Head of the Class: the SGA, MCAB and Community Council organizations

By Middlebury Campus

Election season is over at Middlebury, and for the students who do not vote, which is the majority of those at Middlebury, this might not mean that much. Do we even know what the Community Council Co-Chair and Student Government Association (SGA) President do, or what they are in charge of? Those who most of us do not help elect make far-reaching decisions that affect most aspects of our Middlebury experience. The Campus investigated the structure, goals and projects that are part of three of the biggest student-run groups on campus: the Middlebury College Activities Board (MCAB), Community Council and SGA.

Defining the Groups

The SGA is intended to represent the interests of students on campus and administer the student activities fee  to implement programs that accomplish this goal. They support all student groups — everyone from club sports teams to the WRMC. The factor that clearly distinguishes the SGA from other organizations is its access to funds; while MCAB requests funds from the SGA for events and the Community Council proposes programs but does not use money itself, the SGA collects the funds through the annual student activities fee to directly implement programs. Although SGA President Riley O’Rourke ’12 says that the SGA “is not here to be a stopgap for the College,” it does pay for projects consistent with the goals of the College that Old Chapel does have the financial resources to provide.

With the 150 active student organizations representing a 50 percent increase in the last 10 years, the SGA has its hands full, especially since “the vast majority of originations take some sort of money,” said Associate Dean of Students and Director of the Center for Campus Activities and Leadership (CCAL) Doug Adams.

SGA approaches tackling campus issues through a variety of avenues. First, it generally continues support for preapproved programs — like printing the Campus, maintaining library hours and keeping midnight breakfast; programs SGA implements itself — like the break buses; and capital expense programs, which require sinking large amounts of the built-up reserve money into one-time projects. The two new elliptical machines that the SGA purchased last year are examples of this type of project, as is the project to restore Worth Mountain Lodge at the Snow Bowl.

MCAB also represents the students by providing events they would like to see on campus. Although the Commons Councils are charged with the task of organizing events at the Commons level, MCAB organizes events for the student body as a whole, as well as helping with especially large Commons events.

Unlike both MCAB and the SGA, the Community Council is not charged with implementing policy or programs; rather, the Council focuses on making recommendations regarding non-academic student-life issues. Some of the most visible issues this year have been dining hall overcrowding, the push for gender neutral housing, problems with increased vandalism, housing issues and policies regarding social houses and academic interest houses.

The combination of faculty and staff on Community Council is intended to help both students and faculty feel more comfortable with the ability of the Council to come to moderate solutions.

“If there’s something that targets faculty but we want student input, they can come to us,” said Community Council Co-Chair Raymond Queliz ’11. “They can come to Community Council to come up with a solution that will benefit everyone. Sometimes there’s trouble with communication [between faculty/staff and students], but usually it works out. We try to compromise.”

The faculty and staff are often able to give insight into what types of changes might need to be implemented before a proposal is passable. Dean of College and Chief Diversity Officer Shirley Collado, for instance, often talks with President of the College Ronald Liebowitz before proposals are submitted. Because of this communication, the proposals that land on Liebowitz’s desk are usually ones he is willing to accept.

“We word it in a way that we know for a fact that it’s going to pass,” Queliz said. This procedure also has a logistical implication: “We don’t want to send [Liebowitz] anything that we know won’t pass because then we just spent an entire meeting on absolutely nothing.”

Although the groups have fairly well-defined boundaries, sometimes there are some ambiguities — what happens, for instance, if the Community Council starts a project that they realize will affect mostly just students, or that requires money that the SGA would need to allocate? When such issues arise, the fact that the SGA President and Community Council Co-chair are members of each other’s organizations helps a lot.

In the case of a proposal for “condo packs” of dishware for houses and suites this year (intended to reduce the amount of dishes taken out of the dining hall), the Community Council transferred the project to the SGA after realizing that it was both a student-centered and monetary issue. But sometimes, as in the case of the new plan for a Hebrew house, the Community Council does approve projects that require funding, but it does not deal with the logistics after the proposal is passed.

Ultimately, the boundaries between the two organizations may sometimes be a little murky.

“It’s worked out because Riley and I ended up being on the same page,” said Queliz. “But there needs to be more clarification on how [Community Council and the SGA] work together.”

This Year’s Projects

Even with some setbacks and logistical confusion, all three groups have been able to make big strides this year.

The SGA has initiated the cheap airport rides program, pushed for an extra day as part of the reading period, opened the Redfield Proctor up for students, received approval for a gym in Ross Commons, re-opened the Grille and Grille delivery. Additionally, the first-year orientation trips will continue to run through the Mountain Club with SGA funding.

The Community Council worked to pass the gender-neutral housing initiative and has studied the dining hall crowding issues. They have also initiated a project to create a Hebrew House on campus.

Aside from continued event programming, MCAB’s major goals this year revolved around hearing new perspectives. MCAB accomplished this through encouraging applications from members of Commons Councils, and this led to new committee leadership that had already had experience on the Commons level.

“It’s nice because they have a different perspective on such a range of events — from apple picking to fondue Friday to these massive events,” MCAB President Maria Perille ’11 said. “They’re skilled in communication with Commons deans and also with MCAB and have the programming experience.”

