USC set to elect first female student body president since 2006

 USC set to elect first female student body president since 2006
Bovard Auditorium seen from the steps of Doheny Library at USC. From 2006 to 2014, not a single woman ran for student body president. (Perry C. Riddle / Los Angeles Times)

One of USC's longest, and some have said most troubling, voting streaks is about to come to an end.

For nearly a decade, only men have been elected as student body president at USC, and many of them have been fraternity members. From 2006 — the last time a female Trojan held the job — to 2014, not a single woman even tried to run for president, virtually unheard of at other large schools.

This year, the two presidential tickets are both headed by women, so when polling finishes Thursday, a woman will once again run the school's student government.

"I'm definitely encouraged by the fact that more women are running and are feeling confident," said Jessica Lall, USC's last student president. She had previously called the absence of women candidates appalling. "That isn't something I saw while I was at USC," she said.

The student government at UCLA has had at least six women presidents since 2005.

Some said the dearth of female leaders and candidates at USC was a sign that the campus was fostering a climate where women were not encouraged to fully participate in student life. "It became a bigger topic on campus," said Rini Sampath, one of this year's candidates.

Many students and alumni don't offer reasons that women have shied away from running for USC student body president, who oversees four branches of student government and influences a nearly $1.9-million budget.

At many large campuses with high numbers of fraternity and sorority members such as USC, some say Greek life bleeds into student government and that men have a particular advantage.

Women typically participate in formal Greek recruitment in the fall at USC, but men can rush during the fall and spring, which means some male candidates have an eager group of pledges who can do the campaigns' groundwork: hanging signs, passing out fliers and cheering during debates.

About 4,200 students are fraternity or sorority members; there are nearly 19,000 undergraduates, according to school figures.

Dan Schnur, director of USC's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, said he has noticed increased interest in student politics this year. A recent candidates' debate that he moderated "had a larger turnout than any I've seen during my years on campus. The audience was much more heavily female than anything we've seen previously," Schnur said.

"There's no question that a presidential campaign featuring two female candidates has touched a chord on campus," he said.

Both of this year's presidential candidates said that they have never experienced outright sexism but that they carefully considered running for the top seat because none of their female peers had attempted to do so in such a long time.

Although running for these positions only takes a few weeks, it can be a grueling experience that mirrors professional campaigns, complete with pushing for endorsements, shaking hands all over campus and debating opponents.

Recent elections have been relatively cordial, especially compared with previous contests. In the late 1980s, one student group called for the death of an undergraduate overseeing elections — members of the group later said it was a joke, according to a Times report. In the 1950s, former political consultant Joseph Cerrell, then a student, hired a stripper named "Patti Waggin" to gather support for a candidate who eventually lost, according to The Times.

Even though Sampath, a junior, was elected vice president last year on a ticket headed by a man, she wasn't sure if she would try for the top job herself.

But she started meeting with groups on campus that told her to make an attempt. "Without the encouragement of my peers, I'm not sure I would've done this," Sampath said.

When it came time to pick a running mate, Sampath asked another woman, Jordan Fowler, a sophomore she had worked with in student government.

Sampath also thought the choice could make a statement. "I knew by picking her, our ticket would represent a diverse range of student voices while proving two women can lead USC," she said.

Sampath said others have questioned her choice, asking members of her team, "Do you really think an all-female ticket could win?" (Each ticket has a cadre of advisors, including campaign managers and communications directors.)

"I knew it would be a challenge," Sampath said. "But in my heart, I also knew that [gender] shouldn't hold us back."

Sampath is the only candidate who is not a member of a sorority or fraternity. Her opponent, Providence Ilisevich, serves as one of the Greek student senators. When she and her running mate, Ehren Elder, a man, campaign on campus, some students assume he is seeking the top job.

"They don't mean any harm by it," said Ilisevich, a junior. "That's just the way things have been for while."

Ilisevich said she briefly weighed the gender of potential running mates before deciding that it wouldn't be a factor. "If the positions were reversed, I wouldn't want someone to pick me based on gender," she said.

Both campaigns said they wanted to improve campus policies on sexual assaults, increase gender-neutral facilities and increase access to housing and facilities for students with disabilities.


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