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How much influence do students have?

November 23, 2015

Student leaders at NYU are confident in their ability to influence changes on campus.

Representing nearly 50,000 voices, the Student Senators Council sits on the university senate as 35 senators and senators-at-large. Other members of the Senate include 18 deans, 37 tenured or tenure-track faculty, 27 non-tenure or contract faculty, six administrators and five officers of the university, which includes the president.

SSC Chair and Gallatin senior Michael Hengerer, who is on the executive committee of the University Senate, said faculty and administrators recognize the importance of students’ voices. Even on committees where there are only two to three students among 20 or more members, Hengerer said it’s not difficult to be heard.

“I don’t feel that the student voice is ever silenced,” Hengerer said.

Mariam Ehrari, 2013-2014 SSC chair and 2014 graduate, agreed. She said when she was on the University Space Priorities Working Group, a committee designed to give the university advice about the 2031 expansion plan, her initial concerns about being one of two students on the committee of 27 were proven unnecessary.

“While there were only two students in the room, we definitely did not feel marginalized.” she said. “We set a rule — if any one of the two students disagreed on something that was being proposed, we had to go back to the drawing board.”

Hengerer explained that student leaders advocate for change in both informal and formal ways.

The formal method involves writing and bringing legislation to the University Senate floor to be voted on. While a senator must be the person to bring legislation forward, any student is able to help with development.

“Students are completely empowered,” Hengerer said. “We’ve seen this a lot with Divest, with the Incarceration to Education Coalition, to create resolutions, to author them themselves and have a senator bring that to the Senate floor to be discussed.”

Both NYU Divest and the NYU Incarceration to Education Coalition are examples of student groups that have worked with student leaders to advocate for changes. NYU Divest’s proposal to divest from fossil fuels was passed by the University Senate and presented to the Board of Trustees, who will make the final decision. The Incarceration to Education Coalition is working to convince NYU to remove the box on NYU applications that requires everyone to indicate if they have previously been arrested.

Gallatin senior Sophie Lasoff, who founded NYU Divest, said she saw first-hand how the students could influence decisions when they advocated for divestment, but she added that the leadership of the SSC affects how quickly things get done. She explained that NYU Divest had been in communication with the SSC for almost two years before the resolution passed and despite unavoidable bureaucracy, it could have been a shorter process.

“Whoever is in a position of leadership at the Student Senators Council really does have an influence on what priorities are set,” Lasoff said. “The really strong leadership that we saw last spring on this issue specifically is a testament to that.”

Informally, students can make changes through the committees within the University Committee on Student Life or the Global Committee on Student Life, which are overseen by the SSC. The 18 committees meet regularly and set individual agendas. While some of the committees are made up of elected presidents or senators, there are opportunities for other students to sit on committees and participate in meetings.

Class of 2016 Activities Board President and Steinhardt senior Carolynn Choi said one of the changes that came out of a committee was increased printing availability in each residence hall.

“After hearing many students’ requests, we have advocated for the addition of printing stations in each residential hall,” Choi said. “As of this year, every hall should have a printing station for students to use.”

Other examples of committee initiatives include the Student Services Committee’s work to add university bus routes or Safe Ride access to large subway stops, the Global Policy committee’s efforts to add course options at the campuses abroad and the All-Square Student Budget Allocation Committee’s changes on the distribution of club funds.

Gallatin President and senior Vincent Vance, who joined student government this semester, said students should recognize the influence these committees can have.

“UCSL has a lot of power when it comes to resources for our student body,” Vance said. “I wish more students took advantage of the platform for their voice to be heard if not at SSC and UCSL meetings then through their school eboard.”

Lasoff, who has also advocated for more financial aid at NYU, added that sometimes it is not always clear that the student voice is being heard on big issues, like tuition or who sits on the Board of Trustees.

“The larger trajectory of the university is not necessarily taking the student body into account all the time,” she said.

But if it’s the case that students on the SSC are just not aligned with the views of the greater student body, then that falls on other students to act.

“That means we need to be more active as students who don’t agree in working with the senators to either change their opinions or to elect different leadership into office,” Lasoff said.

Additional reporting by Christine Wang.

A version of this article appeared in the Nov. 23 print edition. Email Nicole Brown at [email protected].

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