As Student Government Association President Akshay Kapoor nears the end of his first semester as president, he plans to emphasize forging connections with campus administrators and state policy makers.
In early October, Kapoor announced his legislative agenda for the year to the SGA Senate. The agenda places a heavy emphasis on cooperation with officials, a skill Kapoor believes to be key in ensuring that student voices are heard.
“Administrators, people who donate to the school or people who make decisions about the University want to hear from students,” he said. “They want to know what effects students on a day to day basis, how they can help out, what students do and don’t need, what we like, or even just to hear a story.”
He hopes that by meeting with officials he will build relationships between the SGA and officials that will extend past his presidency.
“I think it takes a lot of time to build those relationships and if they’re there for the next president as well as for me, I feel we can get a lot done from a student perspective,” he said.
In addition to working on a state level, Kapoor has invested a significant amount of time in improving relationships between the SGA and the administrators on campus.
Last year, relationships between the groups grew strained after Residential Life announced the removal of the peer mentor position in December. The decision – which students were not consulted about in advance – drew widespread criticism from students and sparked several small protests that eventually resulted in the reinstatement of the peer mentors in some freshman residence halls.
Kapoor is seeking a fresh start, with an emphasis on cooperation for mutual benefit. He meets regularly with Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy and each of the vice chancellors. He maintains that he has a “very close” relationship with each of them.
“It’s more of a collaborative approach,” he said.
With this collaborative approach, Kapoor is working to dismantle the administrator versus student mentality that he believes has been damaging to negotiations in the past.
“I think one of the things that prevented us from being able to bring things to the table with the administrators before was that they worked with a very adverse mentality,” Kapoor said. “That’s something that we’ve changed this year with the new administration. There’s a new outlook with them and a new outlook with my administration and the SGA, from the student perspective. I’m happy to say that either myself or another student has been involved in every decision on campus. We all have the same purpose here; we all have the same ultimate goals.”
Kapoor also hopes to strengthen the relationship between the University and Amherst by promoting a crackdown on absentee landlords, a problem that the town has been making attempts to legislate since September, when citizens petitioned for the issue to be addressed at town meetings.
While the SGA lacks the authority to do anything about the overcrowded and deteriorating residencies – particularly on Fearing and Phillips streets – he believes if the SGA is an advocate against absentee landlords, the issue will improve.
He says he spends between six and seven hours a week talking to officials and groups about this issue.
“Some of the houses are overpopulated, they need renovations, they’re not even safe for students to live in which is something I have major issues with,” Kapoor said.
Also on the president’s agenda are plans to revise the Code of Student Conduct, a process that takes place every spring. Last year’s revisions focused on clearly defining sexual assault and the meaning of consent. This year, Kapoor plans to focus on the alcohol policy, the definition of student gathering versus riot, and making the tone of the document more positive.
Under the current code, if a student drinking is caught drinking underage their punishment from the Dean of Student’s office will remain on their transcript for seven years and is therefore available for graduate schools and potential employers to see, according to Kapoor. He sees it as an infraction that could prohibit a student from getting into graduate school or being offered a job.
Kapoor is working to make the process less punitive by changing the policy so that the first infraction will not appear on a student’s record.
He also wants to clarify the distinction between a student gathering, like the one that happened in the wake of President Barack Obama’s re-election, and a riot, which is currently “vague,” in the code, according to Kapoor.
Working with the chancellor, Kapoor intends to change the overall tone of the code of conduct from a “top-down” tone to a “community” tone. He plans to do this by changing the phrasing of rules.
“Right now the code is very much like law where it says what students can and can’t do,” Kapoor said. “We want to change the language to be more affirmative, to make it more about community standards and what a model student should be doing and striving towards. It’s not that we’re going soft on students who violate standards or the current code, but we want to rephrase it so that it reflects a community feel and not a top-down administrative approach, on both the housing and overall student level.”
Also in the spirit of changing the tone on campus, Kapoor says that he plans to be a strong supporter of the University’s decision to become a Division I football team. The SGA will support the team through raffles, student tailgate activities and social networking promotion.
“Very few schools make a profit off football programs,” said the president. “But what we do make a profit on is school spirit and recruiting and retaining students by creating a different culture, a different mentality on campus, and that’s what we’re investing in. We want football to be part of our culture and to build school spirit which is also very vital to our community.”
In addition to being an advocate for the University, Kapoor is also pushing the implementation, growth or reinstatement of several programs on campus.
Last semester, Kapoor wrote up an initiative to start a “sober shuttle” program that would bus students from the bars to their homes. The initiative passed during the spring election, and now Kapoor is working to implement the program, which he estimates will cost students $1.29 per semester.
The shuttle would make several off-campus stops as well as one on-campus stop, according to Kapoor.
Kapoor found it “appalling” that buses, filled by students staying out at bars close to last call, would turn other students away.
Other programs that Kapoor has his eye on are the alternative-transporaton bike share program and the Judicial Advisor program, which allows students to seek legal advice and sometimes representation from fellow students. The SGA is looking to expand that program from three to four staff students, Kapoor said.
After striking a compromise with the Provost office, Kapoor also plans to bring back the school’s readership program, which, up until fall of 2011, provided students with free copies of the New York Times, Boston Globe and USA Today.
Due to limited funding, only the New York Times will be available to students starting in January.
One of Kapoor’s goals that he has already accomplished is the creation of a community service day for UMass students. On Sept. 15, about 200 students participated in service projects throughout Amherst as part of the “UMass UMake A Difference” campaign.
“One of the things when I first came to UMass I realized is that we didn’t have a campus-wide volunteer day,” Kapoor said. “A lot of the state schools of our size or other universities have a campus effort where the entire campus gets together and reaches out to neighboring communities. So one of the things I really want to do as president was create a program that reached out to the community, helped build better relationships with them and gave back.”
While there are no plans to do another project like the UMass UMake A Difference campaign this school year, Kapoor said he hopes the event will become an annual one and within the next two or three years expand so the students are working in other communities such as Springfield.