SENATORS SQUARE OFF
?Do they even do anything??
A recent lack of Senate visibility has led some students such as first-year economics major Dan Aduna to wonder what Student Senate does, why it exists, and whom it benefits.
The Tartan looked into the policies of student governments at local and national peer universities to see how CMU?s own government fared. Compared to other universities, communication problems between student government and the students themselves seem particularly prevalent at CMU. However, other schools were found to have crippling problems with allocating student funds.
Furthermore, other universities give salaries to student government officers and student senators, whereas at CMU all student government positions are strictly on a volunteer basis.
Long Pham, chair of the Senate?s Academic Affairs committee, said, ?[Its purpose] is to improve student life by allocating funding from the student activities fund for enriching events and to bring about change. It exists to act as a liaison between the student body and the faculty.?
CMU?s Student Senate is composed of 36 senators elected by their respective colleges, with each senator representing about 140 students. The Senate itself is subdivided into six committees, each responsible for a different aspect of University life. Issues and concerns brought to the Senate by individual students are sent to committees before being presented to the entire Senate at Thursday meetings.
Michelle Birchak, a fifth-year materials science and engineering and public policy major and a former senator, acknowledges that many students remain unaware of Student Senate?s effects on campus. ?The reality of the system is that not many students actually feel the need to take their concerns to the Senate,? she said. ?There aren?t many changes that can be made. In actuality, [Student Senate] is better at delaying negative changes from happening. Sometimes students aren?t asked their opinions before the administration creates policies. [Senate] really just wants to keep the channels of communication open.?
Some of these channels aren?t properly maintained, however. ?The Student Senate website is not always kept up to date, and the newsletter it started a few years ago did not take off,? Birchak added.
Recently, the Senate worked to develop a media rights policy, delay the implementation of printing quotas, and get students? input before minors were taken off diplomas this year. Birchak said most of the complaints she heard while in office dealt with dining, in particular the development of the block plan.
One of the Senate?s most important duties is allocating funds to campus student organizations. The CMU Joint Funding Committee gives the Senate an annual operating budget of $1.25 million, which the Senate allocates annually to different student organizations.
In contrast, Birchak said, the University of Chicago?s Student Senate gets a lump sum of $500,000 to distribute to student organizations by request. An organization can return to their Student Senate each time they want more money during the year.
Not all student governments have demonstrated proper fiscal responsibility. Noah Kagan, a 2005 graduate and former Student Senator of the University of California at Berkeley, said that lack of discretion in distributing money caused Berkeley?s student government to go into debt five years ago. Ideally, ?the student government [at Berkeley] was supposed to fund all student groups and executive offices,? said Kagan. Instead, he said, Senate members distributed to their favorite campus groups or to those run by friends.
?The university had to hire outside advisors to help moderate the spending,? Kagan said.
Improper fund maintenance can be especially damaging to students, depending on how much money their government controls. According to Jesse Helfrich, editor-in-chief of the Point Park Globe and a current Point Park junior, 11 percent of Point Park?s student activities fee is distributed at the discretion of the student government.
In Helfrich?s opinion, the Point Park University student government ?exists more as a social club than a legislative body. It is ridiculous to be pushing money at [an organization like Student Senate] that doesn?t do anything for the school or the students.?
As of 2000 at Case Western Reserve University, ?[the Undergraduate Student Government?s] total annual budget is approximately $120,000. Over $100,000 is dispensed to over 90 student organizations. The rest consists of [USG?s] internal budget,? stated former vice-president of finance James Chang in a survey conducted by the American Student Government Association from 1997 to 2003.
Nick Scocozzo, CMU?s current student body Vice-President for Finance, says that CMU is unique in that 100 percent of student activities money is distributed at the discretion of the student government.
According to Scocozzo, this responsibility has not been abused in recent years. ?From my stance, we haven?t run into anything,? he said.
In addition to funding allocation among campus organizations, universities also face the issue of payment for student government members. CMU?s student senators do not receive any compensation, but senators at many other universities do. The highest-paid student government position as of 2003 was Northeastern University?s student body president, who receives tuition for eight credits per semester, food vouchers for 15 meals in residence halls, and a $600-per-month check for 12 months ? an overall salary of $25,888.95.
At Berkeley, the executive office of the student government is given a stipend to distribute to its officers at its own discretion. Currently, executive officers are making $4000 per year each, while student senators are unpaid.
Student compensation is also a relevant issue at Point Park, where an editorial by Helfrich said a new proposal by the Point Park student government would pay the student government president an annual stipend of $1000 in addition to free room and board.
?To put that into perspective and assuming that the president worked a 40-hour week, his compensatory wage is from $7.02 to $8.43 an hour.... Why isn?t the [student government] thinking of uses for $20,000 that would benefit the student body and not just them?? Helfrich asked.
According to Michael Koretsky, advisor of the University Press, Florida Atlantic University?s student newspaper, ?The UWC [University-Wide Council] has its own budget, and last year, members secretly gave themselves a retroactive 25-percent pay raise.? Fifteen members of the student government received such raises, and the student body president herself received a pay increase from $10,200 to $12,750 a year, stated an article in the Palm Beach Post.
Though first-year CMU Student Senator Eric Osheroff acknowledges that receiving a stipend would be nice, he said, ?Pay would completely falsify the idea of service. The [CMU] Senate should always remain completely volunteer.?
Members of the student government also expect the campus community to volunteer their opinions and concerns. In regards to interaction between student government and the student body, Pham noted that the burden of communication is not just the responsibility of Senate, but other students as well.
?Student Senate meetings are open to all students,? said Pham, ?and students have the ability to contact Senators in their colleges at any time.?