Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Question and Answer: Robert Kearns runs for student trustee with platform focusing on environmental issues

Kearns is currently a senator in the Student Government Association

%28Used+with+permission%2FRobert+Kearns%29
(Used with permission/Robert Kearns)

(Used with permission/Robert Kearns)

(Used with permission/Robert Kearns)

By Hayley Johnson, Managing Editor

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Junior environmental science major Robert Kearns is running for student trustee in the Student Government Association for the 2018-19 school year. He currently serves as a senator for the Class of 2019 in the SGA, but he’s hoping to implement environmental policy among other things as student trustee.

Below is the transcript of a question-and-answer interview with Kearns in preparation for the SGA debate on Monday, Feb. 19 at 6 p.m. in the Commonwealth Honors College events hall.

What is the role of a senator? And the role of a student trustee?

Robert Kearns: The role of a senator is similar to a trustee as we’re both representatives of students to the government and to the faculty—especially to the administration. We’re student representatives to the administration and the SGA’s role is the advocate for students and bring student perspectives. We advise for policy and campus initiatives. We actually have a role where we have the right, responsibility and privilege to do this through the Wellman Document. The Wellman Document is actually a document that came from the board of trustees. The board of trustees is sort of the overarching governance body of the UMass system. So, as a student trustee I would be the representative representing undergraduates as well as graduate students on the board of trustees for UMass Amherst. There’s a student trustee from UMass Boston, UMass Lowell and UMass Dartmouth as well. I’m running for the seat to represent student voices on the board. And the board sort of makes the final decisions for campus-wide policy, campus budgets—so any fees, if they want to raise fees it goes to the board. That’s something I’m against. Every few years the vote actually changes, so this year I would not have the vote as a student trustee. That’s something I’d also like to change because I don’t think it’s right that all student trustees don’t have a vote. I would be advocating and seeing what I could do with my voice, but I would not have a vote unfortunately, or whoever was in the position would not have a vote.

What are some of the policies you would want to focus on, given you become student trustee?

RK: Some of the initiatives I think are critical for student trustee to be working on, and something I’m really passionate about, is [the] affordability of higher education. I believe education is a right, not a privilege and that as a public institution of higher education, we really should be fighting for debt-free college as well as making sure that I advocate to the board as well as to the legislature to make sure that they fully fund the University so we don’t have any more budget cuts. Over the past few years, the burden of the cost of higher education went from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the state legislature onto the students. I really think that we need to push that back into a place where we get more state appropriations. And one of the ways I think we should do that, and some of the things I advocate for not only on the board but just in general, is I support the Fair Share Amendment, or the Millionaire’s Tax to increase taxes on millionaires to help pay for transportation issues as well as higher education. I think that we need more revenue to help support UMass and I think that it’s not only what I’m going to do on the board, but how we empower students and we work on specific policies and go advocate to our representatives. I’ve been to Advocacy Day, and I plan to go this year to Advocacy Day to advocate for students and for debt-free higher education.

Another thing I focus on is the PVTA cuts. Governor Baker level-funded the PVTA, which means that, essentially, they’re using the last fiscal year’s budget…because of inflation and other costs, by level-funding it, they’re actually cutting the budget so this was like $8 million cuts to the Regional Transit Authorities, so that’s PVTA, Worcester Regional Transit Authority, Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority, but specifically in the Pioneer Valley, it’s $2 million that’s been cut from PVTA. They’re talking about cutting routes not only for UMass, but for Springfield and Holyoke. So, I think we really need to stop cuts, I know they’re talking about cutting the route 30 bus, which serves a lot of off campus students as well as students going down town. They’re talking about cutting the 34 bus to 8 [p.m.] I believe, shut it down after 8…as well as the 31 bus. I really think we should be advocating against the cuts, but also, in my view, I think we need to have visions for the future of transportation. I think what the governor has is not great, and one thing I support is studies, a vision for more transportation options to get people from UMass to New York and UMass to Boston through the project like the proposed East West railway. I think that’s something that’s really important—a Boston to Springfield train service. I’d advocate for that on the board as well as advocate that to representatives. It goes back into the cost of education, it’s really hard to get between Boston and Amherst and Springfield without a car and the Peter Pan bus is really expensive, and I think that we really should be looking at alternative transportation issues to help reduce costs for students and give options…

Also, I support the work to get low-cost textbooks as well as open source textbooks. That’s something for affordability that I care about too.

Another issue I think is really concerning on campus is food insecurity. I think the University has done some things to supply some meal swipes from students who go to the Dean of Students Office in times of need, but I think that we really need to have a comprehensive approach and look at more affordable meal plan options as well as look into supporting initiative to create a food pantry or something to make additional support for students because it’s just not enough.

And then climate change, clean transportation and clean energy is something I’ve supported as an environmental science major, as well as I consider myself an environmentalist. I’m part of the Sierra Club, Massachusetts chapter. I’m on their executive committee. And some things I’ve done in SGA is I spearheaded a resolution supporting funding for the PVTA. We sent that to the state legislature transportation committee as well as to the PVTA. And I supported [the] initiative, and I’m continuing supporting it, I helped pass a motion through senate supporting electric buses…And then just supporting waste and clean energy issues is just something I really care about.

Another thing I support is the creation of more gender-neutral bathrooms on campus; it’s a big issue. I support initiatives to convert restrooms to that, as well as in the new Student Union building, I really think that should be a priority; make sure they get variances and do whatever they need to do to increase that…not only that, I think there needs to be more trainings for students, faculty and staff on issues of gender identity expression.

Also, going back to affordability and low-income students, I want to support low-income students with the textbook initiative as well as I think there needs to be more support systems for them on the University side. Also, I think if you look at the Campus Climate Survey that came out, there’s an issue with climate on campus, especially I think that we need to be actively supporting low-income students as well as students of color because we really need to work to make UMass a more inclusive place. There needs to be more active recruitment of marginalized communities, communities of color, and also help with the retention of these groups. I don’t think the University has done enough, there’s always room to improve looking that the Campus Climate Survey.

What do you like about your opponents?

RK: They’re all stand-up people. Max [Roemer] is a great guy, he’s president of [the Residence Hall Association], he did a lot of things with respect to laundry in the residence halls. We’ve been working to help residential students so I commend him on that. I actually helped him with getting some of the responses…when he sent out a poll, because as an RA, I’m on campus too so I have to use the laundry.

Jiya [Nair] is great, she’s the attorney general of the SGA, so she helps out the conduct advisors which is a great system for students. Just a plug, conduct advisors is great because, as an RA or just a student, when people get documented for violations to the code of conduct or community standards, a lot of times there’s not that much support with the conduct processes…so they’re a private resource in the SGA office, you can go sit down and meet with the conduct advisors and they’ll tell you the options and how to go through the conduct system; that’s a really good program.

I don’t really know [Kevin Mullen], [he’s] running from abroad so I don’t really know much about him, but I do know Max and Jiya.

How does your platform stand out from your opponents?

RK: I think for me, I really have experience working on environmental issues and if you look into what I’ve done with SGA and just in general with working with Sierra Club, I have a lot of experience working on environmental issues, campaigns and that sort of thing. Also, I really have a lot of knowledge about the environment, I think that’s really something I have a stronghold on and a lot of knowledge about. Also, transportation, I’ve been working on those issues. So those are two things I think I stand out on, because they’re just things I’ve been working on.

Hayley Johnson can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @hayleyk_johnson.

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