“The night before the Lawnparties act announcement, I didn’t sleep—I slept for an hour,” USG President Ella Cheng told me last Saturday at a table outside Cafe Vivian.
“Really?” I asked. “Why?”
“I was worried that we made the wrong decision,” she said. “I was anxious that people wouldn’t like him. We stretched the budget for Big Sean. We started budgeting even in January, before I was elected, to do that.”
“Well, I think the announcement went over well,” I commented, stating the obvious. “People around me literally started dancing when they heard the news.”
“Yeah, I think it did,” Ella said. USG really had succeeded with Lawnparties this year: they’d gotten a well-known act, Big Sean, and still kept it affordable. There was a lot to celebrate.
And then the next day, #hosebigsean broke out, and all I could think was ‘USG never gets a break, does it?’
The impact of the Gansa campaign, during the 2014 Winter USG election cycle, was so large that it punctured the Orange Bubble. #willofthepople and #wewill became the catechisms of Princeton students frustrated with our Undergraduate Student Government, worshippers of the cult of Will Gansa. The Gray Lady deemed this phenomenon worthy of an article, even if said article only made A26 of the New York edition of the paper.
The Gansa campaign was certainly a breath of fresh air on an over-stressed campus, with its satirical Youtube videos and catchy (if nonsensical) campaign slogans promising “waffle fries” and “hand-ripened fruit”. William Gansa, a quiet sophomore from Santa Monica, California, acquired a semi-mythical status on campus. He still appears in yaks, and, rumor has it, was once flash mobbed in Frist. People will point him out on the street and point out look-alikes on the Street—Gansa, I’m told, doesn’t go out much.
As Nick Horvath, a member of Will Gansa’s five-person campaign team, put it, “A vote for the Gansa campaign was a vote of frustration.” But in reality, for all that it purported to be a rejection of politics, resume-padding and ass-kissing, the Gansa campaign also contained an element of political savvy. There was, for one, an entire five-person campaign team, composed of Claire Ashmead ’17, George Kunkel ’17, Walker Davis ’17, and Nicholas Horvath ’17.
“I knew I was running against [Gansa’s] team, not Will himself,” Ella Cheng said. “Will is the odd one out—a poster boy. He’s really quiet, but people don’t believe that. It’s kind of like how Obama says he’s an introvert. He actually is pretty quiet.”
“We basically took our friend and made him a campus celebrity,” Nick Horvath told me when I interviewed him. “It’s been bizarre for all of us, but not as much as it has been for him.” When I asked him whether it was Gansa’s decision to run for president, or whether his friends really did just use him as a poster boy, Nick replied: “We definitely nudged him… we nudged him pretty hard, but it was [Will’s] decision to run.”
Horvath himself played a crucial and intriguing role in Gansa’s campaign. In the only Prince article that the Gansa Campaign ever is quoted in, he referred to himself as Gansa’s press secretary. (Ever one for accuracy, the Prince was sure to fact-check the given statements: “Nicholas Horvath ’17 … said he had been Gansa’s press secretary for a year and a half. Both Gansa and Horvath have been enrolled at the University for a year and three months.”) However, Nick would later explain to me that the five members of Gansa campaign team collaborated more or less evenly on the strategy and tactics of the campaign. The title was a formality.
Horvath ran for Class of 2017 senator in his freshman year, though he lost the race. Before entering Princeton, he spent a gap year working as a legislative aide for Colorado State Senate Majority Leader Morgan Carroll; before that, he’d spent several summers in high school campaigning on behalf of other local politicians. As Ella Cheng put it me, “Nick Horvath is such a government dude. He is not an outsider to politics.”
Which may be why, after the Winter 2014 cycle, he went over to the dark side, and applied to be USG’s new Communications Chair. “I’m involved in USG now,” Nick told me bluntly, when I sat down with him to conduct an interview.
Ella described how it happened. “So, Nick applied to be the new Communications Chair,” she said. “We set up a whole new infrastructure, after the campaign. We have a new communications committee. Nick applied, and he had an amazing interview. He had great stories. But my friends were like, ‘Why would you do that? Do you think Nick would really be an ally to you and USG?’” So in the second interview, we said, ‘Let’s address the elephant in the room. Are you serious?’”
But, she said, USG needs a person like Horvath. “Honestly, I was the first one to want him,” Ella continued. “I need a check on me, someone who I can look at and be like ‘I’m doing what the people want.’ Nick is that person.”
“People should take the time to appreciate USG,” Nick said, of his motivation for becoming Communications Chair. “Something’s being lost in translation here. In the campaign, we used that for a laugh.” Having successfully channeled the frustrations of the student body, he’s joined the team of his former opponent to fix the problem.
One of the striking aspects of the 2014 campaign was its ugliness, fueled in particular by a Himalayan immigrant to the campus: Yik Yak.
