|The Rise and Fall of the USS
By Logan Mahan
Jun 11, 2018
A decade after it started, the once vital University Student Senate that helped pick current provost Tim Marshall, has become a sleepy organization seemingly detached from its constituency, according to interviews with its members and advisors.
The USS, a university-wide student run organization that collects $8 from every students’ tuition to fund various projects and events, has become a minor presence on campus. Its social media presence is bleak and rarely updated. Few students vote for their representatives and fewer show up to meetings. Many senators seem to lack a relationship with a larger part of their student body.
A picture of a withered institution emerged after the New School Free Press interviewed two current senators, three past senators and its faculty advisor.
“There are certainly places where we can improve,” admitted NSSR senator Ahad Ali.
The USS burst onto campus during a moment of upheaval and strife in 2008, quickly inserting itself into the fray to become a strong advocate for students. At the time, students staged an occupation in the cafeteria that preceded the University Center when then-president Bob Kerrey, a controversial leader, named himself provost.
“The USS executive committee worked really hard to diffuse the occupation and violence on campus,” said Peter Ian Cummings, first vice president and second president of the USS.
In one of its first major acts, the USS formed a committee with the University Faculty Senate to nominate Marshall as Provost.
“We really brought about an enormous change in the management of the school. I think you’re seeing the benefit of that now. Those are the types of things that a student government can do,” said Cummings.
In those early years, on-campus parties were the number one activity the Senate pushed for, said Cummings, who graduated in 2010.
“It was always our idea that the USS should not just be a political organization, but should work on student activity,” Cummings said.
The senate spent half their budget on student activities, according to Cummings, and threw parties in Arnold Hall once a month. They also a collaboration with NYU, Cooper Union, and Cardozo, in which all four schools had rotating events.
“Everyone came and danced,” he said. Cummings emphasized the importance of social events, especially since the New School’s campus is so spread out.
“[The New School] really needs a function of providing people who are lonely, for a school to have the activity of being at a school. Because we threw social events we fostered people in all the different schools of The New School getting together and meeting each other and then everyone made friends,” Cummings said. ”That was the really important thing to do. I don’t think there was any question about that.”
Cummings had also hoped that when the USS was set up, it would have continuity, that people would remember its history, keep track of what happened before and build on experience.
The senators even shelled out cash to have a website designed, chronicling its history.
“We archived everything — that happened and it was huge. A couple years later, somebody just threw it away and put up a new site on WordPress,” said Cummings.
“It seems to be forgotten, everything that we did, like it almost never happened,” he added.
In 2008 when the USS was formed, the senators set up rules barring them from paying themselves, paying other students or their travel expenses.
“The intention of the fund was to promote a culture of student involvement,” said Hendrick Cho, first president of the USS.
Cho added that in the second year, although he was no longer a senator, the senate voted to veto that standard, and began to pay themselves with the then-$5 fee collected from students. “Although I think the amount was small, perhaps in the hundreds of dollars,” said Cho.
Cummings said that during his time at the senate, being a USS officer was a work study position. “We got paid as a work study job and it was paid hourly. When I was the president of the USS, and I had office hours,” he said. Cummings would plan events and meet with people during those hours.
Currently, senators are not compensated for their work.
“The way the senate is currently set up, it’s not sustainable because it depends on students who are willing to give up free time to give to the senate,” said Serengeti Timungwa, who joined the Senate in 2015. “If they change it up a little bit and decide to maybe offer some form of pay for student senators or give them free housing or give them some tuition cuts, I think more students will find some form of appeal and will definitely want to follow the rules of being a student senator and do their job,” she said.
Unlike the USS, 77 percent of student government officers in the U.S. receive some sort of compensation, according to the American Student Government Association.
Some senators, though, feel that pay unfairly draw on the money students give the senate and that senators should be part of the body for the love of the work.
“It’s a volunteer job,” said Ali. “We had someone mention, ‘Should we be getting paid for this?’ I’m like, ‘No we can’t take like taxpayer money or student money and use it on ourselves. That makes no sense. If you’re not in to it, you’re not into it.’”
But the work is certainly hard, Ali admits.
“This is also one of the reasons why people don’t sign up for the Senate. It’s not just the two hours you contribute from six to eight on Fridays. It’s also all of these other things you have to do,” said Ali.
Faculty Advisor for the USS, Maureen Sheridan, said she would like to see the senate take a more active role and have more visibility on campus before opening up a conversation about compensation, which she is not against.
