Scott Parks

 

After a year focused on legislative advocacy and internal reforms, Student Government President Scott Parks and Vice President Muneezeh Kabir sang “The Eyes Of Texas” for the last time as SG’s leaders Tuesday.

The team accomplished their major campaign goals despite challenges and limitations, Parks said. For example, the SG internal reform package that students approved in a campuswide vote in February streamlined the organization and made it more accessible to students, Kabir said.

The amendments to SG’s constitution will restructure external agencies and SG leaders said the changes will improve new student representation by creating freshmen, transfer and graduate student representatives.

Kabir said the University budget is constantly on SG’s radar, and although they would like to see more advancement with affordability, they are content with their success with Invest in Texas. The campaign organized students to lobby the Texas Legislature to adequately fund UT and to give universities the choice to keep guns off campus.

Parks said he put substantial energy into working for GLBT equity on campus, particularly competitive insurance benefits for GLBT faculty and staff and their partners. Parks said although he feels they were successful in getting conversations started, they haven’t been able to hammer out any concrete changes because of clashing philosophies and legal challenges.

“I think that was one thing that we weren’t able to completely accomplish, but we kept the ball moving,” Parks said.

Kabir spearheaded a project to help increase access to breast pumps for pregnant students and new mothers. The executive team and the assembly created a Mayor’s Student Advisory Council to improve city relations and connect students to Austin. Despite an oft repeated promise, the SG website remains outdated and has limited information about SG and its activities.

Loren Campos, president of undocumented students and allies group University Leadership Initiative, said Parks and Kabir ran on the platform of helping undocumented students. Campos believes they did.

“When we hosted rallies, I always remember Scott being there and being vocal about helping us out,” Campos said. “I felt that there could have been a little more activism on their part, but overall we are happy with their contribution to our cause.”

Juan C. Gonzalez, vice president for student affairs, said he looks to Parks and Kabir to ensure a smooth transition in the coming weeks.

“Never before have we relied so much on students and now more than ever we really need a very good transition into this new session,” he said.

82nd Legislature

President William Powers Jr. testified before the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday to explain how the budget cuts will hurt UT while students both inside and outside the committee room made their voices heard. The Senate budget bill would cut UT’s budget by $65 million in the 2012-13 biennium. That would force UT to eliminate 90 faculty and 200 staff positions, among other major cuts, Powers said. “We at the University of Texas understand it is a very tough recession,” Powers said. “We’re all tightening our belts and I’m here to say the University of Texas needs to do its part and we’re ready to do that.” Students from advocacy organization The Students Speak testified against the proposed cuts. Members of legislative lobbying group Invest In Texas also attended to hear Powers’ testimony. Student Government President Scott Parks, a member of Invest In Texas, said he fears tuition will increase if UT loses formula funding. The lobbying group includes members of SG, Senate of College Councils, Graduate Student Assembly and other student leaders. “We’re asking the Legislature not to disproportionately cut higher education again in this round of cuts like they did last time,” Parks said. “We took 41 percent of the last cuts. We don’t think that’s fair for us or for the state.” Invest in Texas members testified last month when Powers originally planned to speak, before he was hospitalized with a pulmonary embolism. “We’re really worried about the budget cuts that are proposed,” Parks said. “We know they would have pretty drastic effects on the quality of education at UT, the affordability and diversity. It’s serious, and we want [legislators] to know we’re following the decisions they’re making.” Other students included representatives from the Anthropology Graduate Students Association, the International Socialist Organization and The Students Speak, who wore red shirts that read “No Budget Cuts” and marched from UT to Capitol grounds. Anthropology graduate student Ricardo Ward said the Legislature should use all of the Rainy Day Fund — an emergency fund that currently holds $9.4 billion that lawmakers can use to balance the budget — to avoid cutting any of the public education budget. “We feel like the state Legislature, primarily followed by the administration at UT, is not thinking seriously how these cuts will affect students, staff [and] professors on the University campus,” Ward said. “There needs to be a drastic change in policy.” Powers told the committee his major concern is how the cuts will affect faculty and students. “It will erode our ability to compete nationally to get faculty and make student success improvements,” he said. “We’ll protect them as best we can. That is my biggest concern.” The proposed budget also recommends reducing the number of TEXAS Grants for incoming freshman. Powers said he is concerned about the effects cuts will have in their future. “We’re focusing on these first-year students coming in,” he said. “We don’t want to have a fall-off in the opportunities available for these students.” Powers said UT will play its part in helping balance the budget, but has a similar need to Texas A&M for additional selective funding. “[We need,] if it is possible, in a very selective way, to get some money for some very selective [Tuition Revenue Bond] projects,” he said. “On our campus it would be engineering, on the A&M campus I know it is veterinary medicine. These are things that would position those two campuses two and five years from now.” Powers said Texas was looked up to for its higher education two years ago, but that the same may not be true anymore. “I think [because of] this the budget shortfall across the country and in the state, a lot are questioning the value of higher education,” he said. “It was just the opposite two years ago.” Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said the cuts make him worried about how Texas universities will be able to compete with other campuses around the nation. “I for one am really concerned about some of the proposed cuts in [the Senate budget bill],” he said. “It seems like we’re going backwards, and I feel we had made a lot of progress in higher education last session.”

