants with all the qualities above, ripe for leadership roles in their middle and later Senate years. I had the pleasure of serving under a president — a good friend of mine — with an undying enthusiasm for the plans and ideas of young senators. What an important, long-term legacy he made with that quality.
There’s a spoiler here, of course. You will never find all these qualities in one person, in the right balance, at the right time. Even great leaders get part of that admixture wrong. As a voter, you don’t even know the conflicts, controversies and issues the coming presidential term will bring. At best, your judgment is an educated guess. You can only hope to get lucky. But by educating yourself about the qualities of the leaders you deserve and the candidates you have, you’ll increase the likelihood you luck out.
So, good luck.