Toward a Transparent Student Union

In an interview with The Spectator last spring, Student Union (SU) President Tahseen Chowdhury said, “Every SU in the past and every platform that you’ve...

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In an interview with The Spectator last spring, Student Union (SU) President Tahseen Chowdhury said, “Every SU in the past and every platform that you’ve seen in the past always have specific ideas, and we lack that, and that’s good.” But the SU’s failure to communicate specific goals, or sometimes even to communicate at all, has only caused it to seem out-of-touch—there is an SU hotline, for instance, but Stuyvesant does not allow students to make phone calls in school.

This is not to say the SU is superfluous. It has had some successes, such as providing stuy.edu e-mail addresses, attempting to enforce a homework policy, and setting up the printing station.

But for every achievement, there are multiple failed or useless projects: promising and not delivering a locker trading system for the fall of 2017; not reliably helping clubs make their own websites through StuyClubPub.org; inability to enforce allowing students in early from their lunch periods; and the disappearance of bathroom hooks, to name a few.

Some ventures, like opening up the fifth floor balcony, seem both unattainable and arbitrarily chosen. Similarly, the freshmen and sophomore caucuses devote most of their energies towards planning grade dances like Semi-Formal, despite these events not being met with similar enthusiasm from the student body.

SU members often argue that their accomplishments are backstage, such as haggling with administration over student autonomy or organizing SING! logistics. Even if the SU is incredibly productive “behind-the-scenes,” the fact that their primary functions are nearly invisible—not advertised to, or understood by, most students—indicates a lack of dialogue with their constituents.

Students receive few updates on what their student officials are doing. Though SU e-mails are constant, these are almost always weekly schedules or reminders about school events, rather than providing insight on SU projects or requests for student input.

The SU has attempted to establish communication through other means, namely Facebook posts and video updates. Besides being difficult to access for students who are not regular Facebook users (which particularly hurts freshmen who may not be accustomed to Stuyvesant’s Facebook-heavy culture), these posts also do not provide significant information about the SU’s work, but rather list upcoming events.

Another issue with the SU’s communication is its size. The SU has been aggressively expanding, and now has approximately 250 members. Many new positions have been formed, such as the Director of Music and Supplies in the Freshman Caucus, and the SU has stated that they want to increase the number of task forces to handle new problems and projects. These new titles are part of a push to make the SU more inclusive, but they have instead created bureaucratic bloat.

This attempt at inclusion through creating hundreds of positions is an ineffective solution that leaves the rest of the student body isolated. Indeed, the SU is often seen as an exclusive club, disconnected from non-SU member peers and operating within their own social circle.

Oversizing also leads to inefficiency. The current SU fails to reap the benefits of specialized lower offices. Mobility between different departments is high, leaving many officers unacquainted with their duties. The lower offices often redirect student concerns to higher offices anyway. Students needing assistance then become unsure as to whom they should approach. Redundant and vague positions such as the freshman caucus’s multiple chiefs of staff and advisors only add to the confusion.

Lower offices are also difficult to locate on the websites of the various caucuses. Many important pages, such as the “task forces” menu button on the SU website and the advisory council page of the sophomore caucus, do not open up or do not have content. Chowdhury and SU Vice President Alexa Valentino’s platform states, “Task forces are designed to be started rapidly to ensure that we take on any good ideas.” But the near invisibility of these task forces—names, officers, guidelines, or mission statements are nowhere to be found—makes it difficult to contact them with problems or to know what they have accomplished.

Another of the Student Union’s biggest tasks is managing over $100,000 and dispersing that among clubs and publications. But the page for budget information on their website directs students to a Google document from last school year, with Niels Graham, an alumnus, as the listed contact. The updated “Clubs and Pubs Rules and Regulations” sheet specifies that clubs must complete “appropriate paperwork available at the SU website,” and that the SU only appropriates funds at certain times throughout the year. Neither the dates nor the form are readily available online.

As a result of this lack of transparency, when the SU accomplishes something (or fails to), students don’t always know; when students are told the SU has accomplished something, they rarely know how or why.

The SU should redefine its role to be the intermediary between students and the administration. As the most direct link between the two, the SU should be the main advocate for student needs.

In this capacity, the SU can focus its energies on incorporating student opinions. Before pursuing large-scale undertakings, the SU should poll the student body. This could be as simple as a Google form with a paragraph proposing a change, a one-to-five rating scale, and a space for additional comments. The survey’s results should be made public so that students know what the SU will be doing, and on what basis. Similarly, occasional surveys could also be used to poll student opinion on current SU endeavors, in order to see whether continuing them is a good investment of resources.

Better advertising SU cabinet meetings, or holding town halls, would also provide non-SU members with a forum to listen to and question the leaders of the student body, as well as provide their own recommendations. The result of increased engagement with students would be more clearly defined goals, with a larger support-base, that the SU could dedicate its energies toward.

Revitalizing the “task force dedicated to speaking to you,” which was established in the 2016-17 school year, would also improve communication. This task force is supposed to consist of a group of SU members who walk around the school to discern student opinions. Having them be more active (they only interview about five students per month, according to an SU official) and public about their findings would give the student body more confidence in the SU, and allow students to gain consensus through e-mail, form, or social media from the limited number of students such a task force can reach out to.

Improved communication can be readily facilitated by consolidating the SU’s bureaucracy. Eliminating unnecessary officials, and clearly delineating which students are responsible for which jobs, would establish a much more navigable chain of command.

This streamlining would need to be supplemented with an up-to-date website, or some other place with easily available information about the SU (such as physical postings in the school). Clearly explaining who to contact in specific scenarios would go a long way toward establishing confidence and conversation with the student body, without requiring much time or energy on the part of the SU.

Having some form of government is vital to the student body: it provides an outlet for complaints, a channel to the administration, and a way to organize and actualize the student body’s desires. Many of the SU’s current projects fulfill these responsibilities; however, there are many more from which students are kept in the dark. The first step for the SU to become an effective intermediary is greater transparency.