Misplaced priorities, misplaced communication

By Andrea More; illustrations by Emma Kearney

How in an elected body of 20 college students can you get a Finance Representative who isn’t pressured to resign until two and a months after signing away $4,500 dollars in student activities fee funds without seeking permission, a Vice President of Finance who is unconstitutionally off campus for more than one block of the year and a president who gives $20,000 to the Butler Center as a “gift to the community,” despite never being asked to do so by any Butler Center representative, all without any vote from the student body?

If you answered this brainteaser with “The 2014-2015 Colorado College Student Government Association (CCSGA) Executive Council,” you’re correct.               

I sought to discern between rumor–Student Government Association (SGA) does not withdraw from tuition to treat themselves to lavish dinners at the Broadmoor–from truth–yes, $4,500 during this academic year was signed away without the knowledge or consent of Executive Council.

    If you are just about shut the magazine, I understand your inclination. “Student government” is somewhat of an oxymoron; they are not Jill Tiefenthaler and they are not the Dean. If you’re like me, you’re jaded after coming to associate the organization with lurid, galaxy-themed posters promoting PlayHard events. But if you pay to attend this school­—that is, if someone is writing a large check so you can say you graduated with a liberal arts degree, it’d behoove you to listen up.

Most of the members of CCSGA I interview were affable, open to answering confrontational questions, and expressed an interest in working with the student body. In spite of these relatively laid back conversations, one recurring problem became evident very early on, one responsible for the indifferent, if not outright cynical, perception students have of CCSGA: its fundamental lack of transparency. 

On the Student Life section of CC’s webpage, the seemingly straight-forward proclamation reads as follows: “Every CC student is a member of CCSGA from the time they enter the college. Each student has the right to have their voice heard.”

Let me begin by introducing CCSGA’s Executive Council. Current Student Body President Alejandro Salazar (‘16) makes $4,000 in addition to presiding over $10,000 in discretionary funds. The members who join Salazar on the Executive Council are Vice President Erik Laitos (’15), Vice President of Internal Affairs Sam Albert (’15), Vice President of Student Outreach Abe Mamet (’17) and Vice President of Student Concerns Mayss Al Alami (’17), all of whom are each paid $3,600 a year in what’s referred to as a “stipend.” Their source of income is called a “stipend,” in part because they are not paid hourly, but it could also have something to do with “stipend” bringing to mind the notion of service more than the perfunctory-sounding “paycheck.” These four have the purview of $5,000 each in discretionary funds. 

So, what the heck does the term “discretionary funds” actually mean? (Disclaimer: it took me 21 years to find out.) 

After talking to all members on Executive Council, I was informed that 1.) Vice President of Finance Erik Laitos has a truly superb handshake and 2.) that the discretionary budget—which is separate from Executive Council’s stipend—is for the President and Vice Presidents to use where they see appropriate, according to the mission statement and 3.) according to sophomore representative Tom Roberts, “ratifying the mission statement amounts to an amendment to the [CCSGA] Constitution which requires two votes [from] full council at separate meetings.” The second meeting concerning ratifying the mission statement is to take place Thursday, April 9.

“People [outside of SGA keep saying we don’t know what’s going on with finance,” Student Body President candidate Chloe Edeal (’16) said at the Executive Council Debates held last Thursday, April 2nd. 

I polled seven students in my vicinity one evening in Tutt library, my new home ever since I began my quest to learn how to read, write and speak CCSGA doublespeak by familiarizing myself with who’s who, who does what, its jargon and how the different types of funding work.

One question that continues to fester is that, if a 5% increase in the student activities fee is to be implemented in the upcoming academic school year despite no vote from the student body, why are thousands of dollars in discretionary funds given to members of Full Council in the first place? “The most integral issue for students on campus is how much they have to pay for tuition,” Vice President for Internal Affairs candidate Steven Ortega (’18) said at the CCSGA Executive Council Debate on Thursday.        

Vice President of Student Concerns candidate Mostafa “Tifa” Zaki Taha (’17) called for CCSGA to step up and implement much needed “transparency regarding where the money goes.” While differences in methodology varied in the candidates’ platforms, CCSGA’s persistent lack of transparency was echoed among all the candidates. “We’re not grounding our conversations about transparency in exactly what that means,” Student Body President candidate Jacob Walden (’16) said.                                                   

Although Walden said he fully supports the Butler Center and its mission, he expressed consternation that $20,000 was given to the Butler Center—one of many financial decisions devoid of any voice from the student body. 

