SGA Sound-Off: Thoughts on Earnest Discussion, Needed Debate, and the Problems of Silence

An open letter to fellow senators, students, and the Middlebury College Community,

This past Sunday, the SGA voted on a MiddView bill, approving up to $98,000 in funding (half the cost of the trips) for the next three years. See previous coverage here. We, the undersigned, believe it was an injustice to the Middlebury College community, and a disgrace to the principles of Student government for us, as a senate, to vote on the MiddView Bill this past Sunday.

Our grievances on this matter are two-fold:

First, the process by which the bill passed and the consequences for not observing proper decorum. It was irresponsible of the Senate not to delay the vote on the bill to the next meeting, seeing as there had been no time for prior review of the bill (as the by-laws require), nor were there thorough and/or official presentations of the facts and consequences of this case. It was reckless to vote on a bill of this importance (allocating nearly $300,000 of student activities fee monies (if the administration needs the full half contribution each year)) without giving it the proper time for debate and discussion.

Second, the funding method itself (who is paying for these trips, and at what percentages) is problematic, and deserved a full discussion not provided for at Sunday’s meeting.

Now, we are 110% behind OINK as the philosophy of having outdoor and other educational experiences before or during orientation. As some of the few members of the senate who were here for MiddView Trips and not OINK trips, we can personally attest to their value. However, this bill  and its potential consequences (good and bad alike) deserved to have an actual debate in the SGA, not just to be hastily pushed through without time for a fully informed discussion and vote.

It seems that somehow, it was forgotten that our role as senators is to discuss the merits of the issues, and present the clearest representation of potential impacts of any legislation. Upon the proposal of said bill, it was clear there were opposing views. These opposing views expressed concerns with regard to funding that could not be immediately or coherently addressed in full. They also expressed concerns with the agreement reached with the administration, and at no time was an explanation or presentation on those meetings given to the senate.

There was an attempt to table the vote of the bill until next week when more research could be done (senators could speak with constituencies, an official finance committee presentation could be made regarding fiscal impacts, presidential cabinet members could offer their insights, etc.). Regrettably, however the vote to table the bill until next week lost with a five to seven vote.

There are several issues with the course of this past Sunday we’d like to address:

1. Approving nearly $300,000 in funding without having the bill prior to the meeting to solicit feedback upon from our constituencies, an official presentation regarding the fiscal impact, nor a full discussion of the consequences for student organizations.

Allocating up to $98,000 per year to MiddView trips for the next three years  could cause a significant dent in the student activity fee financials. As accused of in the meeting, this is not just ‘pure conjecture,’ it is simple math. After further research, we hope we can clarify to the student body what this means:

Each student pays $380 per year in Student Activities Fees. With 2,450 students, that garners an annual pot of approximately $950,000 per year. Thus, spending $98,000 per year on MiddView Trips, this is already approximately 10% of the entire student body’s activities fee. Now, that may not sound like much, but to put that into perspective, allocating $98,000 per year is larger than the MCAB concert committee’s annual budget, approx. the size of the (all five together) common’s budgets, is twice the annual amount WRMC receives, and four times the Mountain Club’s budget.

To break it down even further, with approximately 600 students per class year, each class garners $228,000 in student activities fees. Proportionately, then, even if the finance committee somehow created a FY block, whereby only first years were contributing to the MiddView fee, 42% of the first-year’s student activities fees ($163.00 per person) would be paying for these trips.

While the trips may be ‘free’ for all first-years as part of their Orientation, they are not free in that it will be coming from their student activities fee money, thus reducing the ability of student groups to provide programming throughout the year. To be sure, the SGA does have reserve funding, but that funding is dwindling, and that money is not to be used for MiddView, but as a ‘rainy day fund.’

Scott Klenet ‘12, chair of the Finance Committee, with regard to how this measure would impact student organizations and how he would counsel his successors to adapt to the significant cost increase said: “I encourage [future chairs and committee members] to budget the $98,000 in sustainably, by not dipping into the reserves and adjusting other budgets appropriately.”

It is clear that free really isn’t free. And it’s coming from our Student Activities Fee.

2. The Negotiations being incomplete with regard to percentage of payment. And where is the research on peer institutions and their funding of Orientation programming?

It is not a new topic of discussion to hear of the administration and the SGA clamoring over who should pay for what. The SGA created the band-aid of OINK when the administration dropped MiddView several years ago, as well as things such as midnight breakfast and the extended library hours during exams.

However, is it appropriate that our student activities fee money goes to Orientation Trips? Is that what the fee should be used for? We strongly disagree with that. As a colleague succinctly described and we’ll paraphrase here: it is the College’s responsibility to provide an Orientation Experience for its first-years. It is not the responsibility (nor a cost of which fellow students should share the burden) of students and the student activities fee.

The most disheartening part of this bill was that key members of the SGA’s Presidential cabinet, who have invaluable experience and insight into complicated measures such as this, were not brought into the discussions with the College Administration. While the sponsoring senators, without question, have expended beyond commendable energy and effort into this worthy project, with a project of such stature, the Presidential cabinet should have been a part of the dialogue.

3. All the other unanswered questions:  Is this the best model to embed the trips within Orientation? Do students want MiddView if that means less support for student organizations? Etc., etc….

These are all things that as a Senate, we should have discussed, and we should have presented a fully informed view to the student body to solicit feedback before voting on such a crucial measure.

Where we go from here, a call to our fellow senators, students, and College Community.

Seeing as student body support for this bill was not obtained in the full context of understanding that it would be our student activity fee money (not the administration’s money), and a significant portion of it paying for these trips, we feel a larger discussion needs to be had. As Ryan Kellett reported several years ago (Nov 2009) when the discussion of MOO funding arose: “The reality is that reinstating MOO means taking money away from someone else… Most students don’t realize that this is their student activities fee (SAF) dollars which also go to support the likes of Quidditch, the Commons, Yearbook, ISO, MCAB Concerts, etc…. Frame it this way: would you rather have MOO or a radio station? would you rather have speakers come to campus or MOO? It’s true that this money might come out of the FC reserves for now, but what happens in three years when it has to come out of the Student Activities Fee.”

Fellow senators, if you voted no to table the vote until a later date Sunday night, we urge you to reconsider your decision. Why vote on something when all of the avenues have yet to be explored? We must hold ourselves to higher standards than were displayed last night. We must allow time for debate, research, and discussion of these highly important and relevant issues to students here at Middlebury.

We are proposing a bill this Sunday, January 29th that re-opens this matter for discussion. We are proposing to ensure administrative funding for these trips after the Fall of 2013. We are asking that the previous bill’s funding of Fall 2014 & 2015 be striken, but are allowing the Fall of 2013 funding to be enacted for the sake of cooperation, and ensuring that these trips will happen. We want a more informed vote than the one this bill received this past weekend.

Fellow students, comment below, email your senators (find them here) with your questions and opinions. Are you OK with them the SGA vote to carry half of the expenses (up to $98,000 annually) for MiddView, even if that money is coming from your Student Activities Fee, and therefore potentially impacting Student Org Funding? Do you think the administration should be relying upon the SGA to pay up to half of the cost of the Trips? Do you think it’s good to have the trips be mandatory and embedded in Orientation?

We do not claim to have all the answers, and in fact, that is half the problem.  We are here to serve you, so tell us what you believe is right.

Brittany Gendron ‘12, Senior Senator
Michael Polebaum ‘12, Cook Commons Senator
Luke Carroll Brown ‘13.5, Feb Senator


Update: This post has been edited on 1/25 to reflect Feb Senator Luke Carroll Brown’s support.