Values to vision: Student government addresses threats to DEI, school spirit and SGA reform

SGA President Alexander Sutton addresses students and senators during the State of the Student Body | Elise Gregg, PantherNOW

Elise Gregg | Editor-in-Chief

From Tallahassee to MMC, student government is eager to make some changes.

During the State of the Student Body address on Aug. 28, student government president Alex Sutton outlined his vision for the next year, reiterating the platform he ran on of inclusivity, panther pride and reform. 

Those three core tenets will set the stage for the variety of initiatives that will come up throughout the next year. 

“The state of the student body is dire,” Sutton said at the beginning of his speech. “I say that not to inspire any unnecessary anxiety or for dramatic effect, but because at FIU we face unprecedented challenges on a number of fronts that threaten to weaken our student body and disempower us as student leaders.” 

 “But: I am confident that we will stand strong in the face of trouble.” 

Those challenges, said Sutton, come from inside FIU and from outside, starting with threats to diversity, equity and inclusion from the capital. 

With the passing of Senate Bill 266, concerns over academic freedom and the existence of diversity, equity and inclusion departments have skyrocketed. 

The legislation prevents universities from using funding on DEI departments – although exemptions exist for student-led organizations, which can keep operating while they’re funded by student fees. 

“This exemption only exists because of people like us,” Sutton said in his speech. “We lobby the state legislature to exempt our student organizations across Florida from this ban.”

“Here at FIU, we passed the Can’t Ban Us resolution expressing our desire for DEI initiatives to continue and our former student body president Cris Lugo sat down face to face with the sponsor of SB 266, State Representative Alex Andrade and lobbied him on our behalf.” 

The goal is to continue advocating in Tallahassee, along with passing student government legislation to signal support for inclusivity and working with administration to make it a tangible priority. 

“FIU knows how important these programs are: I have full confidence in our university president, provost and senior leadership,” said Sutton. “I know they believe in providing resources and community for all Panthers.” 

The other values bring a lot of the vision back home. 

“I think everybody should realize they go to an incredible institution and they’re so lucky to be here – and I don’t think that’s a prevailing sentiment right now,” said Sutton in an interview with PantherNOW. 

SGA President Alexander Sutton during the State of the Student Body | Elise Gregg, PantherNOW

Panther pride is one of his top priorities. What he sees as the key to engaging a student body with lower school spirit is not just action with students but with everyone at FIU. 

“What we need is an entire cultural shift at all levels of our university, from our student government to our administration, to everyone who has a role in engaging our student body,” Sutton said. “What we really need is more opportunities for students to come to campus, not for class, but simply to have a good time and get to know their fellow Panther citizens.” 

SGA Vice President Santana Way echoed those sentiments, specifically discussing student tailgate plans and his work with university administration to make them happen. 

“There has been more of a separation between SGA and the student body and I want to bridge that gap,” Way said in an interview, adding that he hopes to see SGA as involved as possible in student life (such as in Greek Life events). 

During his speech, Sutton added that his aim was to not only continue current student activities and possibly create new ones but to also reinvigorate old traditions

“How can we kill the very culture that unites generations of Panthers?” he asked, highlighting how he brought back the Panther Luau during Week of Welcome.

Student government reform was Sutton’s final point. For many years, SGA operated as two separate entities: a Biscayne Bay Campus government and one for MMC. 

In 2020, revisions to the constitution not only merged the two governments but shifted power between branches. 

“In a closed-door process, a handful of students (none of them were from BBC) came up with an entirely new student body Constitution and statutes paving over two decades worth of amendments: words and bills passed by hundreds of SGA members before them,” Sutton explained during his speech. “Once the process was finished, they enacted the new constitution, by executive fiat declaring a new law without a vote by the Senate or a referendum by the student body.” 

“This is the Constitution and statutes that we currently operate under today. and the result has been a lack of checks and balances.” 

PantherNOW’s investigations into the process of renovating the Game Room in the Graham Center showed not only that then-president Alexander Rubido had a vast majority of power in directing that process, but that his authority permeated student government, particularly in allowing the president massive discretion in issuing executive orders. 

Sutton’s hope is to empower the judicial and senate branches – though his Checks and Balances Act failed last year, his new plan starts with an executive order creating a constitutional convention. 

“My passion for reforming student government has not diminished,” Sutton said in an interview. “Instead of writing the bill myself, this time I felt it would be better to do it through a collaborative process with a constitutional convention.” 

Beyond that though, Sutton added that there needs to be a shift in the way SGA relates with the student body. 

“Transparency and engagement are the key,” he said, explaining that he wants students to know not only what SGA is, but what they’re doing. 

For Way, expanding SGA is key to reform. 

“There’s only so much inclusivity you can have with a student government association of 58 students and a student body of 50,000 students,” he said. “An initiative that I’m working on is creating some sort of area where students can be more involved in student government.” 

With only a year to work, Sutton recognized the challenges but concluded his address optimistically. 

“I look forward to working with everyone in the room and everyone tuning in remotely to turn our SGA into the kind of organization it deserves to be and to turn our student body into the kind of Panther nation that we are destined to be.”

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