Earlier this week, University of Alabama sophomore and member of the school student government Alex Smith wrote an op-ed for campus paper the Crimson White about her decision to stop working with “the Machine.” The college’s old boy’s club is also known as Theta Nu Epsilon, and it’s comprised of members of historically white sororities and fraternities who make it their goal to elect and then influence members on Student Government to vote according to what Greeks at the college want.
Smith is not the first to speak out against the Machine, but her comments come in the wake of a dramatic few years for the school, which has been embroiled in controversy involving many facets of its Greek community for much of its recent history, if not longer. Since her piece has come out, students have been actively commenting on it on Yik Yak, among thoughts about Halloween costumes and the school’s football team.
On Thursday, I called up Smith to talk in further detail about how her peers have responded to her piece, how the Machine functions these days, and how its actions affect the lives of those outside the University community. Though she’s in a sorority, Smith requested I not identify which one; she’s not interested in potentially speaking on behalf of her fellow sisters. As you’ll see in our conversation, the Machine acts like our nation’s real government when its functioning at its worst, at times essentially filibustering Alabama’s student government so they’re unable to get anything done. Given the fact that former Machine-backed candidates make their way into local and national political office, that behavior is certainly noteworthy. Smith herself is from Huntsville, and says she chose Alabama for its strong political science program. She says she’ll continue to work in student government.
Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
How did your student government involvement begin? You said you were interested in political science.
I had been involved in [Student Government Association] throughout high school, and as a senior, towards the end of the semester I had started meeting with a couple people at the University of Alabama who had graduated before me to let them know I was interested. They were like, well you know, if you rush and you end up going into SGA, you’ll be in the Machine. I was like, the Machine? Students at the University know all about it and so I was kind of filled in there. It wasn’t anything that sounded too terrible. I guess I just didn’t have a lot of information on it.
But once I got to the University, I applied for first year council, which is kind of like the segue into SGA for freshmen—that’s the freshman branch of SGA. So I served on first year council my freshman year, and then the end of my freshman year going into my sophomore year I ran for SGA senate. And that’s what I’m serving as now, as a senator.
The Machine is confusing, especially if you don’t go to Alabama. The members of the Machine proper—the representatives aren’t in student government? They’re influencers, the ones that are texting you and telling you how to vote aren’t in student government?
So how does that part of the Machine get picked? Different sororities and fraternities offer up people to join it?
In a way. Usually they’re always from in-state—not always, but the majority of the time they’re in-state. They usually come from a powerful family, very wealthy—just an established family, if that makes sense. And of course legacies are involved; if your dad or your mom was in it, you have a way higher chance of being chosen than someone else from in-state who didn’t have a family member involved.
I think you explained in your article that there are two representatives per sorority or fraternity.
There are two representatives per house, for each house that’s involved [in the Machine.]
How does that communication work, then? The sororities and fraternities offer up these representatives, they become a part of the Machine—but then how do those individuals communicate with SGA?
The representatives have meetings. They’ll sometimes meet in the basement of a fraternity, or they’ll rent out a bar or something like that—I don’t know how often these things are held. Usually they like to have their discussions there, make their decisions there. Then, as they disperse, each rep, I would just communicate with my rep from my house. So I wouldn’t have a rep from Kappa [another sorority] texting me which way to vote. It would just be the rep from my certain house.
So you would already have a preexisting relationship with this person, on some level.
Usually you kind of have an idea; you may have heard of him or her. And you know, sororities are really big; we have 400 members. So of course I’d heard of my reps. I didn’t know them prior, but I recognized their names and sitting down in a meeting with them was not difficult.
But you decided on your own that you were interested in being involved in student government. Does the Machine then see who’s running and decide who they’re going to support?
Yes. At the end of my freshman year, first year counselors were encouraged to run for senate positions or apply for committees, just because they’re like, hey, you are the 50 students who have SGA experience, freshman-wise, if you’re interested in running, you should run.
[I was told to] contact my rep. I just kind of asked around in the house, and eventually figured out who it was. I sent my resume to her, and then she took it down “to the basement,” and they passed out my resume and they took a vote. And either they were okay with me running or they weren’t. They look at your resume, they look at the things you’ve been involved in and where you came from and stuff like that. They gave me the okay to run Machine-backed, and so my senate campaign was backed by the Machine.
Gotcha. That makes a lot more sense than what I’ve been reading.
I feel so silly explaining all of it.
Who told you to contact your representative in order to run? Was it someone in student government, or was that just in the air that you have to get approved by the Machine in order to win?
That was just in the air. I heard it from people in first year council, people who just kind of talk around the office. No specific person gave me the order to do that.
Then you ran for SGA and you won. Was there anything strange about that process?
I was kind of confused by the whole situation at first. I don’t know if you read the other article that the three SGA senators wrote. One of the sources mentioned that their platform wasn’t scanned beforehand, there wasn’t anything specific they had to include, and that’s how it was for me. I was very confused; I was like, you don’t want to look at my platform, you don’t know what my goals are? And it’s just kind of like, no, make a Facebook page, campaign, use social media. [I felt like] I should be out there on campus talking to people. I did take the initiative myself to go and contact a few groups out on my own, because I felt like that’s what campaigning was supposed to be—it was supposed to be meeting people, getting to know people on campus. That was just very interesting to me that I was just told, campaign on social media and I would be fine.
When did it start to dawn on you that the Machine was something you didn’t want to be a part of?
