Post presidency, Miriam Silberman reflects on tenure as student body president 

| Editor-in-Chief

Senior Miriam Silberman sat down for an interview with Clara Richards, Co-Editor-in-Chief, on Monday, April 10. Silberman is from the suburbs of Chicago and is pursuing a major in microbiology, she recently ended her tenure as the president of Student Union (SU). During the conversation Silberman reflected on her experience as SU president and what she was able to accomplish over the last year. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

Student Life: As SU president what do you think was your biggest accomplishment?

Miriam Silberman: One major accomplishment — I’m guessing you’re referring to Student Union as a whole — that I’ve been really proud of has been the restructuring post-COVID. That includes both the activism that we do, as well as redeveloping the culture of our governing bodies. I’m really proud of the recent decision to allocate an additional half a million dollars for student groups in the next year, as well as reconnecting with other student groups, especially sports clubs. I’m incredibly proud of our exec board’s ability to connect with student groups that are both SU affiliated and non-SU affiliated, including #MeToo WashU and Abolish Greek Life (AGL). And I think just making SU a more vibrant place post-COVID is probably the thing that I’ve been most proud of.

SL:  So then flipside of that, talk a bit about the biggest regret that you have looking back at the past year.

MS: This isn’t something we could really control. But we had an issue where the SU website was hacked by a Russian gambling service, which took down our email correspondence for the year, as well as our site for the year. I believe there were a lot of missed opportunities for connection with student groups and individuals through the website and our email. That is something I really wish didn’t happen. I don’t know if I regret it, because I couldn’t have done anything about it. But that’s something where I was hearing a lot of feedback — ”Oh, we wish that Student Union would communicate more.” We really heard that, but it was very difficult, because while we were pretty active on social media, it’s impossible to fully connect with the student body without a broad correspondence, which is what we’ve historically done. 

SL: What is one thing that you’re going to take away from serving as president, a role that includes being the point person for so many faculty, staff, and students?

MS: I think that there’s a lot more work that goes into making WashU function than people realize. And so if there’s one thing I’ve learned being in the administration’s shoes, so to speak, is that you’ll always have a lot of expectations, and it is crucial to manage those expectations and focus on specific issues where you can make the biggest impact instead of trying to do everything all at once. 

SL: What have you passed down to your successor? 

MS: My successor is in the same position I was last year when I was elected president. I’m actually starting to work with her already, and she is a super, super, strong — I cannot emphasize this enough — administrative and organized person person. I think that one thing that I want to work with her on is setting up some more advocacy and activism projects. She has a bunch of interests, but because she was serving as the Executive Vice President, that wasn’t necessarily her main focus last year. And so I want to set her up for success, and give her all the resources she needs so that she can achieve those advocacy projects in her own unique way.

SL: Have there been any standout moments when you think back on the past year of your presidency?

MS: Yeah, there have been. One of the things to put into this interview as context is that while I was the student body president, and I’ve been involved in Student Union for the last few years, I’m not just a Student Union member. A lot of my actions, I like to try and separate from Student Union. So I’m not always trying to have my presidential hat on and tell people what to do. I’ve been invited to a few rallies as the student body president, which have been, of course, full of emotion, full of stress, especially when they relate to things as stressful and as dire as sexual assault and as people being dehoused and displaced. Being at those rallies, as a person offering support and connection, while also taking a step back and really allowing the experts, the student activists, to lead the way, has been a part of my personal activism. Letting others lead and speak about what they are passionate about is something that I’ve really valued. One elephant in the room is the College Republicans speaker that recently came and spoke on campus. There was a lot of contention about that and it was a pretty stressful moment because I saw it as a defining event in saying, “Okay, the executive board of Student Union has very very different values and interprets the Constitution in a different way than the Treasury does.” So that was high stress. But another really exciting thing is that recently, I’ve been working with a potential student group, the American Indian Student Association, on bringing in their own speaker to speak about environmental activism. 

SL: I wanted to ask you about that — the issue of that diversity on campus, given Treasury’s decision to fund or not fund different speakers. 