A new Student Government committee will attempt to bridge the gap between the city and the University by tackling Austin issues that could impact students. The Mayor’s Student Advisory Council includes five students who applied in the fall and SG President Scott Parks selected. The council held its first meeting Thursday, and it will meet twice a month to address issues pertaining to the UT population. “I think there has always been a lack of communication between the University and the city,” Parks said. “This is an outlet for students to voice their concerns.” Parks worked on a similar council two years ago that included student representatives from UT, St. Edwards University and Austin Community College. The SG council will only include student representatives from UT so that it can better address interests that apply specifically to University students. “I think we’re going to get out of it what we put in. Students are the primary objective,” said John Lawler, a Liberal Arts representative in SG. “The last couple of years, students have been absent from the scene, and this is our chance to make a difference. The things that actually impact students happen on the municipal level.” The council will work closely with city officials such as Mayor Lee Leffingwell and his spokesman Matt Curtis. The mayor’s office is eager to bring in experts to collaborate on efforts that directly impact the students, such as Capital Metro, Curtis said. “Students will drive this effort,” Curtis said. “They know what the population is looking for.” At the meeting, Annick Beaudet, the city’s bicycle programs manager, updated students on the progress of the Rio Grande Project, which could lead to the installation of new bike lanes and street-side parking spaces in the West Campus area. The student representatives gave their input to Beaudet, who will present the proposal to the University Area Partners neighborhood association on Feb. 2. In addition to the biking situation, the student representatives suggested topics for future meetings such as parking meters, developments in West Campus, homelessness, railways and buses.

Advocates of equal benefits for GLBT faculty and staff won two victories this semester, as the UT Human Resource Services department and the Division of Housing and Food Service are each reviewing policies in an effort to increase access for GLBT employees and their partners.

The Office of Legal Affairs is considering changes to the University’s emergency leave policies, which currently limit bereavement, sick and parental leave to employees with heterosexual spouses. Human resources is looking to expand the reach of leave benefits, said Human Resource Services associate vice president Julien Carter.

“These programs are safety net programs to support employees with family problems, and that shouldn’t stop with a marriage certificate,” Carter said. “These safety net programs need to be expanded to cover modern definitions of what a family is. It comes down to issues of fairness and equity.”

In addition, DHFS administrators are changing their regulations to allow hall coordinators, who oversee all employees and activities of campus residence halls, to have any additional person as a roommate, including a same-sex partner. DHFS executive director Floyd Hoelting said the division talked about changing this policy when he started at the University 15 years ago, and he is excited to see the new policy coming to fruition.

“We want to make it more inclusive so everyone benefits,” Hoelting said. “A live-in staff person has a tough job — the residence hall is their home, it’s their office, they’re on call all the time. Other than a background check for anyone that lives here, we shouldn’t be telling them what kind of guest they can have.”

The changes address what many GLBT employees and gay rights supporters call soft benefits — policy changes the University can make internally without going through the Board of Regents or the state Legislature. UT President William Powers Jr. created a task force this fall to help plan long-term goals to address other soft benefits, GLBT faculty needs and competitive insurance benefits, which would allow UT employees to provide insurance to a same-sex partner — rather than just a spouse.

The task force includes Marc Musick, an associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts; Lindsey Schell, a member of the Pride and Equity Faculty and Staff Association; and Student Government President Scott Parks, who is gay. They said that in addition to the two policy changes underway, they hope to work for increased access for transgender students as well as competitive insurance benefits, also called domestic partner benefits.

“We’ve received a lot of support from other organizations, like staff and faculty council and Student Government,” Schell said. “There is a clear and obvious statement from the campus community that these are policies we would like to see move forward, that they are in line with the campus attitude and the expectations for what UT should offer its employees.”

Schell and Parks both said the support of Powers and other administrators and the creation of the task force gives traction to ideas that UT community members have discussed for many years.

“Since the founding of this task force, there has been a lot more institutional energy in getting these things moving,” Parks said. “It’s been great having the president’s office and these other people helping us.”

The Election Supervisory Board is supposed to be formed by the third week of October, according to the Student Government constitution and election code, but the committee that will appoint the board missed the deadline and is still seeking applicants to fill the board’s nine positions.

The board oversees the March general election, in which students elect members of Student Government, the Graduate Student Assembly, the Texas Union Board, the Co-op Board of Directors and Texas Student Media. Board members must learn the election code and establish regulations, such as penalties for code violations, before campaigning begins in mid-February. The first round of applications did not go out until Oct. 28 and were not widely distributed before the Nov. 5 due date. The committee has only received five applications.

