Students pay Pitt’s USSA membership fee

By Lindsay Carroll

‘ ‘ ‘ After a rare emotional debate at their meeting Tuesday, Student Government Board members… ‘ ‘ ‘ After a rare emotional debate at their meeting Tuesday, Student Government Board members have questioned the group’s affiliation with the United States Student Association. ‘ ‘ ‘ At the meeting, board member Ryan Haddad challenged whether SGB members should commit time and resources to USSA. Board member Ryan Very asked fellow member Nila Devanath to discuss why her phone-banking drive against an anti-affirmative action movement in Colorado affects students at Pitt. The project is in collaboration with USSA. ‘ ‘ ‘ Devanath defended the phone-banking, which would involve Pitt students calling, from the SGB conference room, voters in Colorado to educate them about the referendum. She said that the project would use no SGB resources other than the conference room and that it affected all under-represented students in higher education. ‘ ‘ ‘ Haddad said USSA was ‘creeping’ into SGB. ‘ ‘ ‘ But SGB’s involvement with USSA is not new. And neither is the debate. ‘ ‘ ‘ USSA is based in Washington, D.C., and was founded in 1947. It lobbies Congress on the behalf of students for legislative issues, such as simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, funding mentor and childcare programs on campus and increasing Pell Grant and student aid support. The group has state-by-state chapters within its national organization. ‘ ‘ ‘ Each student pays about 25 cents for the membership fee, or 0.18 percent of SGB’s estimated $2.4 million in allocation funds for that fiscal year. The mandatory Student Activities Fee ‘mdash; $160 per student ‘mdash; provides for that budget. ‘ ‘ ‘ The SGB allocations manual states that SGB cannot fund ‘individual membership dues to organizations with which a student organization is affiliated’ under any circumstances. ‘ ‘ ‘ Board member Amanda Reed serves as vice chair for the multi/bi-racial caucus at USSA. She said that the USSA board of directors is elected by other elected officials from schools across the country, making it a student-run organization. ‘ ‘ ‘ Reed said USSA helped convince Congress to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. The revamped version will increase Pell grant funds, cap student loan replacement rates at 15 percent of an individual’s income and decrease federal student loan interest rates from 6.8 to 3.4 percent over four years. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘USSA is the recognized voice of students on Capitol Hill,’ said Reed. USSA, Reed said, brings new ideas to campuses, such as the zero award project she organized last school year. The project gave ‘zero awards’ to departments without faculty members of color or women. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘People are commending the work,’ said Reed. ‘ ‘ ‘ She said SGB has been involved with USSA since at least 2000 and that it’s been controversial because it advocates issues with which some students might disagree and because it’s not a campus student organization. ‘ ‘ ‘ USSA sponsors programs advocating student voter registration, affirmative action, labor interests of university employees, and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘I think people get confused. You can’t start a USSA club because we have to represent all students,’ said Reed. ‘SGB is elected to represent all students. Who else would ensure we do that?’ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘It doesn’t make sense for 10 students and an adviser to have a USSA club and claim to represent all students,’ she added. ‘ ‘ ‘ Last year’s board, under the leadership of president Shady Henien, approved $4,250 for Pitt’s campus membership in USSA, according to a Pitt News article covering the Dec. 4 meeting. ‘ ‘ ‘ The board breached Robert’s Rules, which govern how SGB runs its meetings, when it approved the funding. Current SGB president Sumter Link, who was a board member at that time, called for ending the debate and voting. According to Robert’s Rules, the board should have been able to vote on Link’s motion in case other members wanted to further discuss the issue, but Henien went ahead and called for a vote. ‘ ‘ ‘ Henien said in the article, ‘It’s OK, it’s the last meeting.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ The board voted 5-3 in favor of the funding. ‘ ‘ ‘ Former board member and budget manager Jim Priestas said although he agrees with USSA’s goal of making college more accessible, he voted against the funding because he didn’t think SGB should fund USSA membership dues. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘If USSA was a student organization and they asked us to pay for their dues, we would not fund it,’ said Priestas. ‘Any organization paying dues to their national [headquarters] has always paid out of pocket.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ He said SGB members, as paid elected officials, have a duty to work with other elected officials, but not necessarily through USSA. ‘ ‘ ‘ He said SGB could spend the activities fee better by giving student organizations funding for conferences. ‘ ‘ ‘ Reed disagreed. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘I’m all for students going to conferences. Conferences have changed my life, but I wouldn’t say that funding for USSA membership is not good use of the fee,’ she said. ‘ ‘ ‘ Reed said USSA’s ultimate goal was to make college more affordable and accessible for everyone. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘College is not affordable,’ she said. ‘I feel like everybody should be able to relate to that.’