A year in review: the Student Government Association’s 53rd administration
From July’s social media scandal to SGA President Shane Smith’s fall proposal to cut student-fee funding to all departments by 1 percent, the 53rd Administration of the Student Government Association has occasionally been hard to ignore.
The Administration kicked off in early April, nearly a month after Project Red candidate Shane Smith won the presidency with more than 50 percent of the vote. In two weeks, UH students will vote on the organization’s 54th Administration.
Members of the Senate voted to pass a bill expanding CLASSmates, now known as CLASS Coogs, in their first meeting of the summer. The expansion stipulated that the program, which brings together 250 College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences students in entry level history and political science courses, will now be offered to students for the duration of their first year.
To date, this is the only piece of legislation passed by the Senate that directly affects members of the student body outside of the organization.
While the Senate heard multiple bills and constitutional amendments throughout the term, SGA did not pass further legislation until its second meeting of the spring semester — during which the Senate discussed 24 legislative items.
Most notably, the Senate voted to join the Texas Student Government Coalition. This membership will allow current and future SGA administrations to advocate to the Texas legislature on behalf of UH.
“Since SGA doesn’t write or control university laws, legislation is meaningless without real progress behind it, which is where our focus has been,” said SGA’s director of public relations, Dena Moghtader. “We work on large scale projects and have done so effectively. Focusing on legislation would be an incomplete picture of our activity.”
Senators and members of the executive board did, however, make headway on many of the initiatives laid out in their campaign platforms, which were outlined in the party’s name: better parking, better food, better wi-fi.
In April, Smith released an agenda detailing projects the executive board would be undertaking to fulfill promises made during the election.
In a bid to improve UH’s parking situation, Moghtader said Smith and Chief of Staff Robert Comer worked to implement a parking counter prototype at the ERP.
“Students will be able to see how many spots are available in a specific parking lot before even driving into the lot,” Moghtader said.
While the current prototype counts only the cars as they enter and leave the economy lot, the counters installed on campus will show the exact number of available spots, Moghtader said.
Main campus implementation of the counters, beginning with three lots, is expected in the fall, Moghtader said.
The 53rd Administration also placed an emphasis on mental health.
Through “End the Stigma,” an event organized by Director of External Relations Delaney Cattletstout, Moghtader said SGA promoted constructive discussion on the subject.
The event utilized 1,100 shirts to pay tribute to the student lives lost to suicide on college campuses each year. Other members of SGA similarly attempted to end the stigma by working closely with Counseling and Psychological Services.
Thanks in part to Deputy Chief of Staff Winni Zhang and the CAPS Task Force, CAPS is now required to inform students of their ability to withdraw from the semester if necessary.
Compared to fall 2015, associate director of CAPS, Scott Chris, said the department saw nearly a 20 percent increase in unique clients this fall.
A trial run offering free pads and tampons in Student Center restrooms was also led by Zhang, who said she plans to meet with UH Facilities later in the semester to discuss University adoption of the program.
If successful, there are plans to implement the program across campus in Fall 2017, Moghtader said.
Moghtader led the push for Safe Walk, which aims to allow students to request a two-student escort to their dorm or vehicle at night. Similar services currently exist at the University of Texas at Austin and other Texas universities, and Moghtader said it will hopefully be implemented at UH in the fall.
Throughout the fall semester, College of Architecture Sen. Hunter Bodiford worked to create a fixed-tuition plan for architecture students. Despite his efforts, the University ultimately declined all fixed-tuition proposals. For the foreseeable future, architecture students will be excluded from UHin4 tuition plans and subject to tuition fluctuations over the course of their five-year degrees.
WiFi at UH has definitely improved over the past year, but Smith said it was important to give credit where credit is due: the University’s IT department.
“They were already working on some of this stuff. They wanted to get feedback on how they can be more responsive to student concerns,” Smith said. “I think they genuinely care about students and student needs.”
Members of SGA frequented meetings with UIT, Smith said, where they offered input on issues they felt were most important to students. Areas of focus included speed tests for WiFi signals in buildings with reported problems and improving assistance response times.
Smith and the Administration and Finance Committee have been advocating to repair ineffective parts of the University’s current dining situation, Moghtader said.
The default meal plan selected for on-campus residents was changed from Shasta Unlimited, the most expensive plan available, to Cougar Choice 150, the least expensive and most popular.
Other SGA sponsored dining improvements include the increased nighttime and weekend presence of food trucks, healthier options at on-campus convenience stores and the replacement of the management at Aramark, the company which handles dining services at the University.
In addition, Moghtader said major changes will be coming to dining services in the fall, though it is too early in negotiations for a public statement to be made.
Another lasting impact of the 53rd Administration, namely of Director of Research Dean Suchy, may take effect in Fall 2018: a two-day fall break, expected to occur in the first week of October, to break up the current 69 days of consecutive classes in the fall semester.
By comparison, Moghtader said students face no more than 45 consecutive days in the spring.
To boost school spirit among both incoming freshmen and admitted students, SGA is planning on improving the freshmen welcome packages, sent by UH to admitted students, Moghtader said.
The improved packages, which include more information for prospective students, are expected to hit first distribution with incoming class in Fall 2018. Freshmen entering the University at this time may also be make up the first group of students able to replace grades earned in their first 30 hours by retaking the course. The resolution is currently awaiting approval from the provost, but Moghtader said implementation is expected to go into effect with the class of 2022.
The 53rd Administration came under public scrutiny in July when Vice President Rohini Sethi posted a Facebook status denouncing Black Lives Matter in favor of All Lives Matter.
Though many took to social media to call for the removal of Sethi, during which time #RemoveRohini trended on Twitter, she ultimately took a voluntary unpaid leave of absence for the first three weeks of August.
Inactive governing bodies
Though student appointments to University Committees comprised a large portion of the fall semester’s Senate meetings, many appointed students raised concerns about the inaction of their committees.
Sethi, who makes the majority of committee appointments, later responded to reports of inactivity. In an address to the Senate, Sethi urged students to make the committees happen regardless of participation by other members.
Setting a precedent
Smith followed in the footsteps of SGA’s 52nd Administration in November when, for the second consecutive year, the organization requested a budgetary decrease.
The decrease, approved by the Student Fees Advisory Committee, will come from the controllable portion of SGA’s budget. During the presentation, Smith recommended that all fee-funded organizations and departments look into reducing their budget by 1 percent.
Overall, Smith said he believes the 53rd Administration will leave a lasting, positive impact on the University.
“I’m proud of our team,” Smith said. “I think they’ve made the school a better place.”
Trey Strange contributed to the reporting of this story.