Q&A: SGA president on future matters, role’s lack of power
Economics senior Shane Smith won the Student Government Association presidential election in March and was sworn into office a month later. After six weeks on the job, Smith spoke to The Cougar and CoogTV about his plans, frustrations and first impressions.
TC: You said during the SGA Debate that your main focus on campus carry would be to keep guns out of residence halls. The Campus Carry Work Group’s draft listed most residence halls as exclusion zones. What is next for campus carry?
SS: Campus carry is a law that was passed without getting much input from college students in the first place. To me, it doesn’t seem right to pass a law without talking to the people it affects the most. When you ask what’s next, I don’t know. I’d love to say, “let’s change the law, or at least get more input from students on what they want the law to be.” The reality is they didn’t ask or listen the first time, and I’m not sure that they’re going to. The law is passed, the policy is getting put into place, so now it’s about implementation in terms of “How can we inform students on what the law is? How can we let them know what their rights are under the law?”
TC: During the election, you talked about some parking initiatives like a cheap $20 ERP pass and electronic signs displaying parking lot availability. What are your plans for getting those in place?
SS: Right now, we are writing the formal proposal outline and what we’d like to do with the parking situation. It’s at 22 pages, and it’s being led by my chief of staff (Andrew Bahlmann). One of his goals is to figure out how we can generate more revenue for Parking and Transportation Services. A lot of those things require money, so the first step is to figure out where that money comes from. We’ve got some ideas there. Obviously, I can’t speak for Parking and Transportation Services in terms of where they are, but I think in general they are receptive to ideas and will certainly consider what we put forward.
TC: Have they been receptive to the advertising idea so far?
SS: That is one that we have not talked to the director of that department yet. It’s going to come down to A — can we generate the interest among the community to pay for that kind of thing? — and B — can we convince people that it’s beneficial enough to overlook the fact that we’d be selling ads in our parking lot? Some people don’t like that idea, which is perfectly understandable because there’s ads everywhere already. When you want to do new, innovative things, when you want to have a high level of service and you don’t have the money to do it, to me that’s when you look for creative ways to fund things.
TC: What changes do you want to see in meal plans and dining on campus?
SS: We need an evaluation of what our students really want right now and how we can give that to them. I think Aramark and Auxiliary Services have done a great job bringing good brands onto campus that students are excited about and want to eat at. The meal plans we have now have been carried over from several years ago and, for the most part, have stayed very similar. I’m not sure that the current meal plans really give the students what they want.
The model that has existed on college campuses for a long time has been one or two primary dining halls. Occasionally, we may have a few small restaurants here or there, a few small retail locations, and that’s secondary. That’s been the model. The meal plans reflect that. In the most common meal plan, it has 160 swipes at the dining hall and $400 in Cougar Cash. You might be able to go 50 times to a restaurant, which is a fair amount, but when you consider that you have three to four months in a semester, you run out of Cougar Cash pretty quick. I think what we’re shifting to is students who want to primarily eat at retail locations. The model needs to change with that. The college dining industry is shifting, and we as a University needs to be adaptable and help our students as those needs shift.
TC: You hired a director of research at one of the first meetings of the 53rd SGA administration. Why did you create that position and where did you find the funds for it?
SS: I created it because I like to know what we’re talking about. I like to have reasons for why we support something or why we take a certain position or why we’re advocating for something. To me, it’s about finding the facts, the evidence and the unbiased story in terms of what impact a change at the University is going to make on students.
In terms of where we got the funding for it, there were two paid positions for PR/Marketing. There was a director of PR and there was also a paid associate director of marketing. I said, based on where this administration is headed — and every administration has different goals — we don’t need two paid marketing and PR people. We eliminated the associate director of marketing position while it was vacant, took the money from that position and used it for the director of research position.
TC: You said every administration has different goals. Where is your administration headed?
SS: I think we’re headed to a point of taking on real issues from a data-driven standpoint. Some administrations’ goals are to market the organization or support other University programs. This year, we really want to tackle serious issues that are best proven through data and need that kind of support and evidence.
TC: What surprised you the most about being student body president?
SS: I guess you could say how much time it is. I would easily say I’ve probably been in the office 40 or more hours a week over the last month at least. The first two or three weeks, I was leaving the office around 1 or 2 a.m. I was lucky to get out before that. There’s a lot of stuff to keep track of — a lot of questions to answer, a lot of projects to start up and manage, a lot to learn. Even though I was somewhat prepared, it was still surprising.
TC: You said in your op-ed for The Cougar that “SGA has no actual power.” Now that you’re president, how do you feel about that?
SS: I think it’s accurate. I think it’s dead on. Earlier, you were asking me about the parking stuff, for example. I said obviously we can’t force anything, we can’t promise anything. I was clear about that, I think, during the campaign. For decision makers on this campus — when you talk about parking — people like Bob Browand, the director of the department, or the director of auxiliary services, all the way up to the vice chancellor of administration and finance, those people have all the decision-making power. We do our best to advocate for improvements.
TC: Next April, when you pass the torch to the next student body president, when you look back on the year on all the things that happened, what would make you happy?
SS: Whether I pass the torch to myself or someone else, it would make me happy if students would think they accomplished something they said they were going to accomplish. They could look at the organization and say, “they made a difference in my life, and I appreciate them.”