If you couldn’t make Jason Gray’s final State of the Union on Tuesday, then you missed out on a very good speech.  Thankfully, Innermost Parts is here for you again (Have we ever let you down before?  Don’t answer that…).  Below the fold is the complete text of the speech, titled “Looking Forward: Student Involvement, Student Rights, and Student Advocacy”.  I’ll have more thoughts on the speech itself and several key points from it in the next few days, but for now, I encourage even those who already saw it to peruse it again and get an idea of what the Union has done this semester and what is still ahead.

Transcript – Spring State of the Union
Jason Gray
3/17/09

Looking Forward: Student Involvement, Student Rights, and Student Advocacy

(I)

Thank you, Jess.  Jess, so much of what has been accomplished this year is a testament to your hard work.  Mochila, for performing, thank you.

It really is an honor to see so many of you here today, and to have the opportunity to speak to the Brandeis community.

To all the students, staff, faculty, administration, and trustees, to all of you that are here today, thank you for joining me as we come together to mark the State of our Union.

There is no question that this has been a unique year.

One semester ago, from this podium, I said that our University’s financial situation was uncertain.  We faced a $10 million dollar budget gap.  Cuts that were made impacted our school and our student life.  Certain athletic teams were cut, and others cut back, dining options decreased, programming dollars were slashed, searches for new professors and staff members were postponed.  A large number of University staff had been laid off – lives were put on hold – members of our community are now out of work.

But the changes in discussion this semester – from the Rose, to Academics, to student life, will stretch beyond we have seen.  They will challenge the notion of the Brandeis experience and will call upon us to make sacrifices.

All of these changes – at various stages of discussion – will impact the future of our University.

When we come back to visit our alma mater, the Brandeis that we know will still be here, but the experience that it provides will depend on the changes and decisions that we make now.

(II)

Many students have been worried about the scale and the scope of the changes.  What does this mean for Brandeis?  What will be the value of our degrees?  How different will things look?  Will Pachanga still be the only good party on campus?

These questions are not new; they date back to Brandeis’ inception.  In 1946, even before Brandeis became Brandeis, a group surveyed the campus.  They found it badly run down.  Walks were eroded.  A Castle had been built, yet built without an architect.

When Abe Sachar was approached to be the first University President, he was warned by a friend that the Brandeis project would be “a great disaster” and “nothing but pain.”

But the promise of what Brandeis could be was so much greater than any of the potential challenges.

The castle was improved, cafeterias built, faculty recruited, and students matriculated.  By early 1949, the same friend who had warned Sachar against accepting the job, visited the campus.  Standing under the arch of the Castle, he said “I thought it could not be done, but…  it had been.”

In the next 60 years, Brandeis has been built into what we have today, one of the most highly regarded Universities in the world, a testament to the faculty that we have and the students that we are.

The financial situation that Brandeis faces today is a real one.  To endure it with our core principles intact, we must be prepared to make difficult decisions and accept necessary cutbacks.

However, this is a challenge that we will overcome.  Our history mandates nothing less, and our student body will accept nothing less.

By coming together as a community – students as partners with faculty and the administration – and facing significantly better odds than in the past – we can position our University for the future.

(III)

There are great challenges, yet infinite possibilities, at this point in our history.

In these times, it is our responsibility – and the role of the Union – to advocate for students, to amplify student voices, to emphasize student involvement, and to defend student rights.

We must continue to ensure that students are heard and included, and that we play an essential role in molding the future of Brandeis.

For student involvement to be substantive, we must be equal partners in the idea-generating, feedback-providing, and decision-making processes of the University.

On January 16th a conclusion was reached that in the context of our financial situation, the University could no longer cover the budget deficit in study abroad.

It was decided – without student input or engagement – that the portability of merit aid for students wishing to study abroad would be restricted.  Students who previously could use their merit scholarship money to study abroad now no longer could.

But many students had come to this campus on the basis of their merit aid, and would only be able to study abroad with the support of this aid.  The Union acted quickly to express our disagreement with this policy, and the administration agreed to revisit the decision.

At that point, we had the opportunity to create a process that would more appropriately involve students.  We worked with Academic Services to create a representative committee including faculty, students, and staff, and an online forum for greater student input.  Soon after, the decision to restrict the portability of merit aid was reversed.