At many points during the campaign, Will Gansa yaks took over the entire stream. In truth, the #willofthepeople Yaks and complaints about food in the dining halls were somewhat amusing, if ultimately tiresome. What was far more disturbing were the personal attacks on Cheng and the other members of USG. “Got personally screwed by Cheng – when push comes to shove, she cares only for herself…” was a Yak of the time which garnered 41 upvotes—meaning that 41 separate, anonymous students around Princeton’s campus thought that it was a comment worth reading and sharing.
When I asked Nick about it, and about allegations that the Gansa campaign posted personally offensive yaks on Yik Yak, he said clearly, “We were not posting Yaks. This ‘resume-padders’ thing—that never came from our campaign. We were committed to not taking any personal shots. USG is made up of earnest people doing their best.”
And yet, I pointed out, part of the reason the Gansa campaign succeeded so much was because of Yik Yak. “Yik Yak is a fickle beast,” he responded, slowly. “It took on a life of its own.” He calls Yik Yak the “anonymous id” of Princeton: that most basic part of Princeton life, where we shed our pretensions to academic elitism and share our most racist, sexist and classist instincts. “Once we raised this satirical opposition, it touched on a lot of things that had been building. People let out their beef.”
They certainly courted this disillusioned corner of campus. “We would ask ourselves, are we winning the Yik Yak vote?” Nick said. “But we also asked ourselves, ‘how real is the Yik Yak vote?’ Is it one guy sitting in his dorm room and posting twenty yaks, or is it a real measure of campus sentiment?” Princeton’s Yik Yak has acquired a strong character, even at times done navel-gazing of its own. At one point, complaints by students about “being in the fifth quintile” (of the school by GPA) filled the Yak stream. In response, one Yak noted that it is impossible for more than 20% of the Princeton population to be in the fifth quintile. A commentator asked what this implied about the Yakking population. “Is there anybody here in the first quintile??” another Yak of the time asked plaintively.
But even if it is a disillusioned (and, allegedly, low-achieving) corner of campus, it is formed of a vocal group of students that is still frustrated with the state of USG and Princeton. Yaks today aren’t any less critical of USG or Cheng. “Think: if Gansa became president, none of this shit would have happened,” one Yak posted just after the Big Sean controversy stated. “#thanksella” was the first response. “Damn… we would have had so many waffle fries by now… :(,” complained another.
“I have mixed feelings about Yik Yak,” Ella said, when I asked her about it. “It’s tough. It’s one of the most damaging things I do to myself, to read it.” I asked her why. “The people on there don’t criticize openly. If you criticize me openly, I can accept that. But it’s really hard to respond to anonymous criticism.”
On the other hand, USG is seen to occupy a certain sphere on the campus: that of Whig-Clio, Tower Club and the Daily Princetonian. Given this, it’s not surprising that a large portion of the campus—that which occupies other spheres—would feel alienated from it. “We have too many Woody Woo majors on USG, and not enough engineers, athletes, or women,” Ella said. “If we’re all Woody Woo—that’ll always perpetuate a stereotype. We’ll miss out on something.”
“The pace of this place is so fast. It’s so stressful,” U-Councilor Jacob Cannon noted. Which makes sense: if you have a schedule filled with athletic practices or labs, or even just the daily courseload of a typical Princeton student, it’s not surprising that you won’t want to spent the extra brain power on USG, much less run for a position.
This is hardly surprising. It is a normal state of existence for a government—an ideal, really, for fans of a small government. Even in America’s Congress, the majority of senators and congressmen attended law school. The Gansa campaign, with its satire of campaign promises and USG goals, ignited this normally apathetic population and inspired it to demand—something else, if not something more. At least give us hand-ripened fruit, if you can’t bring about true change in CPS policies.
Unfortunately, it also ignited that ugly, Yakking population of critics, and USG’s current members drew the brunt of it. “You get the feeling that people who are into policy and USG are really uptight,” freshman Lavinia Liang, who sits on two USG committees, said. ‘Resume padders’, even. “But the people I’ve met on USG have been really dedicated, but also relaxed and open-minded.”
It’s a testament to USG, and Cheng, that they are choosing not to be offended by the criticism, and instead are trying to engage with it productively “With the communications committee, we’re doing focus groups to directly try to reach out to students from sections of campus that are underrepresented,” Lavinia continued, describing the new USG plans to me. “There’ll be free food. It’ll be a place where people who don’t feel represented by USG can express their concerns.” Perhaps it’ll be more productive than Yik Yak.
And yet one of the largest issues we face today, outside the Orange Bubble, is the question of how a government with a makeup unrepresentative of its people can truly represent the people. This is why people are so excited about the first LGBT senator, the first Hindu Member of Congress, and (hopefully) the first female president.