Recent Changes

MCAB hopes to continue to encourage inter-group communication by pushing to reinstate a treasurer as part of MCAB. Since the treasurer would also be part of the SGA, this would create another layer of cohesion between the two groups which sometimes do not interact much outside the SGA’s finance committee (the committee which would appoint this liaison).

“[Having a treasurer] allows for more communication between SGA and MCAB,” Perille said. “And it’s nice that they know where the money they’ve allocated is going.”

The evolution of MCAB’s integration with other student groups has been on the upswing for years, after the Inter-Commons Council — which included the Commons Chairs of each commons — merged with MCAB five years ago. Although

Adams says the merger was intended to “ensure that they didn’t have scheduling problems” between MCAB events and larger commons events like Cook Foam or Brainerd Bacchanalia, for example, it also helped allow MCAB to work with leaders within the commons system to help plan and implement effective programming.

This evolution has been part of a larger trend within MCAB as the group has moved to steadily incorporate more members and interests. Ten years ago, for instance, there were only nine MCAB members. Now, the group of about 65 handles much larger events and is “much more representative of the student body,” according to Adams.

“The key element they’ve gained is that they’re incredibly representative of student interests, and that process will continue,” said Adams. “What they do will continue to change because it’s what students want to see.”

The Community Council has also expanded membership in recent years; whereas the council is supposed to have only eight student voting members, they made the change this year to expand voting privileges to the two alternates, who had to come to all the meetings anyway. The rationale was that those who participate and hear all the same information should have the same rights to vote on issues.

And new voting members have not been the only additions to meetings. The Community Council’s docket of important cases this year — especially the debate over gender neutral housing — ensured that about half of the group’s meetings (which are always open) were attended by outsiders.

Changes within the SGA have existed mainly in the realm of finance. The allocation process, which divides the $380 each student pays in activities fees every year to groups all over campus through the SGA’s Finance Committee, has evolved over time.

Most importantly, the SGA has begun making an effort to spend down its massive reserves by encouraging clubs and groups to reduce the amount of leftover funds at the end of the year through a variety of strategies. In the past, the Finance Committee was careful with spending, possibly in an effort to avoid the budget shortfall that occurred five years ago. At that point, the negative reserves caused budget cuts to clubs and groups, and the activities fee, which had previously just increased by $20 each year and was not keeping up with the pace of new club and group formation, doubled. The period of fiscal austerity that followed led to years of scant spending.

“The Finance Committee has been responsible with the funds,” said Adams. “Over time they have changed their policies to be responsive to the needs and requests of student groups.”

Through this process the group relaxed many of its policies on spending, but this took time.

“It’s a bit like steering the Titanic … and it’s not something that they could shift quickly because they didn’t want to negatively affect any of the groups that were being funded.”

Looking to the Future

With reserves at a much higher level than they were previously and an effort to lower the level to a manageable $150,000, the SGA plans to start doing some big things. The SGA was budget neutral this year — meaning that the activities fee amounted to the exact amount of money clubs and groups needed — but next year, it plans to start spending the reserves down. The goal will be to cut the reserves in half in two or three years.

The SGA has been careful to make sure that when it starts spending the reserves, it is spending them in the right place.

“[The Finance Committee] needed to take the time to find out what the students wanted, since they certainly don’t want to spend student money irresponsibly,” said Adams. “It’s about finding the balance between acting decisively but acting with student interest in mind.”

Projects that will help out in this effort are the Ross gym, the re-vamping of the Worth Mountain Lodge at the Snow Bowl and the proposed bus stand at Adirondack Circle. Additional projects planned are the creation of an “arts and crafts room” in the Crest Room of McCullough — it will come equipped with materials like lamination machines and poster boards for student groups to use — and pushing for a pass/fail option.

This spending of reserves will be one of the biggest SGA initiatives in the coming years, but the group has undergone major changes in the past 10 years as well. Like MCAB, the SGA has moved to incorporate the Commons system into its structure.

Before Commons/SGA integration, there was a representative for each dorm on campus and a highly decentralized student government, but since there has been a consolidation of representatives into the SGA and Commons Councils.
This new organization “makes [the SGA] very dynamic and nimble; it can change for what students need at that time,” Adams said.

As far as the structure of the organization, SGA has no plans to change.

“I think they understand themselves very well,” said Adams. And as far as improvements, “ I think [O’Rourke] might tell you that they need to market themselves better; they’re a little too humble when it comes to the things they do.”

Although the fact that the Community Council responds to current issues and student initiatives makes the agenda for any coming year fairly unpredictable, Queliz can name some goals for the future: awareness of the group is one thing he would like to see change.

“I want more and more people to apply to be on it and more people to know what it actually is,” he said. “Because it deals with more everyday aspects of the campus and specifically student life, it’s something that directly affects students and creates an inclusive environment for students, faculty, staff, and administration; it’s a lot more important, but people don’t really know about it.”

Ultimately, although all the organizations have different structures, memberships, visions and procedures, they have some common goals.

“One thing that is similar in all three is the fact that they’re serving students’ interests,” Adams said. “They’re all volunteers trying to make sure Middlebury is a better place for student interests. So although they’re very different groups, in that way they’re the same.”