The Building Blocks of Leadership

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Published on March 28, 2017

The Building Blocks of Leadership

Behind the circulation desk at the Science and Engineering Library sits a plastic RubberMaid box filled with something more reminiscent of childhood than of college—Legos.

These Legos don’t belong to the library, though, or even to the University—they’re the personal property of Sidney “Sid” Perkins, a senior in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Engineering Student Council’s Vice President for Policy. Since November, Perkins has been working—way too hard, he thinks—to put these Legos in Carleton Commons, the student lounge in Mudd.

The idea came to Perkins when he was at home during fall break and stumbled upon a box of old Legos from his childhood. He immediately sent a GroupMe message to his policy committee, which was enthused about the idea.

The plan was to give students something to take their minds off of the incredibly burdensome academic and social pressures that make them some of the most stressed Ivy Leaguers.

“A lot of engineers love working with our hands, and it’s all part of the reason we love working in labs, and Legos would be this kinesthetic way of destressing,” Perkins says. “I thought it was going to be pretty simple.”

But to this day, the Legos have never made their way to Carleton.

In the past year and a half, I’ve reported on Columbia’s student councils—attending nearly a hundred ESC and Columbia College Student Council meetings. I have become such a staple at these meetings that some council members know me as their “chief political correspondent.” And throughout my time reporting, I’ve tracked the building blocks of Perkins’  Lego initiative. Implementing this simple idea, it turns out, was not so simple.

In November, Perkins asked Associate Dean of Undergraduate Student Affairs at SEAS Leora Brovman, who oversees student space in Mudd, for her approval to leave the Legos in Carleton Commons. The initiative was ultimately rejected, and Brovman explained in an email to Spectator that “it was felt that student spaces should be evaluated in a broader context to include input from all stakeholders, not just the small sample of undergraduates who were consulted in that case.”

Still determined to get the Legos on campus, Perkins later turned to the staff of the Science and Engineering Library, which was far more amenable to the idea of creating a de-stressing space.

But Legos aren’t the only initiative that ESC has tried to advance in order to improve Carleton Commons this year. In a rebellious attempt to improve student life and reduce crowding in Mudd, ESC has also been working to install a printer in Carleton. After conducting a survey in which the majority of student respondents favored installing a printer, ESC presented this to Brovman. It was also rejected.

When it comes to carrying out initiatives, ESC isn’t the only council plagued by its small reach.

As elected representatives, student council members have a mandate to advocate for their respective student bodies. But the combination of council members themselves, the bureaucratic processes and administrators they have to work with, and the apathy of the larger student body to engage with the council has left many promised initiatives unfulfilled and problems faced by students unresolved.  

The people in power

In November 2015, Dean of Columbia College James Valentini took the uncommon step of attending a CCSC general body meeting. He asked the council to outline the five most important issues facing CC students for him. CCSC went on to create committees and proposals to present the issues—from academic stress, to mental health, to race and diversity issues—and potential solutions.

But progress on many of those solutions has stalled, in part because Valentini didn’t see them as a “prescription” of the actions he should take. While CCSC saw this as an opportunity to essentially provide a large policy agenda to their dean, it failed to catalyze any new projects.

The wide berth CCSC was provided meant that it spent months developing strategies and solutions for problems that Valentini did not intend to implement—an odd miscommunication between the council and their dean.

“[The Five Things are] a communication about priorities that students have, that I want to be aware of. We want to be aware of those priorities, we want to engage with those priorities, we want to respond to them,” Valentini said in an interview with Spectator in September. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean achieving precisely the outcomes and objectives that are described therein.”

In September 2016, I covered the fall council election debates overseen by the Columbia Elections Board, the independent organization that had run elections for CCSC, ESC, and GSSC. The platforms of the eight different parties running for Class of 2020 seats in CCSC and ESC in particular were ambitious. Candidates were both stoically unfazed by and blissfully unaware of the fact that none of them would be able to achieve University-subsidized MetroCards for non-academic use or to magically turn unused meal swipes into dining dollars.

Columbia College first-years’ winning party, Lion Heart, said it would bring air conditioning to every residence hall on campus. University Senator Izzet Kebudi, a sophomore in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, told voters he would establish a call center for students with disabilities, negotiate a wheelchair-accessible entrance to the Mathematics building, and coordinate with Barnard’s Student Government Association to “bring in more female voices to engineering.” CCSC’s Student Services Representative, sophomore Sam Safari, said he would change the PawPrint printing system to allow students’ IDs to be scanned instead of having to log in. General Studies Student Council’s VP for Policy, SiLin Huang, promised to expand the University’s bike-sharing program and develop an airport shuttle for students during move-in and move-out.

Thus far, none of these initiatives have been implemented. But this inaction, unlike Perkins’ Legogate, isn’t always due to a lack of administrative support; it seems, instead, to be due to the lofty and unachievable nature of these campaign promises.

CCSC President Nicole Allicock, a junior, and VP for Policy Abby Porter, a senior, who had both served on council for a combined four years, were conscious about basing their platforms off of lofty goals. So their campaign materials from last year promised not what they would definitively accomplish but what they would work toward—a deliberate choice, Allicock tells me.

“[New candidates] don’t have council experience before, so they don’t necessarily know what the Columbia administration looks like,” Allicock says. “When you’re running a campaign, you want to make promises, and if you’re not aware of how that advocacy works, you may say, ‘We will do this.’ It would be better if they didn’t make these promises they can’t fulfill, but I don’t think it’s their fault if they didn’t realize it.”

Last year, however, two student council outsiders showed CCSC just how effective a council could be in the field of policy. Despite having no experience in student government at Columbia, former President Ben Makansi and his VP of Policy Vivek “Viv” Ramakrishnan, two 2016 graduates of Columbia College, saw lectures with mandatory discussion sections raised from three to four credits, free tampons and pads distributed by Columbia Health, and unprecedented price cuts to Senior Ball tickets for low-income students.

Makansi and Ramakrishnan, known to most as “Ben and Viv,” had an uproarious self-described bromance and ran for the CCSC presidency on an anti-establishment comedy ticket, the “Liberty, Freedom, and Liberty” party. Despite the tendency for councils to re-elect incumbents, they narrowly upset a party of insiders which included this year’s VP of Policy, senior Abby Porter. This happened after several other council insiders campaigned against Porter’s party, complaining that they hadn’t accomplished much in their roles and that they fostered a “culture of negativity” within the council.

While implementing many of these much-needed changes, Makansi and Ramakrishnan also lambasted members of council who they felt took themselves too seriously or who were using CCSC as a résumé-builder. They proposed joke resolutions to “make Cannon’s accessible beyond freshmen and Manhattan College people” and to remove weed from Housing’s list of banned substances. Makansi’s first-ever email to CC students started off by saying, “Yes, we actually did some shit. Hopefully it works.”

Watching Makansi speak from behind a podium at general body meetings was just as engaging as following his campaign. He was a clear leader, a commanding presence.

But, perhaps, he was too commanding: Last year, far fewer members participated actively in general body meetings. This year, Allicock, CCSC’s current president, cited increasing the number of participants in council discussions as a critical goal. Objectively, she has succeeded—there are still a number of council members who don’t speak up during general body meetings, but this number is substantially reduced from that of previous sessions.

“I don’t know if it’s always effective participation,” Allicock says. “But I think it’s much better than having only a handful of people talking.”

Part of this participation can be attributed to Allicock and Porter’s leadership style. Neither stands at a podium. Allicock especially has pulled away from actively managing meetings and speakers’ lists, with Porter taking up most of these responsibilities. Other VPs have jumped in, spreading out the speaking and leadership responsibilities more broadly across the executive board.

Allicock and Porter are not as authoritative in their leadership as Makansi and Ramakrishan were, a feature that has certainly benefited the internal character of council. But with Makansi and Ramakrishnan’s greater successes in creating policy changes at Columbia, there seemed to have been some benefit to having strong leaders who handled a lot of the initiatives on their own and were able to navigate the bureaucracy of Columbia in order to implement these changes.

Still, though there has been work on some of their campaign platform issues, Allicock and Porter have yet to achieve any tangible results in improving advising for first-years, executing comprehensive changes to improve the Center for Career Education, or improving administrative transparency—issues they said during the campaign they’d work to address.

