Interviews

Kingston Discusses Future of Student Trustee Voting, Improving Wellman, and More

GSS sat down with incoming UMass Amherst student trustee, Megan Kingston, to discuss her goals for the position, and her thoughts on working on behalf of all UMass students in the coming year. This interview is part of an ongong GSS initiative to research, educate, and campaign around increasing graduate student representation on the UMass Board of Trustees, and also in assessing and analyzing the present state and limitations of the Wellman document and the powers it grants both grads and undergrads at UMass. (You can hear more about these initiatives in our interviews with the previous year’s graduate student trustee, Brian Quattrochi, from UMass Worcester, and UMass Amherst student trustee, Jennifer Healy). In addition to these issues we also approach the question of whether SGA’s current bylaws should be amended to separate student trustee from SGA officer elections, thus better establishing the trustee position’s service obligations to the entire student population, both undergraduate and graduate.

Q: Why did you decide to run for student trustee, and what strengths do you think you bring to the position?

A: Last semester I was working heavily with the RA Union to settle their contract which was expired for over a year. So that was how I was noticed and then asked to be student trustee. We finally settled our contract, which was nice. But it was really sitting down and negotiating with the administration. So that kind of experience of sitting down with an administration or a Board of Trustees and tactfully getting your point across, and continuing to advocate for what you think is right even though it might meet adversity, is a unique skill very important to the role. So I was approached by my ticket, and it wasn’t an automatic “yes, I’m all for it!” I had to think, “would I be good for this,” and I talked to my friends and family about that. But not only good for it, but the best candidate for it. Would I enjoy it? Was it something that I would like? Because I want to do what’s best for students. I don’t want to do this for my own personal reasons –it’s to help the university and the students within the university. So the bargaining committee opened me up to the people who saw leadership in me, and they asked me to run, and I decided it was a good fit.

Q: How did you get involved with the Bargaining Committee?

A: I’ve been an RA for two years, and I noticed that the contract was expired, and I decided, OK we’ve got to do something about this. We talked to the union right away, got in touch with a few other people and kind of expanded our network. Getting a group of students together for a common cause is very important. One voice isn’t strong enough. You need to find support. We found an RA in each building, told them what’s going on with our contract, and they would tell their staff. So we really had to reach out to our networks to get the word out. Which is important, because if there’s something that I’m advocating for in the student trustee position and I need student support, then I’ll need to know how to mobilize students, to inspire them to take action.

Q: You were on a ticket, but the rest of your ticket did not get elected. So what was the campaign like, and how do you move forward working with the, shall we say “other side,” that was elected?

A: Throughout the campaign, my ticket and the other ticket were very cordial. I respect them, and I think they’ll be good in their roles. I want to definitely keep the conversation lines open. I want to make sure it’s not me doing one thing, and the President and Vice-President doing another. On the board level the student trustee role has lots of bylaws to follow, but on the campus level its very open. So I want to be involved in the campus, and that means I need to be involved with Zach and Emily (SGA President and Vice-President). Right now we’re working together to choose the cabinet. They’re giving me a say on everything, which is fantastic. I think we’ll work really well together for the benefit of students.

Q: Do you think the other members of your ticket will stay involved with SGA?

A: I know Preston applied to a cabinet position. We’re not sure if he’s going to get it or not yet, but he’s already showing he’s going to be involved. Darlene will, I hope, run for senate, or be involved in some way. They’re so passionate about helping UMass and helping the students that I can’t imagine them not being involved.

Q: Can you tell us about your agenda and goals in this role for this coming year?

A: I’m very passionate about the student voice. Students are very important, and that was why our slogan was “Turn Up Your Voice.” One of the things the board is thinking about is having all student trustees be voting members, and I know it’s coming up against some opposition right now, because they’re worried about changing the structure of the board. But it’s a very important initiative. When the board first started there were only two campuses, so they only had two student trustees who were both voting members. