Who Represents You?
Nov 23, 2015
How much influence do students have?
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].
Transparency of student government still not entirely clear
While attempting to be more transparent this semester, the Students Senators Council has fallen short on some promises.
In September, the SSC launched Project 49 in an effort to develop avenues for communication that will promote transparency between the students at all of NYU’s campuses and their representatives.
In an email announcing Project 49, the SSC had promised to keep the student body updated with monthly newsletters and a strong social media presence. The SSC also announced open office hours for students to give feedback and to increase the accountability of the student government process.
However, monthly newsletters have not been sent, the group’s Tumblr page has not been updated since Sept. 28 and while four press releases have been issued, the website has not been updated consistently. Two of the press releases were from this month, while the others appeared in September.
One of those press releases announced that the SSC made its budget public for the first time in history, which is part of their effort to be more transparent.
SSC Chair and Gallatin senior Michael Hengerer said the council has implemented most of Project 49, but there are still areas to improve.
“Although we’ve had technical and logistical issues with the newsletter and our blog, we continually engage the student body by working with student-led organizations on campus, through our open student government meetings, during our office hours, and at our town halls,” Hengerer said in a statement to WSN.
While University Committee on Student Life meetings have an open door policy, SSC meetings are closed to the public due to bylaw regulations and minutes are not released to the student body.
Class of 2018 Activities Board President and SPS sophomore Rene Rismondo, who meets with senators once a month, said she believes the SSC is continuing to resolve its lack of transparency. Rismondo said while Project 49 is a great objective, other initiatives have delayed the execution of the campaign.
“I am not sure whether the current challenges [the SSC] is facing, such as addressing diversity concerns on campus or the controversial SAB proposal, has caused them to lose focus on the project,” Rismondo said, referring to the debate about funding for student clubs. “But ultimately I do believe that alone is a reflection of their transparency.”
In addition, the plan called for an internal review of the SSC to ensure its members are continuously updated on current campaigns. Rismondo said the SSC is also trying to appeal to the student body by becoming more recognizable, but their efforts are not catching on as of yet.
“They are currently in the process of re-branding themselves more as ‘Student Government’ rather than the SSC because so many more schools around the country use that term and it is also what students are more familiar with,” Rismondo said. “I see their efforts and I appreciate them, but I still think that more needs to be done.”
When it comes to direct communication between the SSC and the student body, SSC Chief of Staff and CAS junior Ryan Thomas said although Project 49 still has a few kinks to work out, it is a long-term plan that will enhance the SSC’s efficiency.
“We are working on going the extra mile to promote student engagement,” Thomas said. “Project 49 is really geared toward bettering the student population at NYU and we want to make sure we bring different perspectives to all of our campaigns.”
In addition, Thomas said the SSC is working on issuing a campus climate survey to solicit feedback from students and gauge which issues the NYU community would like to see addressed.
“Because our student body is so large, it is extremely important that we focus on issues the majority of students can relate to,” Thomas said. “We want the SSC to drive the conversation to address issues that impact NYU at large and are not just school or campus specific.”
While Washington Square News reached out to ten members of student government, only two responded to inquiries.
A version of this article appeared in the Nov. 23 print edition. Email Lexi Faunce at [email protected].
Affordability, sustainability, gender at center of SSC agenda
This semester, the Student Senators Council created three new task forces for the 2015-2016 year to oversee topics students identified as the most important. Through student feedback from all schools, the SSC chose to focus on affordability, gender understanding, inclusivity and sustainability.
The feedback was based on discussions at each school’s general assembly meeting at the beginning of the year.
The affordability task force was created with the intention of finding ways to make NYU more affordable for students. CAS junior and SSC Senator-at-Large Caterina Dacey Ariani said a lot of the group’s work is designed to make life more affordable to students on a daily basis.
“There are always big things we’re looking at like lowering tuition and tuition fees, but larger steps like this are very difficult to get to happen,” Ariani said. “Right now we’re working on smaller steps, little things that can help students when they come to such an expensive city.”
Some of these smaller steps include getting Campus Cash to work as laundry payment in leased residence halls and giving students free laundry credit, similar to the printing credit they receive every semester. The SSC is also working to make meal plans more affordable, to spread information on financial opportunities, to create online modules on financial responsibility and to make for-credit internships more affordable by providing academic credit at a much lower cost than normal class credit.
The task force is also working to gather and analyze financial data with the long-term goal of increasing financial transparency at NYU.
“Right now, we’re getting data from Admissions and Financial Aid so we can understand better where tuition goes,” Ariani said. “If students are able to look at the data and it’s transparent, students can say where they want it to go and help allocate.”
The sustainability task force is made up of both student government members and environmental student leaders on campus working to create more sustainable actions on campus. Chair of the task force and Gallatin senior Emma Spett said the group hopes to integrate sustainability into various aspects of campus life.
“The goals of the sustainability task force are to address concerns and interests of the environmental community in a way that will ultimately benefit the entire university,” Spett said.
Currently, the sustainability task force has a Take Back the Tap campaign to reduce plastic bottle consumption on campus by increasing reusable water bottle availability and water stations. The task force is also taking a role in the design of new buildings and renovations being done on campus to make sure the plans are as sustainable as possible.
Spett said the group is also discussing the creation of a Center for Student Sustainability, where environmental groups on campus could meet and collaborate.
The gender understanding and inclusivity task force was designed to explore gender issues on campus and take action in order to make the student experience better for everyone at NYU. Stern junior and SSC Alternate Senator-at-Large Shawn Thibault said many senators recognized diversity as an issue that needed to be tackled at the beginning of the year.
“We realized quickly that diversity as a whole was too broad of a topic,” Thibault explained. “So we focused in on a particular area of diversity and inclusion that we thought was important: trans issues.”
Right now, the task force is in the planning stages for the advocacy initiatives and policy changes it wants to implement on campus. The task force hopes to increase gender-neutral bathrooms on campus, update the housing portal to better accommodate gender-neutral students and create a gender-understanding campaign for next semester.
Thibault said one of the most important goals of the task force is to collaborate with the transgender and gender nonconforming community at NYU and is intent on gathering feedback from them.
“[This] cannot be decided by a few senators,” Thibault said. “Rather, it needs to be a collaboration of student government and the community that it will affect.”
All three task forces have goals to collaborate with students outside of the student government and get their input on the objectives.
A version of this article appeared in the Nov. 23 print edition. Email Bryna Shuman at [email protected].