A deliberative, inclusive process leads to better decisions.  No doubt this is not a total victory for anyone: the budget gap still exists, and some students will still not be able to study abroad.  However, tough decisions like these need to be made.

When sacrifices are necessary, it is of utmost important to have full community involvement in the process.

Similarly, there is no doubt that the Rose Art Museum has become a case study in what not to do procedurally.

The University’s initial position regarding the Rose was that the museum would close and the paintings would be sold.

After the initial statements regarding the Rose and during the ensuing controversy, the Union worked with the administration to hold multiple Student Forums, giving students an opportunity to directly engage with the administration, and to be active members of our democracy.

Now, the University’s current position regarding the Rose is very different than its initial one.  A committee will determine the Rose Museum’s future, and some paintings may be sold as the Museum remains open in some manner.

I believe that this position is significantly more palatable, and decision even necessary, given our current financial situation.

It is clear, no matter what you believe about the merits of the University’s decisions, that we all learned how important it is to present as much information as possible to the community-at-large.

It allows for more questions to be asked, more views to be considered, and better decisions to be made.

At the same time, it is important that Brandeis double-down and prove its commitment to the arts.  At our founding, our curriculum was informed by a Harvard general education report from 1946. It recommended studies in a core curriculum, humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences.

Brandeis, however, was not satisfied. We added another area to our curriculum: the study of music, theater, and the fine arts.  This commitment is one from our founding, and one we must continue.

This is why, today, I challenge the University administration to engage the arts community in order to find tangible ways to invest in the long-term future of the arts at Brandeis. I call for a series of meetings between administrators and members of our artistic community to discuss ways to ensure that Brandeis remains a fertile ground for artistic creativity even amidst the financial situation.

Undoubtedly, the academic changes in discussion will have the largest impact on student life.  The University will, over five years, be increasing the size of the student body by 12% and decreasing the faculty by 10%.

To recruit a larger class and enhance the Brandeis academic experience, proposed new majors will soon go into effect.  The business major already passed and a communications and journalism major is likely to pass soon.

The Justice Brandeis Semester – an intensive, experiential semester that students will be able to take in the summer, fall, or spring, will soon be an option, and possibly eventually a requirement – for incoming students.

The Union Senate took the lead on these initiatives by passing resolutions in strong support.  In a time when we are increasing the size of the Student Body, it is important to mitigate campus overcrowding, and continue to attract high quality applicants.

Further, the processes established for these academic changes have been close to ideal – largely because of the hard work of the Student Union.

We have had students on all of the exploratory subcommittees, a series of open town hall meetings, and pioneering online forums that combined the voices of students, faculty, staff, and administrators.

These are the beginnings of a substantive, community-wide process for decision making, and they represent the foundation of how all major decisions ought to be made from here on out.

(IV)

Recently, walking downhill from an open forum and heated discussion about the Rose, I passed through the Shapiro Campus Center. It was filled to its brim with music and students swing dancing throughout the atrium.

It was refreshing to be reminded that even amidst the challenges that we face, our student body is full of life, energy, passion and activity.  It is the strong student body that makes us such a unique and successful University.

Recently, student-led clubs on campus have performed the Vagina Monologues, Brighton Beach Memoirs, and Inherit the Wind.

The Brandeis chapter of Colleges Against Cancer raised $90,000 last year in a Relay for Life.

Gen Ed Now helped organize Citizenship Week, a series of events to expose students to the reality that civic service is an essential part of life.

The English Language Learners club had over 100 students apply to tutor facilities and cafeteria workers in English.

Positive Foundations and the Millennium Campus Network founded Live Campus to bring concerts to campuses all over the country to raise awareness and funding to support international development.

BOO – the Brandeis Orthodox Organization and BSO – the Black Students Organization – teamed up to work together on an identity night.  As the President of BOO described it to me, “It was Brandeis – two communities, each diverse in its own right, coming together to learn about one another and explore ourselves as well.”

Student Events pushed the boundaries during Louey Louey with “new” events, including the International fashion show and a Senegalese rapper and panel discussion.

This spring semester, the Union Senate has chartered or recognized thirteen clubs, including the Gastronomical Society, Students Organized Against Racism, the Brandeis Sailing Team, and many others.

The clubs and activities that I have just mentioned are only a fraction of the amazing work that students are doing on this campus every day.

All of these clubs, composed of students, run by students, founded by students, are supported, funded, and administered by students and the Union Government.