It would be unfair to say Salazar doesn’t have the interests of CC students in mind. Because he ran for Vice President of Finance unopposed this election year, he secured the position for the 2015-2016 school year. Some people are concerned by this when they remember that he funded the Butler Center directly, a branch of the College, as opposed to dispersing $20,000 instead to students with a similar mission to the Butler Center: to promote cultural awareness. A document issued by the Spelman & Johnson group, a higher education employment organization clearly states that “the formal report line for the Assistant Vice President [of the Butler Center] is to the chief student affairs officer of the college.” Many of the assessment processes are conducted by Tiefenthaler, not students.

The Butler Center’s mission, to promote intercultural understanding among students, staff and faculty; is a much-needed and admirable one, yet a student government nonetheless funded an organization at an exorbitant $20,000, one run by non-student staff, save three student interns. CCSGA can and should work with Director of the Butler Center Paul Buckley, but giving money to a center that functions under the auspices of the college is goes against the spirit of student government, which is to listen to students’ desires, troubles and concerns, not to fund the administration. The workshops, efforts to increase awareness of LGBTQ issues on campus and resource for international students, staff and faculty are much needed at CC, but should it be up to the student body president serving for a one-year term (and who received some opposition from hiscolleagues in Executive Council­, mind you) to fund a branch of the administration? The Butler Center serves a much-needed purpose in that it provides an inclusive environment, when many international studen­ts and minorities come to CC only to feel out of place. However, when $20,000 is given away, even to a group whose objectives are grounded in education, understanding and conversation, the “through the grapevine,” passive way of finding out where this money is going only fortifies the “we versus they” attitude characteristic of the relationship between CCSGA and the student body. 

With no official office hours communicated to the public so that concerned students can meet with members of Executive Council, CCSGA is viewed as an unrecognizable, ambiguous group on campus. Financial decisions are “seen as [reflective of] their [own] interests, and not the interests of the greater campus,” Vice President of Student Concerns candidate Hannah Willstein (’16) said. “A lot of students feel their opinions aren’t heard in CCSGA’s internal affairs.”     

A senior who used to be involved with CCSGA and wished to stay anonymous said, “they do not value any kind of transparency.” When I brought this up with VP of Financial Affairs, Erik Laitos, he said: “In terms of the public information thing, the meeting minutes for Executive Council should contain all of the information.” While Laitos was not present at the debate last week, student body president candidate Mohammad Mia (’16) rebutted the notion that the minutes are accessible to everyone by saying: “I don’t think I would access the minutes if I didn’t write them.” Later in the day, I paused the interviews I was transcribing to turn to Sachin Mathur (’17), who was sitting next to me. Maybe I was just less aware than other students. Perhaps the minutes are more frequently accessed than I had assumed before my many interviews. “Have you ever read the minutes on the CCSGA website before?” I asked Sachin. When he said no, I asked why. “I didn’t know they existed.” 

The Student Activities Fee, which has historically risen once every three years, has been raised every year for the past three years—and no one has bothered to explain it to those who have to pay. For the 2015-2016 academic year, tuition will be increased by 5.1%. Student government is in part funded by the student activities fee; next year that fee will be $420 per student. Walden strongly encourages Executive Council to not accept their respective $3,600 stipend (or $4,000 stipend for the President). Most concerning is that no one outside of SGA seems to know to how this money is allocated—or why.

Five positions of power are occupied by five intelligent, articulate and charismatic peers of mine who deviated from CC time and arrived right on the dot, which gave them some credibility before I even pressed the red “Record” button.

It’s not like CCSGA hasn’t tried to make the college price tag more reasonable. Salazar is responsible for distributing $10,000 in financial aid funds so that the Outdoor Recreation Center (ORC) is more accessible to students who want to go on ORC-organized trips. He also got rid of the Glass House fee, which I didn’t know existed until Mayss Al Alami told me the Glass House used to have an additional fee which the language houses did not. She continued: “The Glass House is to encourage diversity so [a fee] was kinda counterproductive because a lot of students who wanted to afford to live there couldn’t.”

But back to the difference between discretionary funds and award money, or “stipends.” “In terms of the awards that members of CCSGA get, they come out of a very different pot of money than special events funding—so those are completely distinct,” Laitos explained. The Finance Committee has little oversight over the discretionary funding that CCSGA has access to. “Discretionary funding and special events funding are incredibly transparent. And I get it, students are not being fed the information, but it’s there. You can go on the CCSGA website and find it.” 

