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UA? No Way!

The $23,266 Student Group

Ruth Miller

There is something fundamentally wrong with the Undergraduate Association. The Tech’s headline [Oct. 4]: increase in voter turnout to 29.9 percent? It’s sad that turnout is so low, but when this is heralded as an improvement, something needs further investigation.

How bad is 29.9 percent? Between 1980 and 1995, the U.S. averaged 54 percent voter turnout. That’s the third lowest among industrialized nations. Australia, Malta, Austria, and Belgium all had over 90 percent. A meager 29.9 percent is pathetic.

Better yet, The Tech was kind enough to run a breakdown of turnout by class. Forty-six percent, or 466 students, of the freshmen voted, and that number is nearly cut in half for the sophomores. Juniors and seniors care even less and less, which begs the question: what have the ’06’s and ’05’s figured out that the ’09’s haven’t?

Four minutes on MIT-Google will give you a pretty good idea of what the UA is designed to do. Any good government class will tell you to follow the money trail, and doing that, one could conclude that the UA’s purpose, or about three quarters of it, is the Finance Board. On the Association of Student Activities Web site, the UA Finance Board is described as 10 undergraduates “charged by the UA” to allot funds to the various ASA-recognized student groups of MIT.

In the case of Fall 2004, the UA “Semesterly Allowance” totaled $110,730, and Finboard occupied $81,275 of that. As someone who weighs money in terms of prospective meals, that discrepancy is kind of a lot. But to the UA, $23,266 of this forms the UA Budget.

I am not lying.

In Fall 2004, the UA allocated $23,266 for its own budget.

The “UA Finboard Summer/Fall 2005 Budget Allocation Recommendations” (also MIT-Google) don’t show a single student group that even comes close to that. The International Students Association requested $11,100 and got $250. Some of the humbler student groups were also slapped in the face — the American Red Cross asked for $7,593 and received $1,400, while the Black Christian Fellowship asked for $475 and received $50.

To be fair, none of these groups are responsible for as large a portion of the MIT Undergraduate population as the UA. It’s understandable that Finboard has a strict policy forbidding student groups from spending lavish amounts of money on retreats. Why spend what is effectively tax money on something only a few people can benefit from? This sounds reasonable.

Now it’s time to examine that $23,266, or $5.66 per undergraduate student, that the UA gets. The biggest cut is for “Committee Budgets,” and the largest share of that is designated for the Events Committee and second-highest, the Publicity Committee. Talk about irony. I’m willing to bet that of the top four student group activities on your mind right now, at least three of them were by run a student group that is not the UA, and none of them cost $23,266. But I’ll get to that later.

The primary suspicious chunk of change is in the least suspicious place: the UA Senate. Hidden by the most legitimate sounding part of the UA — student representation — is approval for a $4,500 retreat for the UA.

Last October, the UA used student funds to pay for a $4,500 retreat to Cape Cod for itself, directly violating its own rules for Finboard budget approval.

It takes between one and two minutes to vote in the UA elections. I know this, and last month I even pulled up the Web site. I filled out the form. Then I realized that I had stopped whatever I was doing to vote for two candidates among a total of two candidates, and refused to grant legitimacy to the election by voting in it.

I actually cared a little during the last UA election. Granted, as opinion editor for The Tech, I was asked to help conduct the formal presidential debate, but I couldn’t scrounge up the interest to go to the other ones. I was annoyed by the pomp and circumstance, but the grossest part was when one candidate formally endorsed the emerging Sloan minor. The Sloan minor that, if you weren’t here to experience, was introduced with such revelry that a lottery was created for the privilege of enrolling, because surely the semi-weekly advertisements in The Tech and general hullabaloo would bring forth more possible candidates than could ever be appropriately handled, ended up having fewer applicants than spaces in the lottery. A candidate for Undergraduate Association President was endorsing a departmental minor on his platform.

Again, to be fair, this candidate is not the person currently serving as UA President. The successful candidate promised to reduce the Freshmen on Campus policy to one semester. Never mind the deaf ear let upon any form of reversal of FOC from within the MIT administration. The fact that this candidate promised something so out of the control of the UA, such that he would have zero hope of ever accomplishing it, and then won anyway, is proof that the voting body of MIT was facing a “lesser of two evils” scenario.

That’s when it hit me — what kind of people are in the UA? Certainly, no one that hopes to accomplish anything. Perhaps the old saying is true: they do it because it looks good on their resume.

I know: this should have been obvious. But seriously, think about it for a second. These aren’t the resume-builders from your high school we’re talking about. This is a whole different league. These are people that dress for the occasion, prepare speeches, and thrive in bureaucracy and red tape. The bigger the UA, the more costly and slower to run, but the more people that get to put it on their resume. Being a member isn’t good enough for you? Let’s create a new committee for you to chair — that’ll get you into law school. It might cost a few thousand dollars that some student group could use, but hey, that’s why it’s good to have power of the purse.

Every UA candidate in history has promised to bring students together. I know how to do what all these people have failed to: student groups. Endorse many, many, well-funded student groups, led by diverse people who have diverse interests, and privatize the task of “improving student life at MIT” to the people who make up MIT. Currently, I see one giant student group for people with an interest in politicking and carrying around briefcases, and I think they’re taking far too much of my money and my time.