In every competition-based reality TV show, there comes a point where one contestant, caught up in the heat of a confrontation with the others, tells the cameraman something to this effect: "I didn't come here to make friends."
And while it's true that student government at the College of Charleston is not usually a televised verbal slugfest, it followed a pattern over the last week that any casual fan of Big Brother would recognize — and on Tuesday night, cameras were rolling.
First, there was the provocation. If you haven't been following this story, it's about reckless tweeting. But to get the full story, you need to rewind: Ross Kressel, who had tried to befriend his entire freshman class on Facebook before moving from the Atlanta suburbs to the College of Charleston in 2008, worked his way up through the ranks of the Student Government Association until this spring, when he ran for student body president against Secretary LaQunya Baker and Sen. Peter Ruegner. Kressel had already seen his name dragged through the infamous online mucking grounds of Anonymous College Boards, a free-for-all web forum where the personal attacks kept streaming in as a close race led to a runoff election against Baker. Baker had the most votes in the initial election, but Kressel narrowly won the runoff, taking 53 percent of the 578 votes cast (out of an undergraduate population of about 10,000). Meanwhile, anonymous online commenters were disparaging Kressel's race, anatomy, and sexual orientation.
In a comment thread titled "Most Eligible Bachelors on Campus," someone posted, "ross kressel with his super erotic bald spot and cure [sic] jew curls." Search for his name on the site, and it also comes up under "Best tits on campus" and "Who are the worst virgins that totally need to get laid?" On May 3 this year, someone posted: "Since I know ross cant [sic] resist anything with his name one [sic] it I know he will see this...I know were you are living next year...and because being the type of person you are is not okay, I think im [sic] gonna beat the shit outta you."
Oh, and on April 2, 2009: "ross kressel needs a twitter."
At some point along the way, Kressel opened his digital mouth via the Twitter handle @CofCPolitico. The account was taken down recently, but if the screenshots that have been making the rounds are accurate, Kressel said a few objectively nasty things, both about fellow students and fellow SGA members. He had around 70 followers, and his tweets were closed off to non-followers, but nothing is ever really private on the internet. In the screenshots, the Twitter account's description reads, "Just one of the good guys, airing my dirty laundry. Don't take it seriously. No RT's please."
Second, there was the disproportionate backlash. On Labor Day, more than a week before the first Senate meeting of the academic year, someone on the SGA executive board confronted Kressel about allegedly making offensive online jabs and asked him to resign. He declined, so the board met with Kressel last Thursday to discuss a course of action, then asked the Senate to impeach him. Treasurer Luke Rozansky, a sophomore business major from Washington, D.C., told reporters he didn't want to go into the specifics of what Kressel had said that was so offensive.
"I'm just trying to keep it as private as possible, because I'm not looking to fuel the fire," Rozansky said. "If we have to release the tweets at some point, we will." But Ruegner, a senior political science major who had resigned from the Senate after coming in third in the spring presidential election, had apparently beaten Rozansky to the punch. Last Wednesday, he posted a hodgepodge of blurry images to his personal blog that he said came from the @CofCPolitico account, many of them evidently taken by someone who had not figured out how to take a proper screenshot (Command + Shift + 4, for you Mac users out there). Ruegner said three different people on the executive board had sent the images to him.
The real backlash wasn't the SGA infighting, though. It was the brief media maelstrom that kicked up around Kressel's alleged comments, particularly the ones that referenced race, female anatomy, and sexual orientation. New York-based gossip hub Gawker.com picked up the story on Sept. 11, and the British tabloid newspaper Daily Mail picked it up on the 12th. And then there was the two-hour impeachment hearing Tuesday night, where the Senate opened up the floor to the student body for comment. To be fair, there were roughly as many speeches in favor of Kressel as against him, but the students who spoke against Kressel pulled no punches.
"I'm not proud to have that asshole represent me," said Katie Benson, a sophomore, when her turn came. "It's 70 percent girls, and he's gonna be a misogynistic pig? No, not OK. Not OK at all."
"Guess what?" said Arvaughnna Postema, an African-American student, facing Kressel as she spoke. "You don't represent me, first off through the color of my skin, second through my integrity."
