When a politician follows up on a campaign promise, the public is impressed. When a politician loses the election and still follows up on a campaign promise, the public is, well, speechless. But for William Reynolds, former candidate for Student Council President and current Chief Technology Officer, the hope is to give every student a voice. Reynolds (Comm 2010), alongside a supportive Student Council, a receptive UVA administration, and a talkative student body, is working towards fulfilling Student Council’s longtime dream of truly representing their constituents by way of a new website, SpeakUpUVA.com.
What began last Spring as Reynolds’ platform for election, has now transformed into a hugely effective forum for Wahoos to offer up ideas, air frustrations, and speak directly with their representatives in Student Council. Students can comment on one another’s proposals and ‘vote’ to support any goal. As the site says, “It’s like shouting from the Rotunda steps, only better”… Much, much better. Since its launch in September the site has amassed over 150 suggestions from students and literally thousands of votes to back them up.
Already completed are some impressive initiatives– The UVAirBus Program for cheap transportation to airports, the expansion of library hours during exam time, the return of the New York Times back to grounds, and the list goes on. You can view them all on the completed tasks page.
But with any tradition-loving body of individuals, new concepts take time to settle in. “One of the things we’re always asking ourselves is, ‘How do we overcome apathy?'” says Jen Bristol (CLAS 2011), Director of University Relations. The answer in this age of political cynicism is a sensible one– prove to the students that they have power. For Bristol and the entire Student Council, SpeakUpUVA has served to bridge the gap between the student body and the Student Council. From there, the Council has brought the students’ ideas straight to the administration. Site creator and CTO William Reynolds further notes that “there are several administrators that are checking the site on a weekly basis themselves.”
Of course, as Second Year Class President Dan Morrison (CLAS 2012) keenly observes, “Ultimately the success of the program is going to be decided by how effective Student Council is initially in addressing the students’ concerns.” Morrison proposed what is currently the most popular idea on the site — “Increase Internet Speed in Lambeth Residence Halls.” With a whopping 655 votes, this is a highly-desired but not-so-simple fix. Student Council has been in constant contact with ITC trying to solve the problem, but it’s a slow process. “They have to succeed first for people to trust in the system,” posits Morrison.
This inherent skepticism in the program is echoed by second year student Catherine Burnett (CLAS 2012), but she admits she’s been pleasantly proven wrong. Burnett expressed concern about the resistance of the University to grant CIO status to certain independent Greek organizations. Her idea garnered 291 votes and is currently ranked fourth in popularity on the site. “When I initially posted on the website,” Burnett explains via email, “I doubted that the issue would get addressed by anyone in student council, but instead it was placed under review the next day.” From there she received contact from Student Council Vice President for Organizations, Colin Hood, who spoke with various administrators and presented her with all the options for Greek organizations.
Clearly, as Vice President for Administration Nikhil Panda (Engineering 2011) states, “There’s a range of very complex issues to very simple fixes.” When students asked to have Wilsdorf Cafe hours extended, Student Council sent a few emails to Dining and suddenly it was done. When students asked to have a better student-theater performance space built, even with 407 votes in its favor, no single email could win the day. Nevertheless, the idea was accepted by the Student Council and they have been in close talks with those in charge of the Newcomb Renovation project, delivering the students’ message straight to the source.
The soft-spoken, poised Reynolds reassures that the Council “considers every idea that gets posted on the site.” Jen Bristol continues with that same vigor for the project in saying that “There’s no idea that’s little, these are tangible, real accomplishments we’re making.”
No matter what happens with each idea, Panda stands in continued support of the concept by stating that “the resource is most valuable in that it’s an open forum…We kept on using these lofty words since Student Council was founded,” elaborates Panda, “that we’re representing all students, but there was actually never a concrete outreach effort that represented this. And this is probably the first one.”
The humble Reynolds knows that “as we see more and more people use the site, Student Council recognizes how valuable the tool is.” With the support he’s seen so far from all aspects of the operation, it should come as no surprise when he says, “I only see the site getting to a higher level.” And when it does, he’ll be the first to know– he receives an email straight to his inbox whenever any activity occurs on the site. That’s a whole lot of emails. “It is exciting,” Reynolds says behind a shy smile. He, and the entire Student Council, are proud of this project, and rightfully so. Let’s just hope Reynolds will run for political office again sometime soon so he can give us yet another campaigning tool that ends up radically improving student life at UVA.