The “Pilot” of Student Government: The Student Body President

The Daily Tar Heel, May 17, 1921.

We currently find ourselves in the middle of campaign season. For the next two (or possibly three) weeks, the Pit will be abuzz with excited, albeit cold, campaign workers, the pages of the Daily Tar Heel will be filled with news of the latest endorsements, and evenings will be dominated by candidate forums. Some wonder if all the “fuss” involved in Student Body President Elections is worth it. That question is a matter of opinion. However, it is possible to objectively examine how the Office of the Student Body President became important enough to warrant the attention afforded to those who campaign for it.

Although student self-governance is a long held tradition at Carolina, the Office of the Student Body President was not created until 1921. Prior to that, the Senior Class President was head of the Student Council. The switch from Senior Class President to Student Body President was not without controversy. Early in 1921, students voted in favor of a referendum that would create the Office of Student Body President. However, when nominations for that office were due in May, those who were opposed to the switch broke up the nomination proceedings with allegations that students had been misled by the wording of the referendum. A week later the Student Council decided to again put the measure to a referendum, this time with a different wording. Once again, the referendum passed and later that month Garland Burns Porter was elected UNC’s first Student Body President.

“Student Government Records, 1919-2011” Box 26, University Archives.

In 1946, Student Government drew up its first constitution. The constitution gave the Student Body President the power to veto bills from Student Congress, an ex-officio seat on all boards and committees, including the Board of Trustees, and the authority to issue executive orders. The 1946 constitution required that the Speaker of Student Congress also serve as Vice President and that the Secretary-Treasurer (which was later split into two roles) be elected by the Student Body. Changes to the constitution in 1971 gave the Student Body President the power to appoint his Secretary and Treasurer, pending approval of congress. In 1995, the Student Body President was allowed to do the same with his/her VicePresident.

Past Student Body Presidents also played a role in increasing the power of their office. Paul Dickson III, Student Body President from 1965-1966, expanded the role of “representing the students of the University” when he became the face of the University in the very public conflict over the Speaker Ban Law. Eve Carson’s work as Student Body President from 2007-2008 inspired students both within student government and outside of it to seek change on campus. In between, various Student Body Presidents created cabinet positions for emerging campus issues, giving the Executive Branch greater influence on campus policy.

Perhaps it is the relative stability of the Office of the Student Body President that has most enabled it to flourish. Since 1946, little has changed in the Executive Branch. Conversely, the Legislative Branch has changed names, composition, and, to a certain extent, purpose numerous times.