Perkins hopes that in the future, council candidates won’t “oversell” their ability to actually change policies at Columbia. “You have to be genuine and upfront about your ability to make changes on campus,” Perkins says.

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But challenges that impede student councils’ ability to effect change are not just bound to quixotic campaign promises or the students in these positions of power. Single-year term lengths also make things more difficult.

This quick turnover rate means that the council’s objectives change from year to year depending on who is leading it. For example, while one council member may become the point-person for a particular issue, that issue may fall through the cracks if they graduate or aren’t re-elected the following year.

The bureaucratic nature of Columbia’s administration is also partially to blame. When Makansi was trying to get subsidies for senior week, he was stonewalled by the Office of Financial Aid. Instead, Makansi took his request to Valentini and Dean of Undergraduate Student Life Cristen Kromm as a work-around. With the many offices that council leaders have to interact with, each having their own specific purview, council leaders must be actively clever but also aware of which administrators can accomplish what, in order to ensure an initiative’s success.

The kind of hands-on leadership that Makansi and Ramakrishnan demonstrated can certainly be seen as necessary to ensure the success of complex initiatives which might fall to the wayside—but what about when council members graduate or lose their re-election bids?

One way of fighting against this structural flaw is to institute what Perkins calls “continuing resolutions.” These are a series of constitutional amendments, so far proposed in ESC exclusively, that allow current council members, by majority vote, to set mandatory agenda items for which the next year’s council must continue to advocate.

In the future, ESC’s VPs of Policy will delegate advocacy for these continuing resolutions to their committees and to the council’s numerous “at-large representatives.” Unlike class representatives, these at-large representatives advocate for particular categories of issues, like student services, inclusion and equity, and pre-professional affairs. Last year, ESC also added representatives for gender and sexuality, racial diversity and inclusion, first-generation low-income students, and students with disabilities, which many refer to as the “diversity reps.”

These positions were the brainchild of former VP of Finance turned ESC President Neha Jain, a senior in SEAS. It took several weeks to approve the positions last March, in part because council members were concerned that the positions weren’t concrete enough to represent meaningful policy.

Makansi, however, is not sure about the utility of these at-large positions on either council. “I would have probably disagreed with ESC’s addition of those four positions last year,” he says. “Not because I don’t think that they are issues worth addressing, but because I don’t think it’s an efficient or effective way to address those issues.”

These reps do participate regularly in general body meetings, but none have advanced any sort of policy proposal, let alone one relevant to the group they were elected to represent. Jain acknowledges that these representatives could be doing more on the policy front, but believes they represent an important “cultural shift” for ESC by ensuring that the council hold financially, racially, and physically inclusive events.

“I definitely did envision that each of these reps would feel more empowered to work on policy [than they do currently]. But they still engage in a lot of advocacy,” Jain says. “That advocacy can be just as important as pushing through a piece of paper.”

Perkins says the effectiveness of ESC’s diversity representatives comes in discussions behind closed doors—the ones I or the rest of the student body don’t get to hear. It still remains to be seen what major initiatives have come from these private discussions, though.

But the easily challengeable lack of transparency of closed-door meetings can have an unusual byproduct: honesty. This arose in February, when controversy erupted during a CCSC general body meeting in February when VP for Finance Anuj Sharma, a senior in Columbia College, motioned to close the meeting to the audience and press.

Sharma wanted to have an “honest discussion” in order to discuss financially sponsoring several student groups’ events, and said that council members would not feel comfortable to freely criticize groups’ requests if the audience and press were in the room. This argument was simultaneously self-implicating, tragic, and, above all, probably true.  “If we have open meetings but not honest deliberations, are we really being transparent?” he asks.

Makansi agrees, calling this tendency a “reluctance to disagree.” Some of this, ironically, seems to be caused by the person who’s supposedly there to ensure that the councils are transparent—me, since I could theoretically publish anything they say. Some of it can also be explained by the confined social environment of a college campus.

“In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to close the meeting, but you’re obviously going to have conflicts,” Porter says. “It’s just natural that we’re in a small environment, we all know each other, we’re going to school together—it’s natural for people to censor themselves like that, even though I don’t agree with it.”

