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"Alabama to revamp student government"
Jim Yardley
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
February 3, 1993


The Machine may lose grip on campus politics

Laura Ritchey, 21, a University of Alabama senior, looks left, then right, checking if anyone is within earshot. The Machine might be listening.

Ms. Ritchey's anger comes from the recent report that an independent student body president candidate was beaten and cut with a knife in her home. It was the second incident involving Minda Riley, who has campaigned against The Machine, a secret coalition of fraternity and sorority members that has controlled campus politics for 70 years. Tuscaloosa, Ala. - Laura Ritchey, 21, a University of Alabama senior, looks left, then right, checking if anyone is within earshot. The Machine might be listening.

"I don't want to get myself in trouble," says Ms. Ritchey as she sits in the school's main quad and begins to speak her mind. "It's outrageous that someone went to that extent - to hurt somebody over an election. This is college, this is the United States of America. We're not the Mafia."

Ms. Ritchey's anger comes from the recent report that an independent student body president candidate was beaten and cut with a knife in her home. It was the second incident involving Minda Riley, who has campaigned against The Machine, a secret coalition of fraternity and sorority members that has controlled campus politics for 70 years.

In November, Ms. Riley found a cross burned into her front yard and threatening notes taped to her house. One said "Machine Rules Bitch." Police continue to investigate both incidents.

The assault seems to have been the last straw for school administrators, who will restructure student government, apparently to break The Machine's stranglehold on power. Elections that had been scheduled for next week may be held in the spring if a new system is devised.

The Machine has controlled campus elections since World War I by manipulating voting rules, enforcing strict bloc voting among fraternity and sorority members, and even busing fraternity and sorority members to the polls. As a result, the campus Greeks, who make up 25 percent of the student body, control campus patronage and a student budget of more than $300,000.

"As a minority and as a non-Greek, I don't feel I have a fair chance of getting involved with the student government association," said junior Karen Thompson, 20, who applauds the administration's moves. "One group has ruled this school long enough, and I'm glad it's going to end."

The influence - critics would say the intimidation - of The Machine is obvious from conversations with students. In interviews on the main quad Thursday, several non-Greeks refused to give their full names for fear of retribution. Some Greeks who support The Machine also asked to remain anonymous, but only to prevent further publicity.

A group of six graduate students said The Machine uses its control of student fees to reject requests by some independent groups for travel money to extracurricular events.

One creative writing student said he had asked The Machine-controlled student senate for $100 to attend a book seminar but was rejected. Business and football, not the arts, get The Machine's approval, the independent graduate students said.

But three freshman members of a Machine fraternity said The Machine has not been charged with anything criminal.

They contended that Ms. Riley staged the two incidents to attract publicity, an accusation she has strongly denied. One freshman agreed that Machine-controlled politics may not be fair, but another answered that life is not fair.

Some students seemed more comfortable with middle-of-the-road positions, condemning the assault on Ms. Riley, but not necessarily condemning The Machine.

"I just kind of go with the majority," said Todd Neal, 21, a senior from metro Atlanta , who is an inactive fraternity member. "It's bad the girl got beat up, but they haven't proved it was part of the Greek system."