I think I said this halfway through my article, but it was more towards the end of this past spring after President Spillers was trying to appoint his Chief of Staff and there had been a huge blow-up in SGA [over it]. It was threatened to be shut down because the committee couldn’t confirm his chief of staff. That was the point that I felt that the Machine was simply telling us to block him out of spite. I had heard nothing but great things about [Chilsolm Allenlundy, the Chief of Staff candidate] and so I felt like he would do a good job.
According to your article, you abstained from the Spillers vote and started voting differently than the Machine wanted last spring. Did tensions between you and the Machine escalate in the fall?
I started voting against the Machine once school started back. Lots of independents put up some legislation that I felt would be beneficial to the student body as a whole, including Greeks; it wasn’t just catering to certain or specific groups. It was just very apparent that the senate was shooting down their legislation simply because they were independents and weren’t in the Machine. That was just such a red flag. The independents have been nothing but nice to me. These people weren’t cynical or mean or rude; they were simply trying to help the student body and the campus. That did not sit right with me.
What kind of legislation are we talking about? Can you give me an example of what you’re working on?
I feel like this example will be easy to understand. It’s kind of a tradition at Alabama: during the fourth quarter [of football games] we always play “Dixieland Delight.”
You play what?
[Laughs] It’s a tradition that’s been going on for years, ever since I can remember. But it’s just this song and there are some cuss words that are sometimes used in it, like, the student section will ad-lib and put some things in there. It was rumored that “Dixieland Delight” had been banned. One of the independent senators made a video and wrote a piece of legislation to bring “Dixieland Delight” back.
It ended up getting two or three thousand hits on Facebook, it’s all campus was talking about. [This senator had] tons of name recognition, and he’s definitely a threat to the Machine, just because he’s very personable.
So we were told, if you want to support “Dixieland Delight,” [then the Machine will let you], that was the rumor, apparently. So I went ahead and I sponsored it. That senate meeting Thursday night was supposed to be held in a different location than where our senate meetings are normally held. So the guy had tried to find a different location. Then we get a call saying that this location can’t house this many people. So we’re like, okay, whatever. [But then] it just so happens that the room where we normally have our senate meeting was supposedly rented out for the day. So then we’re like, well why don’t we just have it in the SGA office, [and we’re told no]. It was just excuse after excuse that they didn’t want this guy to have this bill pass. And the next week people started pulling their sponsorships.
I left my name on it. But the legislation ended up never hitting the floor, and “Dixieland Delight” was played the next week. So that was pretty cool. That probably just confused you even more, but that’s the best example of something that was the Machine trying to purposefully block something the independents put up simply out of spite.
It doesn’t seem beneficial to the Greek system at all to not have that go through.
Right, and that’s the thing: the independents aren’t trying to harm Greeks whatsoever. There are several fraternities that aren’t in the Machine that are Greeks, and just because they’re not in the Machine does not mean that they don’t support the Greek community.
How’s the response been to your piece? How are you doing?
It’s been mostly positive, which was really surprising. I’ve had students reach out to me from schools—Auburn reached out. I’ve had parents call me, alumni call me, some of my professors emailed me. I was not expecting that kind of positive response whatsoever. I kind of braced myself for the worst. I have received a bit of backlash from those in the Greek community who may not necessarily agree with me. And I still love my brothers and sisters in the Greek community, and just because everybody doesn’t agree with what I’m doing doesn’t mean I’m not going to represent them to the best of my ability. There was a senator who endorsed my article and he had been targeted—they said he was trying to campaign early. That made me feel terrible because all he was doing was supporting my article and they twisted it into something else to try to get him in trouble.
But for the most part it’s been pretty positive. I just appreciate all the support that I’ve gotten and I don’t regret what I did at all.
What do you think about the future of the Machine? Does it seem like their power is waning?
That’s kind of accurate. President Spillers being elected was a huge deal—he was the first black president since 1976. Now that some of this information is coming out and people aren’t scared to talk about the Machine and what it does, hopefully it will encourage people to form their own opinions and not be afraid to voice how they really feel.
I had a girl reach out to me the other day, and she was like, I just feel like things are changing. And that made me stop for a second. [I asked what she meant] and she was like, there’s just this air on campus and I feel like things are about to change. And that just took me aback, to hear someone, a fellow student say that. Who knows. I guess it is an “only time will tell situation,” but I think things are looking up, I really do.
There does seem to be a conversation about diversity and representation on campus that is at play in reducing their power on some level. Like, this small body of generally wealthy white men isn’t controlling the student body’s agenda any longer.
Yes, and I feel like a lot of that has to do with the increase of out-of-state students that are coming to the University. I don’t have the statistics with me, and I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure it’s 50/50 in-state and out-of-state. These kids from out-of-state, they come in and they’re like, what in the world is this? When they were in high school, they didn’t have anyone telling them, this is what the Machine is, you will be a part of it. They come in and they’re like, what is this Machine you speak of? They’re more inclined to form their own opinions and not be so biased to the whole process since they’re not from in-state.
I’m from Alabama and I hope to have a hand in Alabama politics one day. You hear of people in the past that are in office now that were in the Machine or just that people in office have ties to the Machine. That’s very unnerving and a big problem, that the kids that are in the Machine now, the people that are making these decisions on campus, will eventually be making decisions for our state. Look back to two years ago at the Tuscaloosa City Board of Education election: the Machine was providing limos and transportation to the polls, students were promised free drinks if they wore their “I voted” stickers to the bars. And this was an election that most of the students on campus had really no [involvement in]. I mean, yes they were in the district, but I highly doubt that these students had done their research and were educated on this election. And that affected people’s children. That’s a line that you should never cross.
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Image via AP.