First weeks in office rocky for ASG’s Ani Ajith, Alex Van Atta

Associated Student Government president Ani Ajith speaks at Wednesday's Senate meeting. He and executive vice president Alex Van Atta have had a difficult start to their term.

Skylar Zhang/Daily Senior Staffer

Associated Student Government president Ani Ajith speaks at Wednesday's Senate meeting. He and executive vice president Alex Van Atta have had a difficult start to their term.

Cat Zakrzewski, Campus Editor

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About three weeks after spring showers washed his chalked campaign slogans away, Ani Ajith’s fledgling Associated Student Government presidency grappled with a series of external and internal challenges.

Ajith and ASG executive vice president Alex Van Atta ran in the April election as the ticket with the most ASG experience. But as a transition many expected to be smooth has had a rocky start, the pair has been both hampered and helped by the very experience they ran on.

Although the two were just sworn in April 24, the pair has already been confronted with internal ASG divisions, a student death and public backlash after a controversial letter about Cinco de Mayo. They have been forced to deal with each of these issues while still taking on the basic responsibilities associated with their new roles, like  meeting top administrators and maintaining ongoing projects with former ASG president Victor Shao and executive vice president Brad Stewart.

Ajith said balancing the unexpected challenges with the time-consuming transition is just part of the job.

“Being able to juggle complex issues is part of the promise we make, the assurance we gave to students when we won,” the Weinberg junior said.

However, Ajith is currently working with an incomplete executive board. At the ASG meeting May 8, Senate voted to block three of his cabinet nominees. One nominee, Stephen Piotrkowski, was denied the associate vice president of diversity and inclusion position after senators and outside groups raised concerns about his experience and qualifications — as well as whether a straight, white male can adequately take on diversity issues.

The other two nominees were denied due to unresolved tensions after a contentious election that pitted Ajith against another ASG insider, SESP junior David Harris.

Amid the internal bickering, Senate rejected Weinberg junior Stephanie Hong and Weinberg sophomore Julia Watson for executive board positions. Former members of Harris’ campaign publicly lobbied during Senate debate against Hong and Watson, who served as Ajith’s campaign manager.

Stewart said the election left ASG particularly divided because both Ajith and Harris drew endorsements and campaign support from within ASG, and many of those supporters still hold on to conflicts that flared up during the campaign.

Although the controversial Senate meeting was largely attributed to the election, even Ajith and Van Atta admit they could have handled the confirmation process better and plan to communicate more effectively with senators in the future.

Weinberg senior Ian Coley, the off-campus caucus whip, said he thinks Ajith and Van Atta failed in a lack of transparency with Senate. The cabinet selection process is supposed to be closed, but Coley said it was complicated when information, such as who applied for the positions and when they applied, was leaked.

“They hid behind some of the walls that were put up to blind the process,” he said. “But at the same time, as we see, the process has been blown out into the open. They’re sort of cowering behind the last couple walls of privacy that were still standing.”

He said it was not an issue of miscommunication.

“That, to me, is a phrase that puts the onus on nobody,” Coley said. “I think they did screw up a little bit.”

In addition to the internal issues, Ajith and Van Atta have had to deal with negative backlash from students who were unhappy with a letter they wrote with Alianza about the celebration of Cinco de Mayo. In the letter emailed to all Northwestern students, they discouraged students from celebrating the holiday with tacos or tequila, offending Mexican international students who believe it is part of their culture.

“Students never like getting all-campus emails. Even if it’s a little controversial, people react because everyone’s reading it,” Shao said.

One day after the controversial letter was sent out, tragedy struck NU again. Students and faculty were shaken to find out McCormick sophomore Dmitri Teplov had committed suicide, taking his own life in Pancoe Hall.

Without a full executive board confirmed, Ajith and Van Atta scrambled to lead the NU community through the loss and plan memorial services. Although their experience in ASG contributed to the current division within Senate, it benefited the team as they led the campus through the tragedy. Both Ajith and Van Atta were in the room when Shao and Stewart made plans to deal with the losses of two other students earlier this year.

“The hardest thing we had to do over our year was deal with two student deaths,” Stewart said. “I think they handled the situation very well.”

Moving forward, Ajith and Van Atta said they did not think the early “hiccups” would hamper their long-term platform. Shao said Spring Quarter was supposed to be a transition period.

“Not having a full executive board certainly has slowed them down to this point,” Shao said. “I’m confident they’re going to be able to accomplish everything they said they would.”

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