MS: So the first thing I want to clarify is that as the president, and as an executive board member in general, we do not get a say in any of Treasury’s decisions. In fact, when we attend a Treasury session, we’ve been encouraged, especially by recent speakers, to not speak so that we are not affecting the outcome of the funding in any way, which I understand. We’ve each had our fair turn in speaking when our particular groups are directly impacted and when we’re the group representative there. I think that there’s a pretty delicate balance, or at least a pretty fine line, between when something surpasses this broad idea of freedom of thought and directly transitions into ideologies which can harm students on campus. The Art Laffer decision, from my understanding, was made because of the disproportionate per-person funding. It was a per capita issue, more than a College Republicans issue, as it’s been described to me by Treasury representatives. I don’t believe you can put it on the same level as the decision to allocate funds for Amala Ekpunobi at all. But for the Ekpunobi decision specifically, I think that there was certainly contention, and I know that if it had come to the executive board, probably a different decision would have been made. Freedom of thought on campus, I believe, does require a myriad of different worldviews and approaches to big questions and problems. One of the things that was discussed in that particular session was intentional incitement at previous campuses, something I viewed as more of a safety than freedom of thought concern. Since there were other speakers the College Republicans could have brought to express freedom of thought, Art Laffer, for example, I personally felt that they were less interested in bringing a speaker that represented the notion of thought diversity and more interested in making a decision related to their personal agenda.

SL: Transparency in SU was one of the core tenants of your presidential platform. Can you talk to me a little bit about that effort and how you feel like it’s gone over the past year in terms of engaging the general student body?

MS: It’s been difficult without the website and without the email. We’ve made a concerted effort to try and increase social media interactions, whether that be through story posts, trying to work with administration to see if we could send out emails through them, or holding more office hours. There’s been a lot of increased effort throughout SU to have direct contact with students, and while it’s much more difficult to reach a broad student body, I do believe that with the resources available we tried to communicate projects and hear student responses as best as possible.

SL: Part of engagement is creating events like the office hours, and another part of is getting students to actually show up and participate. Are you satisfied with the level of involvement that you saw as a result of your increased office hours and accessibility? 

MS:  I wish that more students had come, especially to the open houses. There were a few open houses that were pretty directly addressing some student concerns that had come to our attention, but at the same time, I do think that getting students to show up and participate ultimately falls on SU. Our image is closely related to the university and administration, and even though we are not the university administration, I think that association, that in part we’ve created, has made people distrust us. And I think that’s fair. I hope future generations of SU leadership will continue to more explicitly explain what they do and how they’re separate from administration to increase trust. Hopefully resulting in students coming and engaging with us a little bit more.

SL: What’s one thing you wish you could have accomplished during your time as President?

MS: I’m going to say something I know is a little bit contentious. I really would have liked to see a greater push for the removal of fraternities from this campus, and while there has been a rally, regarding space equity discussions, there’s a demonstrated continued interest based on surveys that we’ve sent out and forms we’ve received to remove fraternities from this campus. I had hoped we could have accomplished more in that regard than we actually did.

SL: How are you feeling about where the issue of fraternity housing is headed based on the University’s current response? 

MS: It’s really hard to know — I have seen a very, very mixed bag. I’m a woman of color, and I talk about this with other women of color, and across the board we seem to be pro-abolition, especially of traditional social fraternities. That being said, I’ve spoken to those in fraternities who say that they have a place on campus. But I’ve also spoken, interestingly enough, to graduating fraternity members who actually say that they believe that maybe not their fraternity, but other fraternities do not have a space on campus. So there is even a mixed collection of responses within fraternity members. It’s very difficult to say — all I can say is that I’m hoping that discussions of space equity, specifically residential equity, will continue. And then ideally, in my personal dream world, room for Living Learning Communities and minority-affiliated housing will thrive on campus. And if that means placing them in old fraternity houses, then that’s amazing to me.

SL: Do you have post-graduation plans? 

MS: I have a few really exciting graduate school offers, but I’m not sure what I’m going to study. 

SL: And after you leave campus, what are you going to take from your time at WashU? 

MS: WashU has a really interesting environment where it’s a smaller community that existed long before I arrived and used to be far whiter and far richer than it is today. And one thing I’ve learned is that it’s possible to elicit positive change through continuous perseverance and action. Whether that be socioeconomic diversity or racial diversity, WashU has changed pretty dramatically in the last four years that I’ve been here. Some examples that come to mind are the creation of the WashU Promise, which offers free tuition to all Missouri residents and Southern Illinois residents earning less than $70,000 a year; the decision to go Need Blind; and the free menstrual products now offered on campus, which happened to be one of my first advocacy projects. There’s been so much change that has happened, and a lot of it was brought on by student demand. So I guess one thing I’ve learned that I’ll carry with me is that it’s possible for people who, individually, may feel like they don’t have a lot of power, to demand and elicit a lot of change. That’s a reminder that I’ll carry with me, since I can’t imagine this is my last interaction with student or local government.

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