By Harpreet Gill
If a SIPA student has opinions she’d liked voiced and acted upon, the SIPA Student Association (SIPASA) Board is supposed to be one place to turn. Yet, low with student engagement in the past few years, students have questioned the abilities of the student leaders to respond to their needs.
Roshni Bandesha (MPA ’15) sums up many students’ understanding of the SIPASA Board: “I think the Board does a lot but I’m not sure exactly what they do.” With just 45% of students voting in the recent Board elections, the newly elected 2014 SIPASA Board will need innovative ideas to get students to care.
The new Board has begun to craft a new strategy and is deciding how best to allocate the spring semester’s $60,000-70,000 in revenues generated by student fees, which amount to, on average, $55 per student per month.
Although the Board has informally met multiple times since the election and has led several events, including the Welcome Back Party on January 31 and Student Group Fair on February 4, they’ve only just agreed to their term’s agenda. At the first full meeting on February 11, the group identified three major focus areas: inclusion, engagement, and transparency.
According to Benjamin Weiss (MIA 15’), SIPASA’s Co-Chair for Communications and External Relations, the Board hopes to make its activities more inclusive, in order to better cater to the diversity of students, programs, and degrees that SIPA offers. Additionally, this year’s Board wants to increase student engagement by soliciting more student input and involvement with events.
Nusrat Jahan (MPA-DP ’14) is one of the students that hopes to be better engaged by the new Board. “In my view, they organize too many social events and happy hours. I would probably like something more constructive,” she said. “SIPASA can actually collaborate with other SIPA groups more often to organize theme-based events, which I don’t think they do much.”
In response to such criticism in the past, the Board is currently planning several upcoming events, including a ‘Free Speech, Free Eats’ speaker series on February 25 and office hours for meetings with the Student Academic Task Force.
The Board’s last big goal is to continue building on transparency measures taken by the previous Board. There is some work to be done on that front, as the SIPASA website still contains last year’s information, and the prompt release meeting minutes has been lacking.
SIPASA’s management has some institutional inefficiencies to deal with as well, which have been carried over from previous boards. Although midterms are just a few weeks away, student groups have yet to receive funding for spring semester activities. According to Dean Duane Bruce, the Board could have moved the deadline earlier than February 7 so that student groups would receive Spring semester money sooner. Deepti Kakkar (MPA ’15), President of the South Asian Association (SSA), says the funding process is “frustrating” for additional reasons.
“It’s difficult to bring about big changes in [our student group’s] programming because much of the funding is contingent upon previous year’s activities,” she said. New student group leaders are often limited by past budgets that they were not responsible for spending.
The previous Board “talked about it but didn’t change it [and] the new Board seems more interested in changing the funding process,” Dean Bruce said.
So are big changes possible?
Source: SIPA Business Office. SIPASA activities exclude Gala expenses.
The Board has financial resources and administrative clout, particularly when empowered by the student body. As evidence, Weiss points out to the changes brought about in the restructured Politics of Policymaking (POP) class this past fall, in which SIPASA set up an Academic Task Force to help restructure the core MPA course curriculum.
But the Board’s future relationship with students and, more importantly, their understanding of student needs, may be limited due to a lack of student engagement.
The Board hopes to improve on this communication in the coming weeks with Google groups, online surveys, and listening sessions, and are encouraging students to reach out to their elected representatives on issues that they care about.
During the SIPASA election debates this past November, Viola Kuzmova (MIA 15’), the current Board President, stated, “The key is outreach–town halls and orientation is not enough—we need more.” The Board meets again on February 25.
Let’s hope they figure out what else is needed to get the student body to care.
Harpreet Gill is a first-year Master of Public Administration student.
This story first ran on the print edition of The Morningside Post on February 19, 2014