Last month, I applied to be the Director of Community Advocacy on then-Union President-elect Daniel Acheampong’s Executive Board. The spot ultimately went to someone else; namely, JV Souffrant, who was sworn in several weeks ago and who I’m sure will do a great job with the position. I’m not too disappointed about losing the spot — it means more free time for me next year, and I have no problem with the idea that someone else might have simply been more qualified. However, the interview process itself gave me reason for worry, not because of what it means for me, but because of what it means for the future of activist goals in next year’s Student Union.
In my interview, I found that most of the questions I was asked tended to be about the same issues: I had written for Innermost Parts, I had written for the Hoot, and I had a reputation for being outspoken when it comes to activist causes on campus. The impression I got is that these were significant, and possibly even disqualifying, black marks against my application, not only for what I had actually said and done, but also for the associations I had. And it wasn’t only me who felt that way. A friend of mine also got telling questions on his connection with Innermost Parts, and another friend was grilled on her involvement with Brandeis DFA. As I’ve mentioned before, I have a ton of respect for Daniel Acheampong, and I think he’ll make a great Union President. However, I also want to warn him against the misconception that the Union cannot be both activist-friendly and effective at the same time.
During Jason Gray’s presidency, the Union was full of outspoken campus activists who made no secret of the fact that they intended to pursue an activist agenda as Union officers. In addition, Jason Gray himself was very friendly to activist causes and made them some of the centerpieces of his tenure. As a result of these factors, the laundry-list of successful projects is quite extensive and impressive. The Committee for Endowment Ethics and Responsibility was formed to pursue greater endowment transparency. The DeisBikes program was formed to encourage green forms of transportation. The Senate Social Justice Committee held several excellent forums on educating students about their rights in search and seizure situations. The advising process for students accused of Rights and Responsibilities violations was reorganized and strengthened. The Clubs in Service program was started to connect Brandeis students with the Waltham community. There are more examples; these just come off the top of my head.
There are three important points to keep in mind when considering these activist achievements:
- Even though these policies realized some goals of the activist community, they do not benefit only those from activist backgrounds, nor were they designed and implemented solely by self-identified activists. Lots of people use and love Deis Bikes. Lots of clubs have participated in Clubs in Service. Anyone can be falsely accused of a violation and enjoy the protection of a strengthened review process.
- Pursuing these policies did not keep the Union from making tangible improvements on more day-to-day issues. The daily newspaper program was started to give out free papers in the Campus Center. Significant dining reforms were implemented. The Health Center and the Career Center both received thorough evaluations and reforms. The bread-and-butter Union events — the shuttle services and the Midnight Buffets — were executed as well as ever. The Union has been very successful in this area in subsequent years, but Gray’s Union proved that working on activist issues did not distract student focus or administrator attention from them.
- The greatest coups for student authority — the open forums, student involvement in committees, and generally increased transparency from the administration in the wake of the budget crisis — succeeded in spite of, and even because of, the activist-friendly nature of the Union. The large-scale student protests and demands for involvement gave Jason the leverage he needed to persuade the administrators to meet student concerns; we could not have gained so many concessions if it weren’t for the activist presence that was felt both outside and inside the Union. Though I’ve heard people share concerns that an outspoken, activist agenda from the Student Union would only drive the administration away from working with the Union, I think we proved the opposite is true. The administration knows it is part of their job to keep students satisfied, and it is beneficial on all levels to express our dissatisfaction clearly. As long as we refrain from being disrespectful, there’s no reason to stifle our message in service to a counterproductive notion of propriety.
Unfortunately, the Union has backtracked from their aggressive and productive work on activist goals. It’s very hard to point out any projects originating from the Union in the past year that match the scope of those I mentioned earlier, and I fear that our new Union could continue on the same path. The stakes are high; like it or not, the structures of the Union still remain the easiest way to get the ear of the administration and create positive change on campus, and activist causes will be severely handicapped without at least some measure of institutionalized Union support. I urge the Union to keep the example of Jason Gray in mind; part of the reason he was so highly regarded as Union President was his success in so many areas that both benefited the entire campus community and actualized our founding principles of commitment to social justice.
At their last meeting, the Union Senate passed SMR S09-14, which provided funding for this semester’s Midnight Buffet, which will be held on April 29th. The resolution called for $3650.10, and that total was apparently amended upwards to $3750 during the meeting.