“I think they also need to ask the students. At the end of the day, the students are the ones who are paying,” Sheridan said.
Since the change in pay though, current and past senators admit that a malaise has crept into the senate. Few students participate in elections and when senators are elected, many often fail to keep a strong bond with their constituents.
Voter participation is key, Ali said.
“That’s the number one thing because it allows us legitimacy and that legitimacy allows us to speak to the administration more effectively on things that are for the students,” Ali said.
The senate’s voter turnout has been low in the previous three elections, currently at five percent of the school’s population, according to Kabeer, co-chair of the Senate, who represents NSSR and only goes by one name.
In 2015, the Senate had its highest voter turnout rate, of more than nine and a half percent. However, the rate was attributed to controversy surrounding the 2015 senate, which spent $27,900 on a school-wide party at the Chelsea club Marquee.
A few senators felt the money could be used for something else, while others thought it could be a way to bring the community together. “Parties aren’t such a bad thing, they work on other college campuses — why wouldn’t it work here at the New School,” said Timungwa.
Some senators believe another cause for current low voter turnout could be attributed to the new voting system.
The senate stopped using Google Forms in 2016, as Google Forms allows a user to submit via multiple email addresses, allowing senators to vote for themselves. They switched to a new system provided by The New School, where a single email is sent out to each student to access the online ballot. Current senators have asked the university to send the voter email every day, so the ballot doesn’t get lost in student’s inboxes, but university administrators and senate leaders have thus far refused.
“We were like, ‘You already spam students every day,’” said Kabeer.
Once elected though, senators often serve short terms, which leads to inconsistency. Over the last two years, Kabeer said he has noticed a certain group of students are closer to their senators than others. The New School for Student Research is well connected with the Senate, as it is a smaller college of approximately 800 students, with two representatives. Parsons has about 5,000 students, with five senators.
“Depending on where the senator comes from, that community is always connected. Then there’s certain communities that just slip through the cracks,” Kabeer said.
On top of that, the senate is afflicted by the same thing all student-run organizations are afflicted by: student turnover. Ex-senator Timungwa said there was a large turnover when she left in Spring 2017, creating a cultural shift.
“As new senators came in there wasn’t the same drive to engage with students. I feel that it’s really gone downhill,” said Timungwa. She added that student senators who did not show up to meetings, also refused to give up their seats to new students. “It’s really been an issue with how devoted a student senator is to their position.”
All of this is not to say the students senators haven’t done anything recently. This year, the Senate set up a $55,000 student research fund that is available to students from any school to apply for funding. Students can apply for up to $3,000 individually or for $5,000 for two students. The senate contributed $25,000 dollars and the administration contributed $30,000.
“This is going to go to the whole school and I think this is something that the school really needed especially because so many students come in for funding for their research,” said Ali.
“This initiative took us a lot of time convincing the school, said Kabeer. He said that the senate’s original proposal to the school was for them to double match the senate’s budget, so the senate would put in $25,000 and the school would put in $50,000. However the school did not agree to that.
The senate also allotted $4,000 to a Zine Publishing Collective proposal, which would allow students to create, print, and publish zines–or mini magazines–for free. The senate wants to also create an archive of past zine which would be available in the library.
However, the accomplishments of the Senate are largely unknown and not publicized due to a bleak social media presence.
As for one example, most of the USS’ social media is not up to date. The last tweet sent out on the USS’ Twitter account was from January 2016. Their last Facebook post was from September 2017. The last update on the initiatives of their official website page was Feb. 17, 2017.
The senate recently promoted two senators to also be communication directors, handling social media, but only their Instagram has been updated.
Similarly, it’s hard to tell how much money the senate has spent this year. The USS has spent at least $15,065 this semester, according to the senate’s meeting minutes, however, as of May 14th, not all of the minutes have been posted for the year.
“When the student senate achieved something, there usually wasn’t that much publicity about it or publicity about the fact that the student senate achieved that,” said Timungwa. “It could be a real great tool for change on campus. None of that was really communicated.”
Though sleepy now, past senators hope the USS can be the robust student institution it was supposed to be.
“There are two important things student governments should do,” said Cummings. “Number one they’re supposed to plan activities to foster school spirit. And number two they’re supposed to be a strong voice for the students to talk to the administration. That’s what a student government is supposed to do. I think we did that really well. ”