Evidently, the Will Gansa campaign raised awareness about USG. “Committee applications for this cycle doubled, or tripled, from last year. It’s good,” Ella said. With regard to representation and diversity, she noted, “We always take into account majors and years, for diversity.”
Lavinia had a different perspective on the diversity issue. “Do I think USG needs more diversity in majors? I’m going to say a hesitant, initial yes,” she said. “Obviously I haven’t been on the inside of USG that long. Princeton is big on diversity—but I don’t want diversity for the sake of diversity. If this is what people love to do, they shouldn’t be afraid to join USG. It’s open to everyone.”
And yet Cheng is passionate about it: she gave me the recruiting pitch, which I reproduce here for posterity. “All we need are people who care,” she said. “We’ll give you the training, as long as you put in the hours. And you learn so much. Passion matters so much more than resume.”
“I used to be that classic quiet, Asian girl. I never expected to do student government, to be president. I’m an outgoing, introverted person. I’m talkative, and willing to express my ideas, but I have a close group of friends that I spend most of my time with, and I barely go out to the Street. I was a total wreck during my first campaign. I was up against Eduardo Lima. He was popular, he was in Disiac. In the end, I was only one vote behind him.“ Ella Cheng and Eduardo Lima, together, became the new Class of 2016 senators in their freshman year.
“At the end of the day, USG elections aren’t about popularity,” she concluded.
“Really?” I asked, skeptically. I’d come from the world of small high-school elections, where one’s friends and popularity mattered far more than one’s platform or experience. People had said that college was better, but the events of Winter 2014 had definitely reminded me of those high school popularity contests.
“Really. I am so private. Molly [Stoneman] was much more well-known than I was. All my friends and family around me were concerned: ‘You’re not as public.’ But if you have a real platform and you convince people, you go door to door, then you’ll win. I don’t think Princeton’s that cynical about Student Government.”
Perhaps we aren’t. After all, for all the ugly campaigning, and the personal attacks, Cheng won.
“I knew that I needed to come in with a listening posture, and really get in touch with what the student body thinks of USG,” Nick said, when I asked him what changes he’s going to bring to USG. “We’re doing an approval poll, the first one ever, to get a baseline of how students think of USG. We’ll be launching a series of feedback initiatives, to find out what’s standing between us and a USG that is taken seriously.”
“The thing I’ve noted is there are lots of ways USG can be better understood… some big, some small. For example, there’s a committee working their tails off for Lawnparties, but there’s no USG logo on Lawnparties gear. People go to Lawnparties, and they don’t realize USG’s role in putting it together. We can communicate our successes better. And there’s a need to communicate USG’s frustrations and limitations.”
Nick has his own agenda, within the communications department, of how USG can communicate its role better. But, within USG, there’s still some disagreement about what, exactly, the Gansa campaign represented, and how this should impact the policies that USG chooses to implement.
“The Gansa campaign showed us that we need to focus on short-term people-pleasing things in addition to long-term projects,” Ella said. “That’s why we put so much more effort into Lawnparties this year. These complaints—they’re all related. I hate when we minimize things. I took the waffle fries complaints seriously—food is so important to social and mental health. We need to have more vegetarian and halal options. And we’re constantly working on improving late meal, because it’s such an important part of Princeton life. It’s when people unwind with friends, it’s when they make up for a missed meal.”
“We need to find a balance between people-pleasing things and big, important things,” Jacob commented, agreeing with Ella. “There are other issues that are really important—like policies regarding mental health. That only affects a small percentage of campus, but it affects that percentage so much. That has to be balanced with nutella and waffle fries.”
On the other hand, Nick disagreed with Ella and Jacob. “Part of the reason the waffle fries symbol was so powerful is because that’s what people don’t want USG to focus on,” he said. “I think there’s a role for USG as a real voice for the students with real clout in with the administration, and the Will Gansa campaign shows that students don’t think we’re there yet.”
And what was the deep meaning of “waffle fries? What student body frustration did it resonate with?
“It’s just funny. I think it’s funny,” Ella said, when I asked her. (At Tower semiformals the weekend after elections, Ella’s steak was served with a waffle fry on top.)
“I’m a fan,” Nick echoed. “I’ll never eat them again without chuckling.”
f you had to break down the types of Princeton students, here’s one way you could do it. There are students who care about USG. If they’re not involved in it, they vote regularly. There are those who are apathetic, but who don’t necessarily oppose USG. There are those who follow USG, but disagree with what it does. And then there are those who are completely antagonistic to USG.
“There’s definitely a group of students on campus who don’t care,” Ella said. If you don’t read e-mails about USG, how much can you complain about it? “I’ve been called spammy,” Ella continued. “I’m happy about that. We’ve brought Nick Horvath onto USG. If you aren’t aware of that, I can’t help you.”