SG President Scott Parks said part of the reason applications went out so late is no one seems to be sure who is responsible for distributing them. Members of the appointing committee are supposed to remain neutral in all things related to the 2011 election, and no one took the lead on forming the new board, he said. The committee now hopes to have the complete board in place before winter break.

“Everyone is committed to doing a better job advertising this time around,” Parks said. “It’s important that the board starts getting to work and deciding some ground rules for the next election as soon as possible.”

Each of the five groups involved in the election have one representative on the committee that selects the board members. Delays in receiving names for the appointing committee from the five entities led to the delay in releasing applications the first time, said Melinda Sutton, deputy to the dean of students.

Last year, the board wasn’t in place until a few days before campaigning officially started because SG had only passed its new election code the previous fall. The delay caused numerous problems, including a charge of code violation levied against the Parks campaign in November and December before the board existed.

Board members must take time to understand the code and to prepare for many possible violations, said Alex Ferraro, who was one of the lead authors of the new election code and the campaign manager for the Minator Azemi campaign, Parks’ main opposition in the election.

“A downside last year is that the board didn’t seem to have a full understanding of the election code,” he said. “There were sections they ended up violating themselves.”

Charles Maddox, who chaired the 2010 board, said he doesn’t foresee serious complications for the new board, especially if it is in place by the end of the semester, because it will have the precedent and guidance of the previous board. The only serious problem that could result from the delayed board is a lack of oversight should candidates begin campaigning or otherwise violating the election code before the board is final.

Thank you, Student Government, for nothing.

Over the summer, a hurricane ravaged the northern Mexican city of Monterrey. People died, hundreds were injured and thousands were left without any services. It was the worst storm to have hit the Monterrey area in its more than 400-year history.

Because Monterrey is known to be one of the richest cities in Mexico, many organizations hesitated to send assistance promptly. However, there is unimaginable poverty in the city. Thankfully, an international response came, and Monterrey started its recovery. Partial recovery will take at least eight months.

Yes, an international response came, but not from SG. Over the summer, I tried to contact SG President Scott Parks. In a fashion very uncharacteristic of previous SG presidents, he never replied to my e-mails.

I also tried to contact President William Powers Jr. I got an e-mail from his deputy, Charles Roeckle, who referred me to Scott Parks. Even with that recommendation from high above, Parks never replied.

When the crisis in Haiti happened, the University came together, but when the crisis in Mexico happened, we didn’t help. And although there is no comparison between the levels of devastation, our bonds of friendship with Mexico are very strong.

They are our neighbors, brothers and sisters. Many students at UT are Mexican. If we were able to help out in Haiti, why couldn’t we help out Mexico?
Scott: You have a long way to go if you want to live up to the promises of your campaign. At least answer your e-mails! Remember that not answering e-mails got Keshav in big trouble two years ago.

Students: Be aware that Student Government is not as hardworking as they tell you they will be.

Mexican students at UT: You are part of this community, too. Demand more of your Student Government.

Student Government passed a set of broad reforms to its internal structure and external operations in its first meeting of the semester Tuesday.

An SG Internal Reform Task Force began work over the summer to create a series of changes to SG’s constitution and bylaws, including the rejuvenation of the judicial branch, added positions to the assembly and increased efficiency in the agency system, the primary structure for outreach and student programming. “

"Hopefully, this will start an ongoing process of reform and create more ways for students to interact with SG and make SG more accountable,”" said the task force’s chair, Cecilia Lopez, a higher education administration graduate student. “"I didn’t think we were going to be able to accomplish as much as we did in the time that we had."”

"The task force’s recommendations helped fulfill campaign promises that SG President Scott Parks made during the February 2010 campaign season," Student Government President Scott Parks said. "“Something that we campaigned on a lot was our agency structure, and this provides a much more efficient and sustainable organizational structure for our agencies,” he said. “We'’ll be able to program better for students and get better turnout at programs students are interested in attending."”

"The new agency organization will allow for more extensive recruitment of students who are not already involved with SG," Lopez said. "“When students ask how to get involved, [SG members] will have more to say than just to come to a meeting,"” she said.

The reform also creates several positions within the assembly, including the creation of a clerk position to take minutes and manage meetings’ logistics and an assembly chair who will run the meetings, a role the vice president currently fulfills. The new constitution also includes the creation of two first-year seats, which freshmen, first-year transfer students and first-year graduate students would be eligible to run for each fall.

Because SG approved the reform, it has to go before a campus-wide vote. SG will hold a special election to approve the reform on Feb. 9 and 10 so that students can elect the 2010-11 executive and assembly members under the new SG constitution during the March general election.

During the meeting, SG also appointed a new University-wide representative to fill the seat that business senior Alex Greenberg vacated at the end of the fall semester. Government junior Yaman Desai will take the seat. Desai is involved with University Democrats and was part of the Internal Reform Task Force.