Students push for voting power on Lobby Day

By Brian Bevilacqua

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Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

Since William Bulger was president of the school, University of Massachusetts students have fought for the right to vote on what happens at UMass.

“Some people think students don’t have the capacity to understand what is going on, which is complete crap,” said senior Student Government Association President Zac Broughton. He is determined to gain full voting rights for students this Lobby Day. “Students are heavily outnumbered on [the] board anyways, and we are adults and can make their decisions. This is something they have to trust us to do.”

On Tuesday, a group of between 50 and 75 UMass Amherst students will arrive at the State House in Boston with Broughton for Lobby Day, when activists from all five UMass campuses will join together to lobby for more student representation in the UMass Board of Trustees, the group responsible for the biggest decisions affecting the UMass system.

Lobby Day, an event held by many large state colleges, usually falls in the spring semester so activists can lobby their state representatives for educational funding. It was decided to move it to the fall this year so students could persuade state government to support a bill that would grant voting rights to all five campus representatives.

Currently, there are 19 voting members on the Board, which consists of 17 school officials and two student representatives. According to the student government office, from 1987-1991 the Amherst, Boston and Worcester campuses all had the right to vote on school issues.

However, when UMass Lowell and UMass Dartmouth opened, student voting rights were stripped. There has since been less than 11 percent student representation on the Board, with the two votes alternating between the five campuses and the other three schools listed as non-voting members.

Although UMass Amherst does not have voting rights this year, the SGA and the Center for Education Policy and Advocacy have worked for several years during this annual event to gain suffrage for all students, even in years when Amherst did hold one of the two votes.

The bill is currently stuck in committee, unable to move forward to a vote in the Massachusetts State House, so the student activists plan to talk to their representatives to persuade them that this issue matters to their constituents.

In the last two decades, the University Board of Trustee members have explained the uneven voting rights by repeatedly stating that the other three campuses have representatives on the board listed as “non-voting members” whose opinions are taken into consideration when officials vote.

“We’re not taking a position on this bill in the Legislature,” Ann Scales, director of communications at the UMass President’s office, said. “We believe that all five student trustees have historically had a major impact on Board of Trustees deliberations and decisions.”

Many student activists are frustrated at the slow progress of the bill, prompting the SGA to unanimously pass a motion proposed by student Savannah Van Leuvan-Smith encouraging the state to pass this change.

Despite the University’s unwillingness to take a stance in support of the bill, Broughton sees no reason for school officials to take issue with it.

“I think the school would appreciate it,” he said. “This year we don’t have a vote. We have lobbied for this when we did have vote. It is our chance to have an advocate of student voices on the Board, I don’t see why they wouldn’t support it. It would ensure equal representation.”

He added, “If Caret means what he says, he will support it.”

Megan Kingston, an accounting major who is going to the State House on Lobby Day, agreed with Broughton.

“Equal voting power for all members of the Board of Trustees creates validity and value to each Board of Trustees member,” Kingston said. “President Caret states in almost every President Report to the Board of Trustees that student input and the student perspective is valued and important. For this to be true in statement and in practice, every student trustee needs to be granted voting rights. This concept of ‘ex officio’ membership devalues the student trustee, and the campus he or she represents.”

Broughton sees Lobby Day as part of a long-term struggle to change the law. Although it may not see immediate success Broughton believes it will inevitably pass because failing to do so would be “hypocritical of those influencing the decision.” He said nothing can change instantly and expects no imminent drastic changes to UMass, but said his dream would be for it to go into effect July 1, the start of the new academic year.

Broughton believes his office’s lengthy push will be appreciated by state representatives because the students are not asking for money or any immediate changes – just the opportunity to have a greater input in future decision making. SGA and student activists hope that their government will respect this demand and move it out of committee to the floor of the State House.

Broughton was optimistic that once Lobby Day pushes the bill out of committee it will easily pass.

“The only thing that’s stopping it is that a vote has to happen,” he said. “A lot of bills die in committee. When it gets out, more people will talk about it.”

Broughton added, “More student voters means more students standing up to the board against tuition and fee increases. Having more students votes will show what they want.

“It is one thing to advise, it is another to be a part of the decision process,” said Broughton. “It allows students to demonstrate how they feel. If five students vote against something, it reveals a disconnect. If the rest of the Board votes yes and we vote no, it shows our opinion doesn’t matter.”

Brian Bevilacqua can be reached at [email protected]

Editor’s Note, 12:30 p.m. 11/19/2013: A previous version of this story misidentified one of the students who is going to Lobby Day.