Why is it up to the student body to go and find the information themselves? How are they to know what special events funding even is? When I started a sketch comedy troupe last spring, I was never once directed to CCSGA. We received some funding from the theatre department, but when that didn’t suffice, members of this nascent group bought props out of their own pocket—That’s just how it goes, we figured.    

When I asked Salazar how his committee has reached out to the community, he said they’ve tried many different methods, although conceded that approaching random people could be a viable way to make their presence more known and themselves seen as more approachable. “We invite people usually based on the topic of discussion,” Salazar said in an email. “This process can really only be done through personal connections with different students. A good example is our discussion of the Soup Kitchen. We invited Shane Lory and Jeremy Flood to the Full Council meeting to discuss…how to best provide support for them.” It’s not as though CCSGA wants to remain anonymous; even in spite of the pay, these are people who all put time into running a campaign last year, were elected and have certainly made efforts to merge the gap in conversation between SGA and student body. The problem is not the people so much as the ambiguity of the avenues through which they reach out. “We sent out an email to the campus inviting anyone who was interested to come to the [Soup Kitchen] meeting to provide their input,” Salazar wrote. “The only people who came were those who I emailed directly, [and we’ve] encouraged members of the Catalyst to attend our meetings and our Courageous Conversations, but with limited success.”

If you haven’t heard about the infamous Orchard Lounge incident, maybe it’s because when $5,000 mysteriously disappeared, the subsequent meeting held by the Full Executive board was not announced to a single student. No campuswide email, no posting in the listserv, nothing in the Weekend Digest, no posters in Worner. It’s as if that meeting never existed.             Keep in mind that all of this began way back somewhere between late October and November. “The former CCSGA Finance Representative and a number of his friends decided that they wanted to bring a new band, Orchard Lounge, to campus, which I had never heard of before,” Laitos said. Without consulting the Finance Committee, the aforementioned former representative (who was not immediately asked to resign) went to Student Life Specialist Bethany Grubbs and asked if she could sign a contract to secure the band, thinking $4,500 was available. Even if this money was readily available, no authority is granted to the Financial Representative to create or propose such a contract without the rest of Executive Council’s approval.       

 I asked Laitos whether student government purposefully acted “hush hush” about the ordeal, to which he responded: “I would definitely contest your statement that CCSGA tried to ‘hush hush’ it. I mean, all of these conversations were held in meetings where minutes exist. Anyone seeing CCSGA exec meeting in the CCSGA office can knock and say ‘Can I listen in?’ and the answer is ‘yes.’ They can go, listen, make statements if appropriate and that’s that.”                       

Screenshot of the "Meet the Executive Council" page fromCCSGA's official website

Screenshot of the "Meet the Executive Council" page fromCCSGA's official website

One anonymous student who is not a part of SGA but managed to find out when and where the upcoming meeting was set to place, sat in and listened. “When I went to that meeting [SGA] said no financial decisions had been made,” this student said. “This particular meeting primarily revolved around discussing what ought to be done regarding the SGA member who unconstitutionally signed away $5,000 to a band without having the authority to sign any contract—let alone have access to the actual funds. Two and a half months later, with some pressure from Eric and Alejandro, which shouldn’t have [had to] happen, [the student finally resigned]. There was never any official vote on what should or did happen.”             

At this point in time there existed two options: CCSGA could either pay the $4,500 (since reneging on the signed contract was not an option) and tell the band to not even come, or they could pay necessary additional money in order hold the event. “To make the event what it was intended to be would have been $9,000,” Anonymous said, “because it was going to be mashed with the PlayHard event. [It was given an additional] $2,500 or $3,000 without any official vote. Event happened, extra money beyond what shouldn’t have been there was appropriated, done. It’s not on me to say whether money should be given to bands with names I could literally pull out of my ass.” As a result of Laitos’ absence(s), the proceedings that took place concerning the irresponsibly misallocated $5,000 were, to put it gently, not as efficient as they could have been. According to Laitos, “The situation was somewhat complicated because I spent the entirety of the month of February in Chicago for a seminar for my thesis, so I was not there [during that month]. I was of course plugged into these things by phone, but I could not be at the meetings physically so a lot of these things took place without me being completely on top of them in the meetings.”                                                                                As explained to me by Vice President of Outreach, Abe Mamet, discretionary funds are completely different from payroll. “I believe Executive Council should receive some award so they don’t need a job and so they can better devote their time to student government.” Regardless of the good intentions behind this pay, a student’s number one job is not to hold down a job but to be a student, “to learn how to think,” as so many advocates of a liberal arts education like to put it. At least, that’s the hope.                                   In a separate email, Salazar addressed my persistence in asking why a $4,000 stipend is awarded in the first place, and why that large an amount of pay. “I could not do the work I do without an award because I do have to pay for my college expense out of my own pocket. The small stipend for full council members was intended to allow for a greater degree of access to serve on student government,” Salazar said. Instead, CCSGA could host forums where faculty and students come together to discuss the nature of rising tuition and how we can affect change within our own school’s financial aid office. Lowering the price tag of higher education for just a few students is not going to change the problem of the exorbitant cost to attend this school. 

