Across the board: Meet this year’s student government

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Across the board: Meet this year’s student government

SGB President Zechariah Brown.

SGB President Zechariah Brown.

Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

SGB President Zechariah Brown.

Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

SGB President Zechariah Brown.

By Emily Wolfe, Contributing Editor

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As a first-year student arriving at Pitt, it can be tricky figuring out exactly what SGB does, or even what it stands for. The answer to the latter is pretty easy: SGB is Pitt’s Student Government Board, the official undergraduate student government organization.

When it comes to what it actually does, Caroline Unger, the board member serving as vice president and chief of cabinet this year, describes SGB as “the one big umbrella for all student organizations that fall at Pitt.”

“We try and operate as the voice for the students, as an avenue between them and upper administration,” Unger said.

In addition to acting as a go-between for students and University administrators — like when SGB might have helped convince the University to cancel classes for weather last year for the first time in close to a decade — SGB allocates the Student Activity Fee paid by each undergraduate to various student groups that apply for funding. Individual board members also pursue their own projects to improve student life.

Last year, for instance, two board members worked on an initiative that let students give feedback on dining services to Pitt officials, and the board worked together on a letter to legislators demanding stricter firearm legislation.

Students who want to see how the board works for themselves can visit SGB’s offices on the eighth floor of the William Pitt Union during the board’s office hours, or stop by the weekly public meeting on Tuesday evenings in the Union’s basement.

Unger was elected to the board in February, alongside her seven fellow board members and Zechariah Brown, the incoming president. Since then, they’ve been learning the ropes and preparing for the year ahead.

“Coming into the presidency having been a board member, I thought I knew everything about Pitt,” Brown said. “I don’t. It’s a great learning experience right now.”

Brown, a senior, is the first black SGB president in more than 25 years, according to The Pitt News’s archives. The last, Jacob Brody, served in 1993. Five out of eight members of the board are people of color and five out of eight are women. And, Brown said, their experiences at Pitt are diverse as well.

“For a lot of us who’ve been involved with SGB for a long time, you find there are different barriers — things that you can and can’t do,” Brown said. “For the board members who are coming in with a fresh perspective, they seem limitless in what they want to do and I think that that’s really great.”

First-years who want to get involved with SGB can do so by applying to join one of the board’s several committees or the nine-member First Year Council. Many of the board members have been involved in SGB since their respective first years at Pitt, beginning as a member of the First Year Council. But others are coming in almost totally fresh. The executive vice president spot, SGB’s second-in-command, will be held by junior board member Anaïs Peterson, who didn’t have any SGB experience before running for board.

Previously, Peterson was most recognizable on campus for her activism, largely regarding an ongoing effort to convince Pitt trustees to divest the University endowment from fossil fuels. She also wrote for The Pitt News as a columnist during the summer of 2018. Since the election, Peterson said she’s reached a new level of visibility.

“It’s funny for me to be on campus and people will just come up and talk to me and I genuinely have no idea who they are, but they know who I am now,” Peterson said.

In the March runoff election that won Peterson the position, Pitt students also voted on a referendum that asked whether or not Pitt should divest from fossil fuels. Of 2,401 voters, 2,182 said yes, it should divest — about 11% of the student population. Presenting that information to University administrators is one of her big goals for next year, Peterson said, along with lobbying to create a public comment period at Board of Trustees meetings and laying the groundwork to create an LGBTQ+ center for students.

The third vice president role is filled by board member Ashima Agarwal, the board’s chief of finance. In Agarwal’s words, that makes her SGB’s “business manager,” and she also communicates with the allocations committee, which deliberates on student organizations’ funding requests. Agarwal sat on the committee last year, before running for board.

“Allocations … I mean, I’m biased but I think it’s really one of the most important committees, not only because you deal with money but also because you have very face-to-face and real interactions with students all across campus,” Agarwal said. “There are so many organizations that I would never have heard about if not for allocations.”

The allocations committee was one of several divisions of SGB targeted by accusations of misconduct at the end of the spring 2019 semester. A self-described “SGB whistleblower” appeared on Reddit in April, accusing various SGB committees of embezzling student funds, nepotism and altering election results over the past two years.

While the poster claimed to possess documented evidence of these claims, collected throughout two years of association with SGB, their post mischaracterized aspects of the organization, leaving some doubt as to their actual connection with SGB. As some commenters pointed out, for example, the whistleblower accused SGB’s judicial committee of “corruption” and ceding to administrative orders not to punish certain students. In reality, the judicial committee plays an interior role — it doesn’t judge whether or not students have broken University rules, which is left to the Division of Student Affairs’ Student Conduct Review Board.

When The Pitt News contacted the poster at that time, they did not share any evidence supporting their claims with reporters. Regardless of the truth of the poster’s claims, Brown said the fact that some people believed the allegations showed the necessity of bringing SGB closer to students. He was also “proud of the strength of SGB” and the fact that it hasn’t had to participate in activities like the ones in the accusations, at least as long as he’s been here.

“A lot of it had to do with students not knowing how SGB truly functions,” Brown said. “Our response is just to make sure students know the work that we’re doing for them and how we’re doing that work.”

Similarly, Peterson said the claims highlight the board’s need for transparency.

“I think it does highlight a lot of the concerns that people have about SGB,” she said. “People don’t always know what’s going on.”

Upperclassmen at Pitt might feel disconnected from SGB for another reason, too — there’s a good chance they didn’t vote for the people that sit on it. About 18% of the undergraduate student body voted in the election for the 2018-19 board, slightly below the average turnout of about 21% over the past five years. That’s a fairly standard turnout for an SGB election. But no matter how many people voted for Brown and each of the eight board members, their job this year will often require them to represent all Pitt students.

Given the size and diversity of the student body, that could be a tricky task. Unger, looking ahead, called it “a big challenge.”

“Anything big that might come up, whatever it may be, I’m looking at how we can best speak for or with Pitt students so it’s not just the eight of us,” Unger said. “Because it never was just the eight of us.”

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