Board’s creation fraught with conflicts


Editor’s Note: If you thought Brian Kelly’s two terms as Student Government Board president… Editor’s Note: If you thought Brian Kelly’s two terms as Student Government Board president were full of controversy, get a load of SGB’s turbulent beginnings.

In Nov. 20, 1970’s Pitt News, Student Government President Lenny Klavonic touted the new Student Government constitution, which had been instituted by referendum earlier in the week, as “in the definite interests of students.”

Thus began an experiment in student government that lasted a little more than a year and featured accusations of corruption, threats bandied between student leaders, burnt newspapers and ultimately a change to something resembling the current board system.

“God knows anything would have been better,” Bill Gormley, then editor of The Pitt News, said in a recent interview.

The 1970 referendum established a government of four commissioners with nebulously described powers, replacing the University Senate Council, a 25-member body with a president.

Gormley cannot recall why they made the change.

“We had some good Student Government presidents in those days,” he said.

The change was instituted nonetheless by the 773 students who showed up to vote in the referendum. There were estimated to be between 15,000 and 20,000 undergraduates at Pitt at the time.

Under the new constitution, there were four commissioners: the social commissioner, the academic commissioner, the programming commissioner and the committees commissioner. An allocations committee, created several years before, would continue to have some control over the commissioners’ purse strings.

Klavonic, moving in January from the presidency to the social commissionership, would be the most visible character in this experiment.

“He was the villain,” Arnie Steinberg, then president of the Men’s Dorm Council, said recently. Steinberg was at the time perhaps the most visible opponent of the 1970 constitution. “It was an ill-conceived idea from the beginning.”

Inaugural Troubles

The start for the commissioners of what was called the Student Association, or SA, was inauspicious. Their inauguration on Feb. 3, 1971, was delayed by 15 minutes because of low turnout, for which the commissioners attacked the students who were, unfortunately, not there to hear it.

“It’s clear the Student Government has lost the respect of students,” new Academic Commissioner Ted Michalik told one of the three Pitt News reporters who rounded out the eventual crowd of 30.

Robert Lederman, the SA’s director of finance, acted as master of ceremonies.

Later that month, Klavonic was the first commissioner to take action that caught the attention of the University community, canceling “Parents’ Weekend” and asking for a raise in the Student Activities Fee, which was then $8 per semester.

According to Klavonik, the standard at the time was between $25 and $50. He wanted to use the money to bring concerts featuring high-profile bands – naming Chicago and The Fifth Dimension as possibilities.

By March 12, Klavonic had decided to take on The Pitt News, denying student activities money to the paper, claiming that it was inappropriate for salaries to be paid to students. He indicated, however, that this was not the root of his action.

“What we’re really voting on,” the paper quoted him as saying, “is who is Student Government: The Pitt News or Student Government.”

Gormley recalls, “They were outraged that we had the temerity to criticize them.”

The criticism was far from over.

At the beginning of May, Klavonic and fellow commissioner Wade Lawson announced an increase in the Student Activities Fee from $8 to $12. At the same time, the commissioners voted to award themselves salaries.

There was no supervisory body to control the size of their salaries, which was eventually set at $100 per month. Klavonic expressed no worries at this, arguing that the innate honesty of SA members would prevent any abuse.

Student Association vs. Its Adviser

At the same time, Klavonic was working to oust Bill Markus, SA’s faculty adviser, complaining that he was “too paternal,” and replace him with someone who would be more tractable. One of the complaints about Markus was that he was slow to provide bail money for two imprisoned Pitt students.

Outgoing SGB President Brian Kelly said no Pitt students have been bailed out of jail with Student Activities Fee money in his tenure or memory, but that it would still have to go through the student government adviser.

Klavonic’s claims of unimpeachable integrity were undermined by Lederman’s resignation as SA finance director soon after, citing the commissioners’ “lack of integrity.” Klavonic and Lawson blamed the influence of Markus for Lederman’s decision. They did not address his accusations of corruption.