The resolution itself is noteworthy for being over a thousand dollars lower than the traditional $5000 granted from the Senate’s operating budget for the Midnight Buffet. The decrease was made in deference to the cap on the Union Activities Fee, and I’m pretty sure the additional money was or will be transferred to the F-Board to distribute to clubs during emergency request meetings. This is a good gesture on the Union’s part to ease the substantial decrease in programming forced upon many clubs, but it’s still less than many people wanted. While $1250 helps a little bit, the full $5000 would have helped even more. Should the Midnight Buffet have been canceled in light of the F-Board’s decreased funds?
Those who have argued for cancellation point not only to the SAF but also to the economy in general, claiming that it’s irresponsible to spend so much money on a frivolous event (the Justice editorial page endorsed this perspective). Clubs could use the money for more substantial events than what North Quad Senator Alex Norris calls the Union’s “Bread and Circus” event. Giving the whole $5000 to the F-Board would open more of the SAF to the entire student body and take away from the amount that only the Senate has discretion over.
Proponents of the Midnight Buffet point to the event’s universal appeal and long tradition as a campus-wide celebration before finals. Students deserve a reward after a semester’s worth of work and need something to alleviate the stress of finals. I’ve heard many people describe the Midnight Buffet as one of their favorite events at Brandeis, and it always draws a huge crowd. $3750 wouldn’t amount to much money when you consider how many clubs would be asking for a piece of it. In addition, the Midnight Buffet is mandated by the Union bylaws, and changing the bylaw would make canceling the event a more complicated process than merely not funding it.
While I’ve always enjoyed the Midnight Buffet in the past, I think sacrificing it would be a small price to pay for the benefits of opening more money to the cash-starved clubs. However, I accept that mine may be the minority opinion, and I ultimately think the event should be funded at the discretion of the student body as a whole. In the future, I’d like to see the Midnight Buffet removed as a requirement from the bylaw; instead, I think the Senate should engage in more outreach and polling to determine on a semester-by-semester basis if the event is something the community truly wants. The money being used comes from everyone — it’s only fair that everyone should have a voice.
In the wake of the Finance Board’s marathon decisions, a lot of clubs have been wondering why they got so little money compared to previous semesters. It’s not the budget situation — the Union Activities Fee is fixed and thus divorced from the budget cuts. So why is everyone getting less than usual? Here’s the situation to the best of my understanding (all info courtesy of the Student Union Constitution. If I’m wrong at any point, feel free to call me out in the comments).
The Union Activities Fee is divided into three separate funds:
- The Union Government Fund goes to the government, providing the E-Board discretionary, the Senate discretionary, and several other small projects. From here, we get the newspapers, the bikes, the Midnight Buffet, and a bunch of other government projects.
- The Justice Printing Expenses Fund goes to the Justice. To maintain separation between the press and the government, the Justice doesn’t have to go through the F-Board for money.
- The Finance Board Allocations Fund is by far the largest fund, and it’s the one we’re interested in here. This is the money that goes to Chartered Union Organizations, which are all chartered clubs.
In the past, the Union Activities Fee has been fixed at 1% of the total tuition. This meant that inflation wouldn’t affect the Fee, because it would increase along with tuition. However, that changed as of this year. The substantial roll-over money that the F-Board had accrued convinced the administration that the Union was getting too much money, and part of the requirements they set for allowing us to keep the roll-over and build the new weight room was that a cap was to be placed on the UAF. Thus, when tuition increased over last summer, the UAF stayed where it was last year.
Unfortunately, the economy didn’t. As the cost of living has gone up, exacerbated by the recession, the money that the F-Board has to allocate isn’t going as far as it used to. It’s my understanding that the F-Board allocated money as they usually would during the fall semester, which is why no great changes were felt. However, that has left them with a smaller pot than ever before for the spring. Hence, across the board, activities that deserve to be funded have not gotten the money they deserve.
Solving the problem is as simple as convincing the administration to remove the cap on the UAF. The budget crisis may complicate that, but the increase would be a relative drop in the bucket to the shortfall we’re facing. More importantly, we need to assure them that the roll-over won’t happen again. Responsibility for the roll-over is somewhat complex and is shared between past F-Boards and clubs that didn’t spend all their allocations. However, last year’s treasurer Choon Woo Ha instituted several reforms to ensure that the problem wouldn’t repeat itself; I’m very hazy as to what exactly they are, but thetreasurer.org probably has more information if you’re interested.
In short, the problem isn’t with the current F-Board or the current Treasurer, Max Wallach (who I know from personal experience to be very thorough and good at his job). Let’s hope that the UAF cap is removed, and clubs will once again be able to get the funding they deserve.