We have made a point to reach out to clubs, to attend their meetings, and to ask what we can do to help their missions.

We have learned that the University can make a few specific changes that will enable clubs to operate more effectively.

A new, more robust, easily updated, and accessible online calendar system could have a big impact on campus life.

Too often we program over each other, leading to sub-par event attendance.  The calendar system will allow for better coordination and event advertising across campus.

And in an age where students do most of their organizing from a laptop, the ability for club leaders to reserve space through an online system is another important change.

The University has committed to making these improvements, and we hope to see them implemented soon.

(V)

We have also, over the past two years, dramatically reorganized the way that we manage club finances.  Unique to our community is the autonomy we have as students over our Student Activities Fee.  We take the responsibility to administer these funds very seriously.

Financial reforms in our accounting, funding, and reporting systems have revolutionized the way clubs are funded.

Even with less money than last year, we are able to ensure that more clubs have access to a fair amount of funds, and that clubs spend responsibility.

We now allocate in block grants for approved items instead of specific non-transferable line items, giving clubs more flexibility to fulfill their needs.

Soon, implementation of the new online SAF management system will be the final step in this series of changes.  It will allow club leaders to, in real time, know how much money they have and what have they spent.  It will create more responsive and more transparent finances.

Yet with the complete elimination of rollover, and ever-increasing demand, we have found ourselves consistently unable to fully fund club needs. This semester, we were only able to allocate 39% of all requests from chartered clubs.

There is not a club leader on this campus who does not feel squeezed.  Clubs want to do more, but they have had to cut back on the number of events, decrease the scale of programming, and have had difficulty expanding.

The Student Activities Fee had been temporarily capped for one year as we dealt with the rollover – now that there is no more rollover, and our club leaders need the money to continue to grow – we have asked, in no uncertain terms, that the Board of Trustees uncap the SAF and give clubs the money that they deserve.

(VI)

We have also made it a priority to focus on tangible change, to advocate for improvements to our campus life that we can see and feel.

Students often speak about the importance of the strong relationship we have with members of the faculty.

As our first President Abe Sachar asked, “Is it not the association with a few exceptional members of the faculty who have a decisive influence on a students’ thinking?  What students recall of their college days is not fact and data but the rare incandescent teachers who profoundly affected their outlook.”

As the financial situation has demanded an increased class size and decreased faculty size, the Student Union has worked to create other tangible ways to maintain the student-faculty bond.

We have been working with the Office of the Provost and the Dean to streamline research. Many students want the opportunity to engage in research with a professor.  But sometimes it is hard to navigate the potential opportunities within our current system.

Soon a new website will be launched that lists many faculty members, their research interests, and the type of research assistance that they need.  Students will be able to directly connect with professors and apply for these positions.  In this way, we will streamline the research process and help students take advantage of our renowned faculty.

Also, we will soon begin this year’s Take Your Professor to Lunch program – made possible by the Division of Students and Enrollment. Any student, or group of students, can use a voucher to take a professor to lunch on campus.

In coordination with Residence Life, there will be a new Faculty Fellows program; faculty members have volunteered to be associated with a residence area, and involved in its programs and activities.

Our advocacy extends beyond the classroom.

In the years ahead, Brandeis will be working hard to recruit even larger classes to campus.

I have established an Executive Task Force for Admissions and Recruitment. They are working to, among other things, create a Brandeis Ambassador program that connects prospective and accepted students with students on campus to answer questions and help with recruitment.

We all realize the importance of Admissions in the financial crisis, and believe we have found a strong place for student involvement.

This month, the Student Union Committee on Disabilities has put together a speaker and film series to discuss issues surrounding people with disabilities in our community. Our Committee is working to create a space for students to gain greater awareness regarding these issues often stigmatized in our society.

The main event on Sunday in this room will include a Panel Discussion, a free dinner, and a showing of the documentary, “Darius Goes West.”

I’m also proud to report there have been many exciting changes in Dining Services this year. Because of our student Committee, a new dining website will be out soon with more information about meal plans, and more detailed nutritional and menu information as well.

There are now Kosher to-go meals in the C-store and upon request at Einstein’s. In a continued effort to make Dining Services more environmentally friendly, the Union is advocating for more eco-friendly utensils, bio-degradable trash bags and other similar improvements.

