During the spring 2017 Student Government Board election season, candidate and then-Vice President Max Kneis called for transparency and higher outreach on the board.
One year later, the 2017-2018 Student Government Board, headed by now-President Kneis, has made that a priority.
“I think you see that, even if it’s just regular students coming up to board members or committee chairs on a more regular basis, giving feedback,” Kneis said. “Not necessarily showing up to a public meeting but sending an email or sending a text to someone that we talked to about as a board during planning session.”
SGB is comprised of nine elected positions — one president, three vice presidents and five board members — plus 30 appointed positions in various committees. As a governing body, it is able to pass bills pertaining to changes in the internal structure of SGB and resolutions urging the University to take a stance or action on an issue. The only direct power SGB has on the student body is the ability to delegate allocations — funded by the $80 activity fee paid by each student each semester — to clubs and groups based on the allocations rules.
Kneis ran his election campaign for SGB president focusing on an increase in student input and voice, advocating for longer winter breaks and increased student representation on the Board of Trustees and hiring committees.
Kneis said student involvement has improved, with SGB increasing the number of open floors during its public meetings from two to three and having a larger social media presence. SGB has also succeeded in placing students on hiring committees, including the search committee for the new provost and committees involved with the Board of Trustees, although not the board itself yet. Pitt also extended winter break this year, though not because of SGB.
“I did not personally change our academic calendar,” Kneis said. “The University administrators were talking about it throughout the spring. I think our campaign certainly brought light to the issue.”
The Executive Vice President for 2017-18, Zuri Kent-Smith, ran his campaign advocating for “cultural counseling sessions” tailored to meet the specific needs of students from different cultural groups, better accommodations for students with disabilities and a direct vessel for student grievances and concerns.
Kent-Smith was successful in creating cultural counseling sessions — he formed the Panthers of Color, an organization where African-American students meet weekly to speak about their problems, both related to race and not. In terms of students with disabilities, Kent-Smith said he is working with the University on the campus master plan to make sure ramps are added to new buildings constructed — although he was not able to make any changes on existing ones.
“I haven’t been able to do much with that one just because we do have limited space with what we can do,” Kent-Smith said.
Vice President and Chief of Finance Maddie Guido and Vice President and Chief of Cabinet Krish Patel — both positions appointed by the SGB President — had some difficulty implementing some things they campaigned for, which is something members across the SGB board experienced.
“I think there are still a lot of things I need to take on initiative-wise, but I also think I got a lot of different ideas I didn’t think of and stuff accomplished,” Patel said.
Patel’s campaign included a pre-health sciences website, a reading period before finals, better advising for students, an Environmental Awareness Week and more free class resources. Guido pushed for a mentorship program, destigmatizing sexual reproduction issues, a better allocations process and a biology minor.
Guido had trouble establishing a bio minor because it demanded too many resources from the department, including extra staff and funding. Patel said she had to hold off on pushing for a reading period to avoid changing Pitt’s academic calendar this year again. They found some initiatives were better included in another project or delegated to someone else. Patel plans to work Environmental Awareness Week inside of the spring Sustainability Week, and Guido is working with Allocations Chair Cory Stillman on making an all-inclusive guide for funding to give to allocations.
“I was involved with making sure things were seen through, but I had to realize that success isn’t just me doing things and taking credit for them and completing them,” Guido said. “It’s about overall improving what we can improve and getting done what we want to get done.”
Board members Ciara Barry, Nihita Manem, Ian Callahan, Ami Fall and Alex Spenceley have all been working on their own initiatives as well.
In terms of mental health, Fall, Spenceley and Barry, while campaigning on other issues, have made this a top priority. Fall and Spenceley were behind Mental Health Awareness Month and Fall, along with Barry, has been planning Women’s Empowerment Week.
“We need to have intersectional mental health counseling,” Fall said. “From race, ethnicity, class, like those kinds of things and how it’s important to look at it from a diverse perspective and not to just focus on one monolithic idea of, like, what mental health should be or can be.”
Callahan has been working on the spring Safety and Wellness Fair, one part of his initiative to increase safety awareness. The upcoming event follows the one that took place in fall 2017 and gathered over 150 attendees.
“Hopefully people can walk in and pick up something new and allow them to be safer in their daily life,” Callahan said.
Resolutions and Bills
This year’s two bills have covered technical changes or definitions within the board — one changing the language in the Student Government Board Governing Code to be more gender neutral and another defining the relationship between SGB and the Student Office of Sustainability director. But their resolutions focused on political issues that rocked local and national headlines.
SGB passed a resolution in September calling on Pitt and lawmakers to protect DACA recipients. And during the Pennsylvania state budget impasse, SGB urged the State House to pass a budget plan so student tuition didn’t go up.
Another resolution SGB passed in November urged the Pennsylvania State Senate to name Senate Bill 196’s ‘Alina’s Law’ in honor of Alina Sheykhet, a Pitt student murdered in her home in October.
The most recent resolution, passed in mid-January, urges the University to adopt open educational resources — classroom materials published under open license — meaning these materials will be available for free online and may be modified and shared. SGB will be working with the University Senate Council on achieving this resolution.