Markus, too, soon struck back at the SA commissioners, demanding that they present him with budgets and allow him to audit their books semi-annually.

Klavonic complained that this would make it difficult for him to sign “big-name groups” for SA-sponsored concerts. These concerts would be his major aim throughout his tenure.

At this point, however, a degree of balance seemed to have been reached. Markus got the budget review power he wanted, and the commissioners were resigned to it. The summer passed without incident.

Student Association vs. Allocations Committee

Previously submerged troubles between Klavonic’s social commission and the allocations committee came to the surface in September.

All action came to a halt when the allocations committee refused to meet with Klavonic’s social commission at the beginning of the new academic year. At issue was $75,000 that Klavonic had acquired unbudgeted, meaning that he could spend it however he saw fit.

Lawson defended his fellow commissioner, saying that the commissioners should not be controlled by the allocations committee, and that the committee was attempting a power grab.

Eventually SA was able to placate the allocations committee by promising to draft a new student government constitution that would allow for more accountability. At the same time, Klavonic defended his own actions, which included creating a budget that allowed for 30 dances and 18 concerts per year.

This meeting marked the first appearance of a major move to eliminate the commissionerships entirely. Apart from SA members, two students attended.

The demise of the SA was sped when it became clear that Klavonic was losing thousands of dollars on the concerts that he was funding with student activities money. One concert in particular, a Blood, Sweat and Tears show at the Fitzgerald Field House, was estimated to have lost nearly $1,000 because of low turnout.

“Lenny Klavonic in particular had connections to concert impresarios,” Gormley remembers.

Another blow was the discovery that it would be illegal for SA members to receive salaries, because of a wage freeze that President Richard Nixon had instituted in August. Under a photo of Lawson in The Pitt News story, the caption read: “LAWSON: Chagrined.”

Klavonic vs. Film Club Donnybrook

Perhaps depressed by their continuing poverty, the SA commissioners remained quiet for a few weeks before Klavonic picked a fight with the Franklin-Pangborn Film Club, a group dedicated to producing and screening movies. The club’s president, Pat O’Brien, would become Klavonic’s most tenacious enemy for the remainder of his term.

Klavonic objected Franklin-Pangborn’s charging Pitt students to attend screenings, while receiving Student Activities Fee money.

“I don’t feel that money should be made off of students,” Klavonic said to justify his call for a review of the club’s allocations.

Franklin-Pangborn showed two films per week at that time, and charged 50 cents for tickets to half of them. The other half of the two weekly movies were free to students. Student tickets to Klavonic’s concerts in the Field House and Syria Mosque were usually between $3 and $5.

In response, O’Brien unleashed a three-column broadside in The Pitt News’ editorial pages in October, in which he accused Klavonic of “squandering” $63,000 on his concerts in his year as social commissioner. In the third part, O’Brien compared Klavonic to Nixon and Mao Tse-tung.

Joseph Forbes, another student during this time, began to circulate a petition to impeach all four commissioners and several of Klavonic’s partners on the social commission. Forbes, who had been a failed candidate for academic commissioner, said that he was disturbed by the “frightening lack of integrity where the handling of students’ money is concerned.”

Nothing came of the impeachment proceedings, for which an insufficient number of signatures were ultimately collected.

The constitutional review committee created to placate the allocations committee had not yet met at this point, and would not meet until early November. Annoyance with SA was nearing its apex.

“It’s time for us peasants to revolt,” O’Brien wrote. “If you cannot set the Student Association at the University of Pittsburgh right, what hope do you have against the Nixon machine?”

The SA commissioners held onto their offices for three more months after this was published. Nixon lasted nearly three more years.

Klavonic lashed back at his critics in the pages of The Pitt News, directing his vitriol at the newspaper itself, calling all stories about him or the social commission “unadulterated bullshit” and accusing the paper’s writers of “irresponsible journalism.”

He also responded to O’Brien’s accusations that he squandered student activities money on rock concerts.

