Students to vote on newly introduced referendum for student government stipends

A student-wide referendum regarding the potential payment of a yearly stipend to Carnegie Mellon’s student government executives is on the ballot next week, appearing as a secondary issue in this year’s upcoming student government elections.

Senior political science and international relations major Rotimi Abimbola, who currently serves as student body president, is putting forth the referendum. “I’m either in class or at a meeting, which is what your schedule is like as president. When you do have free time, people always ping you and ask you to come to meetings or make decisions … so the to-do list is really just endless,” Abimbola said.

“After a lot of hard work and investing a lot of time and effort into the position … I began to realize that I needed some type of income.”

“Both Timi and I pay for our own living expenses, and we had jobs prior to this year. Timi was an RA, and I worked 10 to 15 hours a week for the civil engineering department,” said senior communications design major and Student Body Vice President of Finance Nara Kasbergen. “Timi no longer has a job, and I’ve kept my job with civil engineering, but only because I schedule my own hours.… Not to sound melodramatic, but we’ve both really struggled to make ends meet this year. We’ve been willing to make the sacrifice because we feel like the students and our initiatives are worth it, but really, no one should be going hungry or struggling to get by because they want to do a service to the student body.
“I guess I wouldn’t really call it compensation as much as a living wage.”

Executives stress that it is important to note that none of the current student government executives, including Abimbola and Kasbergen, would financially benefit from the proposed stipends. Stipends would be paid out at the earliest in fall 2010 to the new student body president and vice presidents.

“It would be a disservice to the student body if the right candidate for a position decided they were unable to run because they just couldn’t afford not to have a part-time job on the side, and the many hours required by holding such a position make it impossible to have a job,” Kasbergen said.

Currently, the student government is considering using either an outside donor or the student activities fee to fund stipends, and there are strong arguments on both sides. Many Carnegie Mellon students have expressed a strong reaction to learning that they would be in part paying one of their peer’s living expenses, but that type of awareness is actually a part of what some are hoping to achieve with stipends.

“In the past, many in the student body have felt that student government is just a bunch of people who love titles and don’t do anything,” Abimbola said. “Most of the Senators [in Undergraduate Student Senate] thought stipends should come out of the student activities fee so there is some sense of accountability to your constituents.”

Junior general humanities and social sciences major Jarrett Adams is one of the Senators who believes in drawing stipends from the student activities fee, even as he enters the race for student body president. “I believe that student government executives, if given a stipend, should be given one through the student activities fee because then it holds them accountable to the student body, not to the administration,” he said. “To be paid out of an alumni endowment that is only vaguely related to student government could be a conflict of interest for student body representatives and their relationship with both the administration and the interests of alumni. Students should be able to hold their representatives accountable, and executive pay needs to ensure that happens.”

However, there are also many who believe that an outside donor should pay the stipends, despite the loss of accountability. “While it makes good sense that our constituents should support us, I believe that, if possible, we should be paid through funding from an outside donor,” said sophomore business administration major Eric Wu, who is running for student body vice president of finance. “Given the nature of our university, very few of our constituents understand the time and dedication required to excel in such a position.”

Besides worries about backlash from the student body, there are also many financial concerns about whether the student activities fee provides enough money to support stipends. “The Joint Funding Committee already has a hard time cutting down budgets with the pool that is allocated to us from the student activities fee,” Wu said.

“Everyone wants to be careful about how we are allotting our money and whether or not this is the right timing for [us] to start spending more in the middle of an economic downtown,” said junior business administration major Michael Surh, who is also running for student body president. “Carnegie Mellon is an awesome school, and there are a lot of programs here that could use extra funding. We need to make sure that every single student here gets the full experience, because that is what student government is here to do.”

“We’re facing crunches in departments, we’re facing crunches in funding, and we want to make sure that the student activities fee money goes more towards the school as whole than to the student government that is running it,” echoed junior business administration major Micah Rosa, who is running for student body vice president with Surh. “As of now, there are more responsible ways to use the limited funds we have.”

On the other hand, paying stipends through a donor also has its advantages. “If it came from a donor, it would be an endowed position, so we would not have to worry about the donor stopping funds five years from now,” explained Abimbola.

However, to many, holding a position within student government is considered worthwhile without pay. “We should be content with our positions and with the satisfaction we get from our positions. We get power, we get influence, we get respect, and we get a strong résumé builder,” Rosa said.

Some in student government, including junior art major Casey Brander, who is running for student body president with junior BCSA major Matt Sandler, see the referendum as a simple economic transaction. “My answer to all questions is: Get money, get paid.”

But for now, Abimbola and the rest of the student government executives and Undergraduate Student Senate are waiting to see how students vote on the referendum in the coming election. “I personally would not feel comfortable putting forth this type of legislation without first tapping into student opinion,” Surh said.