Luca Gattoni-Celli, a senior economics major who said he voted for Kressel in the presidential election, said he wanted his vote back after the president violated the oath of office, which requires the president to behave "in a manner befitting the reputation and good standing of this institution."
"And we pay him," Gattoni-Celli said. "I want my money back." As president, Kressel can earn up to $9,616, the equivalent of in-state tuition, at a rate of $13.50 an hour. The school has about 10,000 undergraduate students, so each undergrad's share of the money is about 96 cents.
Third, there were alliances — or at least rumors of alliances. When people start to talk about voting each other off an island, literally or figuratively, coalitions and conspiracy theories abound. Just watch an episode of Survivor.
Looking in on the SGA island, the college administration kept things laissez-faire, and SGA advisor Susan Payment refused to comment on the impeachment proceedings. The decision on punishment was left up to the senators, who ultimately decided to vote no confidence in Kressel but not to impeach him.
"People came here, yelled at him, basically did what he did," said Erich Hellstrom, a chairperson on the executive board who voted in favor of the vote of no confidence but against impeachment. Some pro-Kressel speakers that evening had argued that the tongue-lashings were punishment enough. Others called Kressel a First-Amendment martyr. Still others called the entire debacle a character assassination and a power grab.
In the event that the Senate had impeached Kressel and the student-led Honor Council had voted for his removal, Vice President Elliott Wright would have taken over as president and appointed a new vice president. But Ruegner, in a phone interview before the impeachment proceedings, said he thought the impeachment was really a way for Baker, now a sophomore media studies major, to take her former political rival's position. "What they're gonna try to do is pull some parliamentary procedures to make LaQunya [Baker] president, is what I've been told," Ruegner said.
Baker declined to comment after the impeachment hearing. Online commenters questioned Ruegner's own motives, as he was the other losing candidate in the presidential election.
Fourth, there were people who didn't come here to make friends. Kressel himself said it in his brief defense speech: "We aren't elected here to pad our resumés or to be friends, but rather to look at the college we have today and figure out how we can make it in the image of what the student body wants."
Friendship was a recurring talking point in the public comments Tuesday night, though. There was Gattoni-Celli, who said he had once considered Kressel a friend but was there to speak in favor of impeachment. There was the president of the college's Gay-Straight Alliance, Pattie Webster, who spoke in Kressel's defense and said, "I am happy to call Ross my friend. ... I know that at heart he feels equality should be served, and I think that's what matters." And there was Rozansky, who had signed the official letter asking the Senate to impeach Kressel: "I consider Ross a friend. ... I don't want to impeach President Kressel, but I think his actions warrant such action."
Yes, the College of Charleston student government bore some striking resemblances to America's Next Top Model this past week. But can we also see the whole snafu as a microcosm of national politics?
Butch Oxendine, founder and executive director of the Gainesville, Fla.-based American Student Government Association, remembers his tenure in the 1980s on the University of Florida student government, which had earned the nickname Kiddie Congress. "Some students know student government for a couple of things, if they know it at all," Oxendine says. "And those things are spending money and impeaching each other." He began following the Kressel story last week after hearing about it from a Google Alert and from concerned associates around the country, and he worries that internal quarrels like this one can distract student governments from the real, workaday changes they can effect on a campus — things like new speed humps and expanded library hours.
The link between student government and real-world government is a strong one, he says, especially considering that involvement in student government can lead to a career in politics. "What you learn in college becomes stuff you do later," Oxendine says.
So what have the big players in the Kressel near-impeachment learned?
Kressel handled his scandal deftly. Although he apologized, he never explicitly confirmed or denied that the tweets Ruegner published were authentic, and he was tight-lipped around the press.
Ruegner's personal blog is wallpapered with the FairTax logo and an image of the Gadsden Flag snake coiled around a palmetto tree. He did a bit of grandstanding at the impeachment hearing, effectively continuing a campaign he had started in the Senate to eliminate pay for student government executives.
Baker has locked horns with the student newspaper, the George Street Observer. When one reporter tried to open an executive meeting about impeachment to the public using the legal crowbar of South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act, Baker thwarted his attempts by using SGA bylaws to close the meeting.
Well. Maybe they did learn a thing or two.