“I hope there aren’t large demographics of antagonistic people,” Lavinia said. When I pointed out that they probably did exist, as evidenced by the Yakking population, and asked how she would change their minds, she said, “But there’s no way to directly change these people’s minds. It’s more a sequence of events than a once for all. Change might come with more positive sentiment—climate and attitude are pretty big things at Princeton. Once we have people who have faith in USG again, they can act as liaisons for the antagonistic people.”
Indeed, the problem today is that the under-representation of minorities—athletes, engineers—in USG leads to a self-fulfilling cycle. If none of your friends are in USG, there is no motivation or impetus for you to join; if the culture around you is one of disparaging USG, where is that voice saying ‘Hey, USG made Thanksgiving break start on Wednesday instead of Thursday’, or ‘Hey, USG made Lawnparties brunch start at 10am instead of 11am.’?
And certainly, this is not to deny that there are problems with USG. Cheng told me how the Winter 2014 campaign was meant to go, in her mind. She was to play underdog to Molly Stoneman: with a radical campaign platform of accountability and transparency in USG, she would shake things up in USG and play the opposite to the incumbent Stoneman. “I went into the campaign being cynical. I wanted to change a lot of things about USG. We weren’t accountable. Our communications were nonexistent. This was my entire platform—this was on my website,” Ella said.
Instead, because of her two years of experience and the Gansa campaign, she ended up playing the role of incumbent opponent. Thankfully, Cheng’s still trying to shake things up.
“Our project ideas used to come from a vacuum,” she said. “We’d go on a retreat, and we’d come out together with these ideas. After I was elected, for the first time, we used whatmatters to get feedback from student interests. At our retreat this year, I handed out results from that whatmatters survey. I’m all about the data.”
You might have played with that whatmatters survey at an idle moment. It’s like Mark Zuckerberg’s Facemash from the Social Network, but with USG student ideas instead of female Harvard students’ facebook photos. You try to decide whether you’d prefer “more funding for school sports” and “the ability to rescind p/d/f after final grades come out,” or “Easier way to get back into my room if I’m locked out (other than going all the way to P-Safe)” vs. “Better and more common spaces in residential colleges and upperclassmen housing”.
“We got 2000-3000 unique user sessions. People could suggest project ideas. We fed in 20 ideas, and ended up with 200 ideas from students. Not too much was surprising or shocking. Academic things came at the top, and ‘ban underage drinking on campus’ was lowest,” Ella said.
This idea of accountability—of receiving better feedback from students, enforcing more strict requirements on committee members in USG—is the real, revolutionary change that’s happening in USG. Compared to ‘bike reform,’ it’s more of the same bureaucracy and busywork that most of the student body associates with USG. But it’s boring initiatives that are, sadly, usually the most effective, if not the most interesting.
Which is not to say that Gansa did not have an impact. He changed the tone of the campaign and threw Cheng off script. And there’s certainly no denying the new, higher profile of USG. In the runoff, 1984 people voted for Cheng; in 2013, 1908 people voted in total. Technically, Ella Cheng has a stronger mandate than Shawon Jackson ever did. And, as a result, USG has realized that it needs to change, and we, as a student body, are more committed to seeing it be better.
But where would we be if Gansa had won?
“I think the administrators wouldn’t have listened to a USG led by Will Gansa,” Ella said, when I posed the question to her. “They read the campus news. They were following the campaign. They knew that he didn’t have the experience, or the support of USG, and they wouldn’t have believed that he could execute his side of any agreement.”
“I do think the role of President involves so much,” Jacob Cannon agreed. “You’re dealing with administrators, you’re setting agendas. Even if [Gansa] tried really hard, he would have been blown out of the water.”
“It’s the season of joke campaigns, at least around the Ivy Leagues,” Ella noted. “Harvard had one, Penn had one. It’s fun to vote for a joke campaign. Even I thought about it.” Harvard’s joke campaign, run by Gus Mayopoulos and Samuel Clark last year, won their election. “Harvard got lucky,” Ella commented. “Their joke president decided to take his job seriously.” (Mayopoulos and Clark had actually stated that they would resign if they were elected, but ended up remaining in the job.)
“The big difference between Princeton and other Ivy League schools is that the bureaucracy at Princeton cares so much about undergraduates here. USG can do so much. Harvard’s student government can barely do anything, because the College is a small part of the university,” Ella said.
“We did [win], in a way.” Nick commented, when I asked him for his thoughts. “We would have won if it was structured a different way.” The Gansa campaign won 44% of the popular vote, compared to Cheng’s 32% in the initial round. “And, people were starting to ask themselves why this guy with no platform, no experience as president was winning.”
I asked him if he truly believed that. Of course, as Will Gansa’s friend, Nick backed his friend up. But he did leave me with a thought. “There was a Yak that someone posted the day that results came out,” Nick said. “It said, ‘Somewhere, Will Gansa is breathing a sigh of relief.’”
He probably was.