More than 75 students attended a town hall forum earlier this month to discuss what they saw as a disconnect between the Student Association and student groups after notes from Financial Council meetings containing several slights to groups were made public.
The town hall forum, which took place on April 14 in Room 209 of the Old University Union, was called for by the Black Student Union after accidentally leaked, unofficial notes made by multiple members of FinCo during FinCo’s annual budget meetings with student groups this spring revealed that a FinCo member had described BSU as a “shitty welfare group.”
The notes, compiled by Justin Utegg, then-Student Association Treasurer and FinCo chair, slighted several groups in addition to BSU. They were e-mailed to SA Assembly representatives by Assembly Speaker Randal Meyer, though according to Utegg he had only meant to share the notes with SA Vice President for Finance Adam Shamah, who supervises the work of FinCo.
SA RESPONDS TO OUTCRY
BSU leaders’ demands for redress led to the SA Executive Board issuing a written apology to leaders of student groups via email, an E-Board promise to institute training courses in professionalism starting this fall for all elected SA officials and a formal apology from Utegg on FinCo’s behalf during the Assembly’s April 11 meeting.
SA President Jared Kirschenbaum said that he had talked at length with Dominic Davy, BSU’s political correspondent, prior to the forum to come up with a plan for its structure.
“A week ago I was nervous that this meeting wouldn’t be productive, that people would just scream at each other and leave the room angry,” Kirschenbaum said after the town hall forum. “People are justifiably appalled at the actions of FinCo, but what matters is turning those sentiments into actions. If we don’t, we’re letting everybody down as student leaders.”
At the beginning of the town hall forum, David Hagerbaumer, former director of student development at Binghamton University, announced he had resigned from the University to accept the newly created position of executive director within the SA.
One of Hagerbaumer’s duties will be conducting the new courses on professionalism for those elected to student government.
Davy and Kirschenbaum, who jointly moderated the discussion, made opening remarks about the controversy, as did Carlton Ramsay, SA vice president of multicultural affairs-elect, who called for the unknown author of the “shitty welfare group” comment in the FinCo notes to resign.
SA TREASURER RESIGNS
Daniel Rabinowitz, current vice president of academic affairs for the SA, then took the floor to read a letter submitted by Utegg.
Utegg’s letter apologized for his inability to attend the town hall forum due to an employment conflict, and reiterated the apologies he made during the April 11 Assembly meeting for the statements contained in FinCo’s notes as well as his insistence that no one spoke the offending comments out loud during FinCo’s deliberations on BSU’s budget allocation. This time, however, Utegg announced his resignation as SA treasurer via the letter read by Rabinowitz.
“I would just like to state for the record that I would never ever consider making such remarks in a Financial Council meeting or any other setting. However, as the leader of Financial Council, I understand that the actions of the Council are my responsibility,” Rabinowitz read from Utegg’s letter.
FINCO ANSWERS QUESTIONS, E-BOARD ANNOUNCES CHANGES
Four of FinCo’s 11 members — Danisha Florentino, Eric Larson, Aaron Ricks and Madeline Stolow — came forward next to offer their own apologies.
Larson said that FinCo’s other members could not attend the meeting because they were either in class or had left already for the break.
The present FinCo members also attempted to clarify how FinCo operates, including the cooperative nature of note-taking between the council members. They all denied being the author of the sentence that disparaged BSU.
Nick Fondacaro, another FinCo member, arrived at the town hall forum later, stating that a class had prevented him from coming sooner.
He also denied having written the remarks about BSU to Pipe Dream after the town hall forum.
A lengthy question-and-answer session took place, with individuals in the audience directing their questions to the FinCo members or Kirschenbaum on behalf of the E-Board. Occasionally other SA leaders including Rabinowitz, Meyer, Shamah and Vice President for Multicultural Affairs Ed Mays interjected into the exchange, as did Hagerbaumer and Assistant Dean of Students Milton Chester.
Rabinowitz announced several changes within the SA that he said would be made.
“That’s why we hired David [Hagerbaumer]. There needs to be standard [FinCo] policies throughout the year,” Rabinowitz said. “Student groups will also get a handout showing ‘here’s what Financial Council is looking for.’”
He also said that in the future there would be a minute-taker at FinCo meetings, and that the minutes from FinCo meetings would be posted on the SA’s website.
Shamah endorsed these changes as means of preventing oversights.
“I forwarded [the FinCo notes] from Justin [Utegg] to Randy [Meyer] so he could send them out to the Assembly,” Shamah said. “I probably should have read them first, but I didn’t, so in the future obviously that would be a good idea. Probably honestly the best solution would be to just hire a minute-taker at these meetings.”
STUDENTS BRAINSTORM SOLUTIONS
In the final segment of the town hall forum, Davy asked those in attendance to help brainstorm ideas that could improve relations between student groups and the SA. As the audience voiced suggestions, Davy jotted them down on an overhead projector slide titled “solutions.” The list included “diversity training,” “SA mixer,” “FinCo members should be present for entire budget hearing in order to vote,” “VPF has to read minutes,” “screening process for FinCo members,” “guidelines for budgets (cuts and allocations),” “suggestion box” and “mentor and speak to [the] new SA [E-Board],” among others.
After the town hall forum, Kirschenbaum said he believed that progress had been made.
“Step one is admitting that there is an issue, step two is figuring out where to go from here. Step three is figuring out the logistics of how to go about doing these suggestions, and step four is implementation,” Kirschenbaum said. “We accomplished step one and step two tonight.”
Desiree Yeboah, treasurer of Black Student Union, said she was happy the conversation happened, but she was not sure yet what its results would be.
“It’s good that we got to express ourselves in a formal setting,” Yeboah said. “I wish that more people from FinCo had been there, but I’m thankful to those who came. Time will tell if what comes out of this meeting was beneficial.”
Kymel Yard, a senior majoring in English and member of BSU, said he was concerned about whether the SA’s new efforts would bring about genuine communication or merely be hollow platitudes.
“This University has a lot of corporate language, like ‘diversity,’” Yard said. “So we all painted a pretty picture today. I’d encourage younger students to keep pushing for the real thing. They’re our representatives, and we have to hold them accountable.”