Whose job is it anyway?

Back in 2012, a number of performing arts student groups advocated against expanding lounge space in Lerner, fearing a takeover of their performance and rehearsal spaces. This conflicted with student leadership requests for increased lounge space.

This year, the councils brought forth a proposal to create resource centers for LGBTQ students and students of color in Lerner’s old package center space. The initiative contended with administratiors’ beliefs that Lerner space shouldn’t be limited to one particular contingent of students.

These disconnected threads might be exactly what makes it a challenge for administrators to react to student advocacy—the question then becomes, which group should we listen to?

Several committees have been created to advocate for space, such as the University Senate Student Affairs Committee’s Morningside Student Space Initiative and the Lerner Advisory Committee. But these groups have no real sovereignty over any particular space, existing instead to provide suggestions to higher-up administrators.

Councils’ executive boards tend to have far better relationships with administrators than student groups, and could probably have much more sway if they worked with student groups to represent their needs, too. But a lot of student groups pursue their own advocacy efforts outside of councils, such as Muslim students asking for increased resources last month, or Columbia Divest for Climate Justice occupying Low Library last year. This precludes student councils from being the middle-man between students to the administration, a step which would centralize advocacy and providing a unity that would demonstrate the importance of the request at hand.

Connecting administrators to councils is commonplace across the street with Barnard’s Student Government Association. Associate Dean for Student Life Alina Wong sits in on every SGA meeting, which take place well after normal business hours (8 p.m. on Mondays). She serves as an administrative liaison between the council to higher-level administrators, such as Dean of the College Avis Hinkson, who graduated from Barnard in 1984, and the President’s Office.

According to an interview with Spectator in April 2016, Wong sees her role almost as a mentor. “It’s around leadership development; it’s also around policies and procedures,” she says. “It’s around training, also having a support system really for the members of SGA.”

However, this direct access to an administrator during SGA meetings may be a double-edged sword, as former council members described Wong’s mentorship as being more like a helicopter parent.

In April 2016, a Spectator investigation found that Wong had rewritten portions of multiple SGA emails and recommended that SGA not advocate against Barnard’s controversial winter housing policy earlier that year. Several council members interviewed during that investigation felt that they were being held accountable to Wong instead of to their own constituents. Several days later, Shivani Vikuntam, who graduated from Barnard last year, penned an op-ed criticizing Wong and Hinkson as being unreceptive and overbearing to SGA.

Whether or not such administrative involvement in SGA is positive, CCSC, ESC, or GSSC have not had administrators involved to this same extent. At Columbia, administrators—mostly from Undergraduate Student Life and Campus Services—do meet regularly with councils’ executive boards, but they give councils a fairly wide berth in developing policy. In a year and a half of covering council, I’d say administrators’ attendance at general body meetings can be described as random at best.

“It’s more on [student council members] to determine which direction they’re going to take on. What I can do is offer guidance,Josh Lucas, Director of Student Engagement, who advises CCSC and ESC, says.

While some administrators may seem to undervalue the issues that student councils advance, they also leave some key issues in the hands of councils which may not be equipped to solve them.

Campus Services and Undergraduate Student Life have thrown support behind the Emergency Meal Fund, but because this only provides six free meals, councils have been alone in their efforts to create more long-term solutions. Councils are collaborating with an outside developer to create a swipe-sharing app that replaces last year’s failed Swipes app, but the developers’ fees are coming out of student council budgets. Neither program benefits from publicity by the University either, meaning that food-insecure students may be completely unaware of these programs.

“I don’t understand what the University’s game plan is when there’s kids going hungry, but they’re going to leave this to student council bodies and student life budgets to solve that problem,” University Senator Sean Ryan, a senior in Columbia College, said in a general body meeting in February. “I’m really proud of the students that have put this together, but long term, this makes no sense that we’re building new buildings 10 blocks up [at the Manhattanville campus] and kids are going hungry.”

Collaboration between councils is not always able to stand in for a lack of formal University support, either. In the fall, the leaders of GSSC’s food bank attempted to secure “partnerships” with CCSC and ESC, wherein all the councils would operate the bank together, pending an investment of $6,000 from each council. But GSSC was unwilling to outline a clear budget, and the partnership was voted down by both CCSC and ESC.

