The Issue: Our ASO spent student fees on retreats and cell phones during a financial crisis.
Our Position: More money should be directed to student programs and other needs.
With all the chaos of the recent past at Southwestern College it was easy to overlook the doings of our Associated Student Organization.
SWC’s ASO has some fine members who are bright, selfless and service-oriented. Some marvelous leaders have surfaced from recent ASOs, including Hector Rivera, Chris DeBauche and Adrian del Rio. But the current team needs to take a long hard look in the mirror.
It is not that our ASO executives are bad people, but they have a made a series of tone-deaf moves this semester. While our state and college are facing an unprecedented financial crisis, trimming employees, slashing classes and narrowing access, our profligate ASO has:
spent $42,000 on a pair of retreats at a mountain resort
purchased cell phones and plans for seven members
scored free faculty parking permits while other students pay $20-$40.
secured its own electric cart
Other SWC students who are paying for these perks have received practically nothing, despite great need. Biology professors are reassembling dissected frogs over and over because they cannot afford fresh ones. Reading students are taking tests printed on the back of last semester’s recycled term papers. Our one-time nationally-ranked debate team seldom leaves town to compete anymore. Musical theatre productions —which SWC used to be famous for—are no longer affordable. Art students pick through the trash for materials.
All SWC students pay an $8 ASO fee upon registration. During the 2011-12 school year these fees added up to $306,345. This fall the ASO generated $159,346 from about 19,900 students. Other income is generated through Jason’s Courtyard Café and commercial vendors who set up tables near the Student Center.
Our ASO has an impressive budget which could be used to do great good…or not.
Two years ago, when California leaders warned of major budget cuts, the ASO found the funds to provide all seven of its executives with personal cell phones so they would not have to pay the cost for any phone calls from their “constituents.”
Cell phone perks pale compared to the amount of our money spent on retreats. An annual Inter-Club Council retreat cost $27,000, a retreat this semester for ASO members cost $15,000. That is $42,000 spent on an exclusive group of students to gain leadership experience at Pali Mountain’s Retreat and Conference Center. The problem, beside the cost, is that we are not seeing much leadership.
While our leaders were away at their retreats, thousands of low-income students back on campus were pinching pennies and skipping meals to scrape together basic supplies and textbooks. College employees made the remarkably selfless gesture of taking a five percent pay cut to protect jobs and classes. Classified employees are working extra hard to cover the tasks of downsized departments. Some professors are working 12-16 hour days and ruining their health to keep the quality of education high while adjuncts are cut, retirees not replaced and supply budgets zeroed out.
We know ASO funds cannot prevent classes and employees from getting cut, but the ASO could be doing more to prop up suffocating programs and struggling students. Money on stress balls is not getting it done. We need an ASO that will support students in this time of need and understands service to others.
It is time to raise standards for ASO representatives. A 2.0 GPA is not enough. Students who want to be leaders of an institution of higher education need to be enrolled in leadership and public administration courses, maintain a GPA of at least 3.0 and be accountable for their actions (or interaction).
We also need student leaders who respect the concepts of open government, transparency and access. ASO record keeping is shoddy and past documents are difficult (if not impossible) to access. Student government—a taxpayer funded endeavor—needs to adhere to the spirit and letter of the Ralph M. Brown Public Meetings Act. Meeting agendas and minutes need to be posted on the ASO website in conspicuous places on campus that are easily accessible to the community at least 72 hours prior to meetings, preferably one week. Community members have the right to know what the ASO is doing and how it allocates resources.
SWC’s governing board is acting with more transparency and the public is taking notice. Our community’s election of reformers Norma Hernandez, Humberto Peraza, Tim Nader and William Stewart was a clear message for change. Our ASO needs to embrace change, too, and become a student service organization we can all be proud of.