“One hundred percent of the money does not go for rock groups,” he wrote, “unless Mr. O’Brien considers Blood, Sweat, and Tears to be heavy rock, or the Fifth Dimension, Ike and Tina Turner, Bill Withers, or Renzuli and Phillips, the piano duo.”

“And if anyone wants my job,” he concluded, “kiss off, you can have it. Just make sure you stay straight with The Pitt News, though.”

Academic Commissioner Characterizes Job as “Bullshit”

While Klavonic maintained an extremely high profile during this time, it took some doing to track down Academic Commissioner Ted Michalik, which a Pitt News associate editor did at the beginning of November 1971.

In an interview, Michalik admitted to having done nothing at all as academic commissioner, apart from refusing the salary that the other commissioners had voted themselves, saying that he didn’t deserve it.

“Do you know how many bullshit committees there are at this University and how little gets done? They just get together and everybody talks and you come back next week and bullshit some more,” he said.

The constitutional review committee finally began to meet soon after this, and had drawn the basic outlines of the Student Government Board that now exists by the end of their second meeting, but the term of the commissioners continued for the remainder of 1971.

Student Association vs. The Pitt News

Pitt News reporter Virginia Cook wrote a column that appeared in the Nov. 15, 1971 newspaper, describing the scene at a social commission meeting the week before. It was a scene of anarchy. She described asking a question of one of the commission members, Diane Nickel.

“In answer to my question,” Cook wrote, “Nickel told me ‘Why don’t you shut up? You have no business being here asking questions.’ When I ignored her and repeated the question, [Committees Commissioner Dennis] Concilla came out with another piercing ‘Shut up.'”

Cook also describes Concilla as screaming at another student “Shut up Demetri, you dumb Greek.” A correction in the next edition of The Pitt News said that, while Concilla did say this, he and the “dumb Greek” were friends.

“There was a lot of defamatory language going around,” Men’s Dorm Council President Arnie Steinberg recalls.

The editions containing Cook’s article were seized by vandals and burned in Schenley Quad. While no one was ever provably connected to the vandalism, Lawson was quoted as saying it was the work of “a group of students extremely concerned about the decline The Pitt News has undergone this year.”

“Hundreds, maybe thousands of issues went up in flames,” Gormley said. While he does not directly accuse Klavonic and his partners of the burning, he does recall that they didn’t take criticism well.

Student Government Board Created

The new Student Government constitution was steadily jumping through all the necessary hoops as all this went along, despite criticism from Klavonic and a few other students. It came to a referendum in December 1971, when it was approved by a vote of 391-54. The turnout represented 4 percent of eligible voters.

“Perhaps we ought to abolish student government,” O’Brien said. “This vote indicates that very few people care.”

Student Government was not abolished, and Steinberg, who had been given responsibility for overseeing the election, expressed hope that apathy toward student government would be turned around.

“We all know Student Government is different from the one that disgusted the student body this year,” he said, “because the form is different. It’s up to students to get out and support this change they’ve been crying for.”

Klavonic and his fellow commissioners, except for Michalek, finally received their salaries at the beginning of 1972, a week before leaving office. The dean of Student Affairs, Alfred Moye, called the paying of Student Government officials “a one shot deal, which is not to be repeated.”

On Jan. 19, 1972, Tom Bailey, who ran on an anti-health insurance platform, became Pitt’s first Student Government Board president, receiving 654 votes out of more than 1,800 votes in a crowded field of six candidates. He took office promising to eliminate student health insurance and provide free movies to students.

Klavonic and the other commissioners did not run for SGB seats and left office quietly.

The experiment had come to an end.

“A commissioner system is, in general, an anachronism,” says Gormley, now a Georgetown University political science professor. “It’s a multi-headed hydra that needs to be fed.”

Despite the problems, he remembers the time with fondness.

“We disagreed on how Student Government should be run,” he says of the commissioners, “and I enjoyed disagreeing with them.”