This semester we have also been focusing on reviewing the current meal plan structure. We are in negotiation with Aramark to increase the flexibility and transparency within meal plans, and to reduce the current subsidies that are built into the cost of a meal plan. We are optimistic that an agreement will be reached within the next few weeks.

The Union’s Campus Operations Working Group, or COW-G, is currently advocating for more water fountains in East, more laundry rooms in Charles River Apartments and North, and improving the furniture in the lounges of all the quads.

COW-G will also continue its efforts to spread awareness about how to place a work order. This will allow students to directly address problems and complaints around campus.

At the beginning of this year, the Student Union called on the University to conduct a review of the Health Center. For too long, student concerns about important issues like customer service and privacy had not been sufficiently addressed. I am proud to announce that the review of the Health Center is now complete and significant improvements have been made.

The waiting room has been restructured to maximize student privacy. Additional staff trainings will be held with professional consultants to improve customer service.

There is a more comprehensive satisfaction survey for students to fill out after appointments, which will help the Health Center respond to student concerns.

To address the issue of doctor availability, the staff at the Health Center is now tracking the peak usage times for doctors and will redistribute doctors’ time accordingly.

We are encouraged by the progress that has been made, and will be vigilant in holding the University accountable.

Another constant complaint has been the lack of cell phone reception on campus.  With the help of the Facilities Department, a signal amplifier was purchased that will enhance cell phone reception in Usdan.  As of this morning, the amplifier is operational, and we have cell phone reception in Lower Usdan. No longer will Lower Usdan be a haven for those avoiding my phone calls.

Last semester, the Union Senate partnered with Professor Goldin’s Greening the Ivory Tower class to develop the “Deis Bikes” program.

Together they have created a free bike rental program that will operate out of the Shapiro Campus Center.  The launch of this program, as well as a Meet the Senators Event, will be held from noon till three on the Great Lawn this coming Monday.

The Services Committee has again planned the traditional Midnight Buffet to be held during finals week. While we plan to cut down on costs given the state of the economy, I’m confident that we will still hold a successful event.

The Services Committee is also in the process of organizing the Spring Shuttle buses.  This year, we conducted a survey to determine the best dates, times, and locations for the shuttles, in order to be more responsive to students’ needs.

Transportation has also become an issue. We have been working with Public Safety to update Crystal shuttle times into Boston, to consider the addition of an online BranVan booking system, and to explore the possibility of a shuttle to Riverside.

Although the financial situation has made some of these changes more difficult, they need serious consideration this coming year.

The Communiversity program, brought back last year, is one of the most impressive things that we do.  Popular in the 70s and 80s, Communiversity is based on the principle of “Brandeis teaching Brandeis.” Courses are taught by any member of the Brandeis community, and all members of the community are eligible to participate.

Over 300 different students – 1/10 of the student body – are currently enrolled in the different classes, from Black and White photography to Juggling to Website Creation and Design.

The Communiversity program is a success, and one that we should expand.  It is my hope that in the future not only students but also faculty and staff participate fully in this innovative, community-enhancing program.

(VII)

We have also focused, this year, on using the unique position of the Union for social action.

When a church in Springfield, MA was burned to the ground in an act of racism, the Union worked with student clubs to respond. By holding an inspirational and entertaining benefit dinner, the Union raised over $2,000 to help rebuild the church.

We have formed the Committee on Endowment Ethics and Responsibility to make recommendations regarding socially and ethically responsible investments for the University.

This committee is meeting, gathering information from the University, and will be making its first series of recommendations at the May Board of Trustees meeting.  This year, we will have institutionalized student involvement.

Further, we have made a commitment to secure a space for the Activist Resource Center. Space is at a premium on campus, but space for ARC is a priority.  We are very hopeful that a space will be found and made available to ARC before the end of the year.

In partnership with the Waltham Group, we launched the Clubs in Service project.  We challenged every single club and organization to engage the community in service.

This semester, some 31 clubs have signed up to participate and involve their clubs in community service.

The Brandeis Saxophone Quartet has played at the Stanley School, and will play for Brandeis Buddies and Companions to Elders.  The debate team will be teaching debate at a local elementary school.  The Brandeis Democrats participated in an after-school program.  Our ICC student groups performed at the Greater Waltham ARC.

On top of all that our clubs already do, clubs life Ultimate Frisbee, Democracy for America, Crew, Ballroom Dance, and many others are signing on to add a service component to their portfolio.

