By: Samuel Gelman (Houston, TX) | Opinions  | 

Spread the Student Council Wealth

The announcement of a coed Shabbaton uptown left me very excited. It is about time something like this happened, and I am looking forward to seeing how the parties involved approach it. However, this announcement also brought back memories of my time on the Student Organization of Yeshiva (SOY) last year, when I served as the Isaac Breuer College (IBC) Representative. This Shabbaton is an amazing accomplishment for the current student council, as well as for past leaders who helped lay the foundation, and it made me ask myself what I accomplished during my time serving on SOY.

The short and long answers are nothing. Aside from answering logistical questions about IBC for various students, I really did not do much with my position. The conversion of the Rubin Shul to an IBC Beit Midrash never came to fruition, I did not bring any guest speakers and, well, we all know what happened with Klein@9.

Part of this was my fault. I did not realize how frustrated I would become with my position. The OSL and RIETS have a meticulous vetting process for speakers and programming, and I did not have the patience or the energy to deal with the bureaucracy.

But part of the blame lies in how student council is structured. The president of each council has full control over their respective budget. That means that, at the end of the day, if a non-presidential member of student council wants to bring speakers or develop programming, they will have to ask the president, who then evaluates whether the program is worth funding. In making this decision, the president will weigh several factors, including their relationship with the council member, whether the program fits into their “agenda” and if the program fits into their budget, items that many presidents usually plan in the summer or at the very beginning of the academic year.

This process ends up being very discouraging for non-presidential members of student council. They cannot actually do anything on their own, and must always be in consultation with the president, which can be tedious, slow and discouraging. Ask any student leader; the events approval process is drawn out and frustrating when it is just the presidents planning. Adding another player to the mix, who must then seek approval from the president who must then seek approval from the OSL, is not ideal for anyone.

The problem only intensifies when councils do not meet often. From my own personal experience as well as from discussions I have had with other council members — both current and past — student councils do not often meet as a full group to discuss issues. Sometimes, a council can go a full year with only one meeting where everyone is present. Without a proper environment where everyone can consistently discuss council-related issues together, lower-level council members have no place to propose ideas in an environment where they can be seriously considered and debated. Sure they can schedule a meeting with the OSL, but that just adds another layer of bureaucracy, and OSL employees are not members of the student body. Ideas about students should be discussed by students that we elect, and only then presented to the OSL for guidance and logistical support.

What ends up happening, then, is that non-presidential student council members end up staying on the side while the president takes care of pretty much everything, only calling on the rest of their council when they want to “honor” them with the job of planning the YOMs or helping to set up Chanukahfest. This removes all sense of responsibility and prestige from the position, turning the rest of the student council roles into ceremonial positions at best and unpaid labor at worst. This, in turn, convinces most students not to pursue student leadership positions, allowing students to run unopposed for a position that they and the student body do not actually care about.

Money makes the world go round, and it is no different here. What I propose, therefore, is for the OSL to designate a certain amount of money to non-presidential members of student council to oversee on their own.

Take SOY as a test subject. Each morning program has a representative on the council, yet they do not garner much attention or interest. In the Spring 2018 elections, the winners of the Mazer Yeshiva Program (MYP) and James Striar School (JSS) elections ran unopposed, and no one ran for the IBC or Irving I. Stone Beit Midrash Program (SBMP) representative positions, forcing another election to take place in the fall.

By designating a certain amount of the budget to each individual council member, as opposed to leaving it all in the hands of the president, these positions would gain a level of responsibility and prestige not seen before. It could bring in an entirely new contingent of students who would be interested in running to the table, and increase student interest in the elections. After all, where there is money concerned, people will start caring. It would also weed out students who are not qualified or interested, as they would now know that this position comes with actual responsibility and expectations.

Furthermore, it would give those members new freedom in terms of program planning. No longer tied to the president, their budget and their “agenda,” these members could pursue their own “agenda,” filling them with a sense of accomplishment and empowerment that they can take with them once they graduate. The middleman would be removed, making the process faster and more efficient. The president should not be the only one deciding on student programming, and this restructuring would add more diverse voices to the student life initiatives.

Additionally, this plan could also lead to a diversification in programming. Once again, we will look at SOY as an example. This year, SOY sponsored and spearheaded several programs, including poppers to go along with cholent on Thursday nights, opening Nagels 15 minutes earlier to accommodate night seder, freshly brewed coffee for Friday L.A.B. (a Friday morning learning program) and a new publication, Yitzchak Yiranen. While I have no doubt that these programs were done with the best intentions and have pleased many students, they do not appeal to the entire YU student body. It is hard to know what students in other morning programs want, and the fact that every SOY president so far has been from MYP makes IBC and JSS students feel unheard and ignored when it comes to programming. However, if the IBC or JSS representatives had a budget of their own, they could sponsor programming specifically designed for IBC or JSS. This could be anything from IBC breakfast after the 9 AM davening to an interesting Shabbat guest to a full JSS Shabbaton. This would also make the SOY president’s job much easier, as he would no longer have to worry about specific programs, allowing him to focus on larger and more important issues and events that require his attention.

Finally, adjusting the budget would put a check on the power of each president. Despite the many other members of each council, at the end of the day, the president determines the agenda and, because they control the budget, end up getting the final say. They can withhold funding from any program or event they choose and face little to no consequence for it. This is especially true in our system, where council budgets and spending reports are not released, and the Google Sheet that the OSL uses to plan and approve events is not public. Furthermore, presidents can go an entire term without meeting with their entire council, taking full control of the agenda and only communicating decisions through email and texting. However, taking away some of the budget from them and giving it to their fellow council members would force presidents to acknowledge their full council and negotiate spending with them.

This idea does not have to be limited to SOY. Think of the possibilities if each class representative had a designated budget to run programming specifically for their class. The freshman representatives could sponsor an early year gathering for new students to get to know each other; the sophomore class could plan their own “halfway there” dinner; the junior reps could sponsor a day trip upstate. Some of these programs happen already, but empowering the representatives with a budget would streamline the process and allow for more creativity.

I am not suggesting that each member get their own $45,000 budget. Just a small amount in order to empower them to run something significant. The amount can be determined by the percentage of students in each class or morning program, or can be fixed. The money can come from the greater council’s budget itself, or a new fund entirely. With the increase in the student activities fee, there should be plenty of money to get these programs off the ground. Yes, this would take some power out of the hands of the president, but if they truly want their university to succeed and feel like a community where everyone feels welcome, they should trust their fellow council members to share some of the power and, therefore, the wealth. Our council members have ideas. Let’s help make them a reality.

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Photo caption: Money