As it stands, though, there is only one domain over which councils can exercise a great deal of power—finances and the allocation of the over $1 million in student life fees that their constituents pay. These are divided among the governing boards that fund student groups, their own budgets, and subsidies for Bacchanal. This all happens at the annual Funding @ Columbia University event—abbreviated as F@CU and lovingly pronounced “fack-you”—where, over a period of two days, incoming and outgoing council members decide where all the money goes.

At first glance, a group of college students deciding how to split up $1 million sounds more like a reality TV show than effective governance. But in fact, distributing funding may be the one thing besides T-shirt, donut, and water bottle giveaways that the councils can accomplish consistently every year because, for the most part, these tasks follow the same, well-established format every year and require little administrative involvement.

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Allocating money is the one task that councils consistently accomplish successfully, too, though with a healthy amount of debate. In fact, the financial aspect of councils is consistently thriving, with frequent budget surpluses, large grant programs that benefit student groups, and generally transparent and well-executed budget management.

This contrasts with councils’ supposed “power” to enact legislation, which is purely advisory and depends on administrative sign-off and, usually, on the University to execute resolutions.  This is, for me, what has made sitting in on council meetings both uplifting, as I see the work they strive to accomplish, and disheartening, as it often leads to little action.

Do students even care?

Perhaps the biggest barrier to councils, however, is their own constituents’ apathy. If students actually cared about what their councils were doing, their support would translate into increased action, more pressure on administrators, and, critically, a closer alignment among student groups and councils that could all benefit from advocating for the same things.

When students do engage with councils, it’s most often through the events and giveaways they put on, from laser tag in Roone Arledge Auditorium to free College Days T-shirts. While these events have more student engagement, they don’t reinforce the policy side of council that it often seeks to present as its most important function.  

While apathy represents a large issue, it’s unclear who’s at fault. CC, SEAS, and Barnard students face huge academic pressures from their core curricula, and GS students have their own lives, often off-campus, which mean that what their councils are doing is a low priority. The blame cannot entirely be placed on students for the low turnout in the 2016 elections, which hovered around 25 percent of the applicable student body.  

Even those who did vote didn’t seem to trust some candidates, with several executive board and most at-large representative positions receiving hundreds of votes for “None” instead of the one candidate who was running for the office. Some might argue this also falls on the Columbia Elections Board, which was widely criticized by councils and candidates last year for, among other things, failing to attract candidates outside of existing council members.

For many, councils full of incumbents can seem like mere extensions of the bureaucratic Columbia administration.

“Part of the concern may stem from an association of student council with certain bureaucratic structures in that it’s just another layer to work through,” Perkins says. “I think that there’s a certain lack of receptiveness to student input [from bureaucracy], and rightfully so. Students have a skepticism of what student councils can accomplish in their one-year tenures.”

This skepticism is exactly what leads students to question what councils can actually accomplish in a year, which curbs students from wanting to go through councils to seek change at Columbia. This cycle then hurts the councils’ ability to fully represent students and thus reduces their credibility throughout the University.

Next year’s class councils and executive board, which will be elected or re-elected next month, will face a number of immense challenges. Mental health is at the forefront of campus discussions. The fight for space on campus—and for Uris—is ongoing, too. Caring is crucial with these battles still ahead of us.

But when a council must spend half its energy legitimizing itself to both students and administrators as a means of tackling campus-wide policy issues, paired with a history of not accomplishing many of its lofty promises, there’s little that makes Columbia’s undergraduate student councils seem like a powerhouse to enact change on campus.

Though student councils have little independent policy power as things currently stand, there is a need to begin  building the blocks of legitimacy by unifying and leveraging the many voices of advocacy across the student population—both to elevate themselves in the eyes of their peers and of the administrators who can help see their initiatives to fruition.

This legitimacy could mean that proposals reflective of the student body’s needs are presented to the right administrators  and can be used to actually implement radical ideas such as, say, putting Legos in a student lounge.

In the meantime, though, councils will continue to pass well-intentioned resolutions that often, sadly, do everything but resolve the needs of students.

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