Student Government and the Responsibility of Representing 28,000


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Student Union in undated photo, (presumably late 1950s-early 60’s)

At a public university with 28,000 undergraduate and graduate students, UMass is enormous. When students are distracted from their individual, everyday lives by issues such as the gang rape of a freshman student in 2012 or allegations of police brutality at the 2014 “Blarney Blowout”, they look to the administration and the SGA for answers. While these answers often aren’t obvious or easy enough to address immediately, the SGA has made sure that the student body is always represented effectively and in for what it is – a group of men and women making an investment in their future.

The Student Government Association (SGA) is aware of how large the student body is on campus; according to its website, “administrators often look first” to them to “quickly assess how students view an issue”. The SGA constantly reminds students to be vocal about what goes on around campus so they are represented correctly, although this is often difficult. According to Hayley Mandeville, Chairwoman of the SGA’s Ways and Means Committee, “everything we do has has to be signed by the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs” putting the SGA in “a tight spot.”

Various methods of monitoring student interests on campus are employed – from intramural sports teams to Registered Student Organizations (RSOs). Although Mandeville claims that the funding for RSOs has to be approved by the administration, students enjoy quite a diversity of them on campus – 465 to be exact. Student government is responsible for aiding the funding of all these organizations: from the UMass Super Smash Brothers Club (SSBC) to the Belly Dancing Club (UBDC).

As a “large facet of the UMass community,” RSOs are not created just for hobby pursuit, they also take advantage of what the student body has to offer. “Diversity on campus brings people together…it’s the beauty of student organizations – you don’t need to have a certain perquisite to join one,” Charlotte Kelly, Senator for Diversity and Student Engagement stated in an interview. One nation-wide organization, Actively Moving Forward, was recently featured in the Daily Collegian for its work with students who are grieving the death of a close one – as a UMass RSO, this is the first public chapter in Massachusetts.

To ensure that students are able to have the freedom of creativity when it comes to involving themselves on campus, SGA efforts such as the Ways and Means Committee are responsible for making this possible.

“Over the winter, we put in over 70 hours creating workbooks for each organization so that once the Spring semester began, we could get those to the groups so they could start putting them together for submission,” Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Mandeville stated with pride in an interview. “We tried hard to give organizations the money they needed.”

RSOs are encouraged to fundraise on their own behalf. Mandeville has been impressed with “some groups who fundraise all their own expenses” and require little help from the SGA’s SATF fund. “Alot” of these RSOs have taken the initiative to raise money on behalf of nation-wide organizations. Chairwoman Mandeville has praised these organizations, adding that the SGA is “moving towards a system…where hopefully groups will be motivated to fundraise because the SGA will only fund so much” to groups who are not taking as much individualistic initiative.

In addition to reasonable funding, the students of UMass are aided by the SGA when it comes to media publicity. In an email sent out on March 9th – one day after Blarney Blowout 2014 – Chancellor Subbaswamy condemned the “outrageous behavior” of students at the demonstration, who acted “without any regard for public safety and the community in which they live”. Although many of the over 2000 participants at the Blowout were likely not students at UMass Amherst, the SGA was quick to hold the Chancellor accountable for his words. Student government demonstrated the student body’s frequent attempts to establish a better connection with the administration as evidence that students do indeed have “regard” for their school and the community surrounding it.

To help mitigate issues on-campus, both police and administration have frequently expressed their interest in talking with student groups. Vice Chancellor Enku Gelaye reminded attendants at the THIS IS UMASS forum on March 27th that “students have a huge role in the future of the conversation”. At the same forum, Chancellor Subbaswamy expressed an openness to student opinions, finishing the nearly two-hour event with an exclamation that UMass has “smart students, who are socially aware”. Echoing the Chancellor’s words, UMass Media Director Ed Blaguszewski also confirmed that “we are always interested in hearing from students, and about their safety”.

Students constantly make efforts to communicate and work alongside administration, although this process is not as simple as it seems. A recent example, is that of three senior law students selected by UMass Alumni and Attorney Daniel M Sandell who have attempted to reform the student Code of Conduct. Some proposed changes range from allowing lawyers to be present at Dean’s Office disciplinary hearings – to restricting school administration from sanctioning arrested students until proven guilty. Although their project is SGA-supported, the three members have seen little response from university officials, who the members feel have been taking measures to delay their response. One of the three selected law students, Andrew Lasky, attributes this difficulty to the notoriety of the university’s public reputation in recent years.

“Members of the SGA feel that they’ve been stonewalled by university officials,” while officials have also “stonewalled students…and have actively told them not to pursue it,” claims Lasky, who expressed disdain at the university’s lack of reception to the project.

Especially after events like Blarney that put the university in a media spotlight, both police and administration have been humble in admitting that they do not have all the answers. SGA members and other student leaders are only able to see so much of what goes on on campus. One striking example of the administration’s inability to deal with the UMass party scene is its ignorance to dealing with large celebrations.

At the THIS IS UMASS forum on March 27th, administration officials claimed to have shut down the campus bus system in an “effort to prevent students and other off-campus partygoers from coming to the (Blarney) event,” Such an effort resulted in several drunk driving arrests and put those walking to and from the event at risk. Chancellor Subbaswamy referred to these problematic results as “unintended consequences”.

Such mistakes made at Blarney and in the past have prompted university officials to hire former Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis as a consultant to addressing them. On April 14th, Davis held hour-long interviews with students that were private and non-incriminatory. Teddy Baston, Vice President of Recruitment for the Interfraternity Council, commented on the difficulty of managing such a large and diverse student body at one of these such interviews.

“As student leaders, we are outside of the general population…many students just don’t care about the collective and want to get that one ‘ZooMass’ experience,” Baston candidly admitted to Davis.

At the public forum, Chancellor Subbaswamy affectionately referred to these students as “bad apples”. UMass Police has made of system of identifying students who exhibit what is known as “gateway behavior” that leads “from celebration to disturbance”. UMass police has accepted that drinking will always be present on campus; Commissioner Davis even admitted at a private interview that “it would be silly” to think that one can stop it. Officers and the administration have tried to educate students on some of the consequences of their behavior, such as arrest and university sanctioning; however, they also understand that most party-going students will take these warnings with a grain of salt. “We need to pay attention to alcohol abuse, not drinking in general,” Davis further stated at the private meeting.

Post-Blarney, Chancellor Subbaswamy stressed that the conversation between administration and students “will no doubt, be difficult in the future”. Despite this, the administration has praised the hard work that the general student body and the SGA puts into campus affairs on a regular basis. John Kennedy, Vice Chancellor for University Relations, expressed his satisfaction with the THIS IS UMASS forum shortly after its conclusion, also praising how professionally the SGA handled such a tense situation.

“Students feel passionate,” Kennedy observed of those students who chose to speak at the forum. “It was a productive session (the forum), as the students’ needs and wants were stressed plainly and simply. They really did it the right way.”

The aftermath of Blarney 2014 truly demonstrated the student bodies’ awareness of not only itself, but also its awareness of the democratic process and having a say in university affairs. Both the efforts of SGA and student organizations have given students the chance to represent themselves as more than just potential partygoers in the eyes of administration and police. Rather, students prefer to be seen as adults who have something to offer as part of their educational investment.

A Daily Collegian op-ed published on March 11 commented on the media – and administration’s over-blown response to Blarney on the behalf of the students. In it, writer Michaela Hughes points to the administration’s treatment of UMass students as “like criminals,” tired of seeing the poor decisions of a few represent 28,000.

“We’re all adults here, so let’s start acting like ones.”

Works/Articles Cited

http://www.hercampus.com/school/u-mass-amherst/greeks-take-streets-post-blarney-blowout-2014-clean-efforts

http://dailycollegian.com/2014/04/03/code-of-student-conduct-under-reform-by-umass-students/

http://umass-sga.com/starting-an-rso/

http://umass-sga.com/legislative/senate-committees/finance/

http://umass-sga.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/In-Budget-Tansfer-Policies.pdf

http://umass-sga.com/legislative/senate-committees/ways-and-means/

http://umass-sga.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/2014-Spring-Elections-Report.pdf

http://dailycollegian.com/2014/03/11/blarney-blown-out-of-proportion/

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