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UA Serves Useful Purpose

Jessica H. Lowell

I read Ruth Miller’s Oct. 14 column, “UA? No Way!” with bafflement. Ms. Miller begins by saying that because only 29.9 percent of undergraduates voted, there is something wrong with the Undergraduate Association. While it is true that 29.9 percent is unacceptably low, she dismisses the fact that it is an improvement, unwilling to grant that the UA might be making steps in the right direction.

Last year, in the elections for fraternity senators, five candidates ran for five spots, and the top vote-winner only got 18 votes. This year, there were 10 candidates, and more than 40 percent of fraternity constituents voted. Senior Haus, which often has a single-digit number of votes cast, saw that number rise to more than 30. Random Hall had greater than 70 percent turnout. This indicates increasing interest in elections among those who are traditionally least interested in elections, hardly a sign that the UA is decaying.

Ms. Miller then attacks the UA for its large budget, implying that more than $20,000 that could have been spent on student groups is going to waste in a black hole from which nothing worthwhile can come. She makes little mention of how the money is being spent.

What does the UA do with its money? The Study Abroad Fair. A new program of midterm class evaluations, which is being expanded this term. Campus-wide cooking competitions. A study break to support students, most of whom are not in UA government, who serve on Institute committees such as the Committee on Academic Performance and the Committee on Discipline and protect student rights in those arenas. Food for students who come to Orientation feedback sessions, which are used to help determine future Residence Exploration and Orientation scheduling. Promotions for varsity sports teams. A free skate in Johnson for all MIT undergrads. Food for students who come to discuss academic rights and policy with the UA. A discretionary fund that is often used for student-run events such as Steer Roast and Marathon Day that need extra or emergency funds. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if you’re an undergrad reading this, you care about at least some of the above.

Ms. Miller also complains about the hypocrisy and corruption of the UA for budgeting $4,500 for a retreat while forbidding student groups from spending lavish amounts of money on retreats. There’s a problem with this logic. Student groups are not forbidden from spending funding on retreats. They are forbidden from spending Finboard funding on retreats. This is a Finboard rule. The UA is not funded by Finboard; it would be a bit questionable if it was, given that Finboard is one of the UA committees.

However, $4,500 is still a lot of money. This year, Senate Vice-Chair Ali S. Wyne ’08 and I managed to hold the UA retreat for $1,800, a cost reduction of 60 percent. The leftover $2,700 can now go to other causes, like the ones mentioned above.

Ms. Miller claims that “no one that hopes to accomplish anything” would be in the UA. This is a popular stereotype, but not true. Over the last several years, the UA has been responsible for helping develop a housing system that preserved the concept of student choice in the wake of freshmen on campus (see the Strategic Advisory Unified Proposal of 1999, http://web.mit.edu/advise/unifiedproposal/), making confidential medical transport available to students, and working to ensure that students cannot be forced out of their housing for disciplinary reasons without having had a disciplinary hearing first. Recently, I have been working with administrators on the roof fines issue to design a policy that will treat students fairly and address the needs and concerns of both students and the Institute as a whole.

According to Ms. Miller, the UA is full of resume-padders who want an excuse to be self-important and carry briefcases. I beg to differ. The UA is full of MIT students. We’re no different from the rest of the MIT population. We attend the same classes and tool the same psets. I go on service projects with Alpha Phi Omega, play Assassins’ Guild games, have fun with my hallmates.

I happen to be involved in student government because when I was a freshman I had lots of opinions about campus issues and nowhere to channel them, and as a sophomore I realized that in the UA, I could influence Institute policy with my ideas instead of just complaining to the 5th East lounge. I don’t even own a briefcase. Any activity that would look respectable on a resume is going to get resume-padders, but that doesn’t mean that most of the people in that activity aren’t in it for the right reasons.

The UA is only what the undergraduate population makes it. If you are discontented with the state of the UA, I suggest that rather than bashing it, you get involved and work to improve it.

Jessica H. Lowell is the Undergraduate Association vice president and a member of the Class of 2007.