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Missing the Point

Matthew Stern

The arguments in Jessica H. Lowell’s “UA Serves Useful Purpose,” and Ruth Miller’s “UA? No Way” appear to be disjoint. Ms. Lowell gave an excellent description of the Undergraduate Association’s business, staff, and future, but did not address the key concerns brought forth in the preceding article.

To start, Ms. Lowell gave a report on how the UA’s voter turnout is indeed up this year and that this is “hardly a sign that the UA is decaying.” Though it is wonderful that the UA’s turnout is not falling into nothingness, it still does not address the point. The problem is not that turnout is falling over time, but that its current state is for lack of a better word, pitiful. Less than a third (29.9%) of the undergraduate body voted in the last UA elections. I don’t care that is up from the year before. I care that its current level is so low that the UA Senate can hardly call itself a truly representative body. To the UA’s credit, they try very hard to raise this number, and it seems they are making some progress, but the point is still valid that the UA has problems with voter turnout.

Ms. Lowell then goes through a laundry list of things that receive money from the UA budget. Most of these involve food of some kind, including a barrage of study break-related events. The argument here can be summed into micro verses macro culture. I can think of maybe one or two ’08 study breaks I’ve been to in the last two years, but I go to my floor’s study break every other week. It’s not that the UA isn’t attempting to improve campus life, but that the best way to improve campus life is to break it up into smaller organizations, like LSC, MITOC, etc., that connect with people in a localized, more targeted manner, and, as an overall effect, improve campus life. This means giving the money to Finboard.

Students do need to realize how hard it is for fellow undergraduates to lobby with paid and trained administrators on behalf of student rights. The MIT administration doesn’t have to listen to us, so a good relationship between elected students and the administration is critical. “Helping to develop a housing system … making confidential medical transport available … reducing roof fines” — all of these are important achievements, and the UA should be thanked for supporting the causes of student rights.

However, unless the UA is bribing administrators (and this is preposterous), lobbying should not cost any money. Ok, maybe if food is at the meeting, but that’s about it. It is important that we have elected people who can claim (at least partially) to represent the student body and converse with MIT, but it is not required that they be so well-funded.

Lastly, I for one was a little offended by one of Ms. Lowell’s statements about the UA retreat: “Student groups are not forbidden from spending funding on retreats. They are forbidden from spending Finboard funding on retreats. … The UA is not funded by Finboard.” No, the UA is not funded by Finboard. Finboard is funded by the UA, and the UA is funded by my tuition.

There is a reason that Finboard doesn’t allow the money to be spent on retreats, and a good one at that. Retreats are fun enterprises that only benefit a small percent of the student body and therefore should not be paid for by public student funds. Other student groups fund their retreats by their own means. Why can’t the UA be like every other group on campus and do the same? Using UA funds to pay for a UA retreat is equivalent to another group using Finboard funds to pay for its retreat. I don’t care if it’s not an official rule; it should be.

So where does this leave us? The UA is an organization dedicated to lobbying for students’ rights and providing student services on a campus-wide macro scale. It uses, to some an egregious amount of money and to others a reasonable amount. Regardless of opinions, this amount is about 20k. It uses the students’ tuition money to fund for a retreat that benefits its own members. It is our primary method for speaking directly with the administration. It is made up of people who, even if it pads their resume, care about student issues. I for one do not have a solution to its problems, but at some point they need to be recognized and addressed.