The U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. senators are paid less than most businessmen and lawyers and there’s a well-founded reason. “You are not [supposed to] incentivize leadership through money, you’re incentivizing leadership through passion—ideally,” anonymous stead. CCSGA doesn’t just pay Executive Council, but its regular members, too, such as class representatives.  

Those who are supposedly the most in touch with the problems facing students belong to an organization that has become so finance-centric that it has lost the activist portion that is necessary in a body of government. “If we want CCSGA members to become leaders [at CC and after college], moral questions of societal issues [must be] persistently presented to them,” Walden said when sharing his platform at the debate.                       

In CCSGA’s defense, some members, including Mayss and senior Sam Albert, have suggested lowering the discretionary funding. Yet Mamet contends that “No matter what the rumors, [if] you look at student government this year, it has been incredibly conscious of its pay.” If student government is in fact conscious of its pay, why didn’t the two block absence of VP of Finance Erik Laitos result in, at the very least, pro-rated pay? An Executive Council member who is gone for more than one block is prohibited in the CCSGA constitution—but of course, there has never been a forum held for students to read and provide input into CCSGA’s constitution.                   

SGA has devolved into group of students who, at least as they are perceived through its public image, only plays a financial role. Health and Human Rights Coordinator, and CC alum, Adison Petti commented during the Q&A that it’s crucial that whomever is elected to serve on next year’s Executive Council realizes that it’s SGA’s job to ensure the student body becomes “absolutely sure how student financing works.”                                     When I asked Salazar what he’s been up to of late, he said that he had “[recently] worked with [Senior Associate Dean of Students and Director of Residential Life] John Lauer and Jill [to keep] Palmer open late at night so that students [have] the option of going to a classroom just to study or [have] a private session. Most notably during fourth week, finding an unoccupied study room in Tutt is near impossible. But if I didn’t go directly to Salazar to find out for myself, I don’t know if I would ever been made aware of this minor, albeit beneficial, change.

“My freshman year, Becca Spiegel was part of the Executive Council,” Anonymous said. “She wrote proclamations to the administration in support of mental health. Between her and her sister, that’s why everyone on this campus gets six free counseling sessions. Since sixth block, Mayss Al Alami has reaching out to GROW, the ORC and the Wellness Center in trying to organize a mental health retreat. The date is tentative, but the project itself is a step in the right direction. It is beyond me why there are so many causes people are passionate about on this campus that (SGA) supposedly doesn’t support outside of a financial role. If the student activities fee were optional, maybe [I’d feel] different.” 

In a forum held back in 2008 when Becca Spiegel, who served as Vice President of Student Concerns her sophomore year, said at a CCSGA forum held in back in 2008: “To be honest, I don’t really have my own platform, because I care about other people’s concerns.” 

If a vote were conducted to decide how much Full Council should be paid, or how much the Student Activity Fee should be or even if guidelines outlining what the process to apply for chartered funding versus versus applying for special event funding were posted on a bulletin board in Worner, maybe there would have been more than 20 people at the Full Council Executive Debate last week.                                                   

“They’re minutes are all on the website,
Laitos said. “You just go and there they are.” If you decide to take Laitos’ reading suggestion to heart and scroll through the profusion of notes, you’ll realize there hasn’t been a single official vote cast all year.       

“In terms of public outreach, I think CCSGA has done a phenomenal job of being transparent this year,” Laitos said. “Everything is online.” If you read the minutes that everyone tells you to read, you’ll notice there hasn’t been a single official vote cast all year. In fact, it took until the second week of seventh block for the first piece of legislation to even be considered for a vote by Full Council.       

On March 29th, I followed up with Vice President of Student Concerns Mayss Al Alami and asked her point blank if there has been any official vote conducted this year. She thought for a quiet moment, then looked up gave me a very simple but honest answer: