Editor’s note: Read this story in print in the February 2020 edition of the Crimson Quarterly magazine.
Justin Norris, 20, is the newly elected president of OU’s Student Government Association. A native of Arlington, Texas, and a graduate of Nolan Catholic High School in Fort Worth, Norris has been active in student government since his freshman year at OU.
In a sit-down with Norris, the vocal performance and business junior discussed his role as the new student body president, his hopes for the new year and the frustrations that have presented his office with the recent influx of faculty overturn throughout various branches of the university’s administration.
Q: What sort of challenges have been presented to you so far?
A: I was fortunate enough to come into this role already having a lot of good relationships with faculty, staff and administrators. And so, even in the past couple of weeks, the conversations that I’ve been having with the staff of student affairs — it’s clear to me it’s just really important to set up a really strong, positive relationship, so that way, even if there is a little bit more of a transition, it can be a healthy one. It’s like realizing that, ‘Oh, I had a good relationship with the person in your role. It’d be better for both of us if we established a good connection and we just picked up where your predecessor left off.’ I think it just really comes down to good, clear communication.
Q: How does the overturn of faculty and administrators at the university affect what you can do for the student body?
A: I think it makes it a lot harder. Especially when it’s a very high-up administrative position that is changing frequently, then it can sometimes change the way that approval processes work, or how long it takes for something to get approved. I think that is also a big source of student frustration in that they bring their concerns to SGA, we hear them and then it goes to student congress or the appropriate branch, but then once it’s there, all we can do is send it to administration and say, ‘Hey, this is the student voice, this is what students need.’ But if you aren’t exactly sure how that administration is going to respond because the response is constantly changing, then I think that has put a big halt on progress.
Q: What was your main objective for the student body under your presidency?
A: My goal was to help foster a greater sense of community at the university because I think that’s something that’s really been lacking ever since the blackface incidents. Through it all, we’ve persisted as a really strong OU family, but before the blackface incidents I think there was a lot of underlying racist ideology or frustrations within different communities. ... I think the best solution for creating a more cohesive university is by having an administrative leadership team that represents multiple ideologies across campus while also having the personality and desire to understand the ideologies that they don’t represent.
Q: How can your office and university administration work together to ensure better communication, even in a changing climate?
A: Throughout the whole campaign, I always said it’s all about intentional conversations. That’s a huge part of my personal ideology, not just talking to someone, but really taking the time to listen and understand, and finding the intersectionality between your personalities — that’s when progress happens.
Q: What is your office doing to help make that progress happen?
A: One of the big things we’re working on is working with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion on how we can program events that are specifically catered to educating students that need to be educated, as well as providing platforms and visibility for students who hold underrepresented identities on campus — so everyone feels visible, but also they’re being educated in a way that’s interactive and is not like we’re preaching but makes everyone the right kind of uncomfortable. Because you do have to make people uncomfortable to a point in order to change their mindset and grow a little bit, but not so uncomfortable that people feel like they can’t ask questions about things that they don’t understand.
Q: What can the university administration do to help make that progress happen?
A: I think (what helps is) them bringing in their knowledge of how we can get the funding that we need for these events to work, also helping students to see from a perspective that shows this is something the whole university is working on together. (It’s) not just student government doing something but administration doesn’t really care about it at all. They’re really saying, ‘This is something that is coming from the top down and the bottom up.’ The desire is within the students, but the desire to help is coming from administration as well.
Q: So your position is more about acting as the connecting voice between the student body and university administrators?
A: Exactly, that’s really my main goal. I said my entire campaign that I just want to be a microphone to amplify student voices and make sure that they understand that they are being listened to and that their concerns are going straight to the people that need to hear them. But (I’m) also letting administration know that I am going to cooperate with them and serve as a streamlined means of communication between them and the students.
Q: What is your hope for the next year?
A: In a realistic sense, I’m willing to acknowledge that our university is not perfect and we’re coming from some really hard times, and that’s not just going to go away. I can’t make it all go away. But there is a strong team of people, myself included, that are super excited about how much we can progress in the next year.
Editor’s note: This interview was edited for clarity and length.