We are committed to working with the Waltham Group to make sure that this challenge continues to succeed, as it is, in so many words, what Brandeis is all about.

(VIII)

I believe that the Student Union is not only meant to serve, but also to defend, the rights of our Student Body.

The Student Bill of Rights outlines all the rights that students on our campus, on any campus, ought to have.  At the end of last year, it was passed by popular referendum, a 93% vote of the student body.

Since then, the Union has worked with the Department of Student Life to see that the Student Bill of Rights be recognized by our University.

I’m proud to report that as of this evening, the Student Bill of Rights is in its final stages of implementation.

Now, a student’s right to speech, and a newspaper’s right to publish shall be substantiated rights, not only assumptions that must be proven.

Now, students going through the conduct process for serious, personal offenses will have the opportunity for an advisor to take a more active role, reducing the strain associated with the conduct process.

Now, it will be clearly affirmed that students have a right to request and receive emergency treatment without fear of punishment.

The list goes on.  And as the final agreement is signed in the next few days, the Student Bill of Rights will be added to Rights and Responsibilities and both documents will be available online for all students to access.

The creation of the Office of Student Rights and Advocacy (OSRA) is also the beginning of an evolution of student rights on campus.

Often, students don’t know what their rights are.  Sometimes, students need to have a question answered, and want to speak to a peer.  And for the scared students going through the conduct process, a peer advisor may be necessary from beginning to end.

At last semester’s address, I noted that much more work needed to be done to actualize our student rights goals.  Since then, we elevated the position of the Director of Student Rights and Advocacy to the Executive Office, a place where it should remain.

Since then, we have produced and distributed over 1,500 “Know Your Rights” magnets, that list the rights that students have during Student Conduct hearings, and provides contact information for OSRA’s confidential advisory services.

After magnet distribution started, OSRA has received a large number of requests for information, and all six Associate Directors of OSRA has been received numerous requests to provide advice.

This year, OSRA has provided counseling services to over thirty students, and has served as advisor in several hearings of the Board of Student Conduct.

We have been in constant discussions with the Department of Student Life regarding the future of OSRA.  We will be determining the best way to integrate it into the conduct process constructively, while retaining the independence of the Office.  Training, confidential advising, and student referrals will all be among the early results of this relationship.

(IX)

This year we have accomplished a lot – promoting tangible student advocacy, increasing effective student involvement, and defending fundamental student rights.

As I have announced, and as many of you know, I will not be continuing in my role as Union President next year.  The opportunity for me to lead our student community has been humbling, gratifying, and enjoyable.

But as I said when I campaigned, the work of the Union is not about me.  No matter how corny it may have sounded then, and will sound now, the work of the Union is not about me, it is about you.  And I swear I said this before Obama did.

We have built a strong relationship with the administration – and have proven that the inclusion of students yields better results for everyone.

For me, however, the most important relationship is, and has always been, between the students and our Union Government.

When I first ran for Massell quad senate, my campaign slogan was “Connect.”  It was my strong belief that connection to the student body was the most important part of the job.

At the end of my first-year, I decided to continue in the Student Union Government because I would get to lead our efforts for increased outreach and connection with students.

When I ran for president, this was still one of the most important items on my agenda.

We worked to change a culture in the Student Union – to focus our efforts on what students want and to build the relationship among students that we need.

In all the work we did, we made it a mission to reach out to students, to be as plugged in as possible as representatives to the student body.  We created the Senate Outreach Committee, a new Task Force on Communications, and a new Union website that will soon be online, all to create as many ways as possible for students to speak and for their government to listen.

We have progressed from the days of pretend government club, but I know it is easy to fall back there.  We have created a culture of connection, but I know it difficult to stay connected.

To continue on our path, outreach and connecting with students must be everyone’s top priority.  All government officers must believe that outreach is not just a part of their job, it is the core of their job.  All students must recognize that we are all part of this Union and that we all bear a responsibility to make Brandeis better.

We have come a long way in a year, but we can go so much farther.

We have a strong faculty, staff, and administration, and an amazing student body.  If we embrace and emphasize outreach, student involvement, and student rights, there is no limit to what this Union and this community can accomplish together.

Our financial picture may be gloomy, but our future could not be any brighter.

Once again, I am so thankful for the opportunity to stand before you, for all the people around me committed to seeing us succeed, and for you for all of your support.  Thank you.

I’d now like to answer any questions you might have.

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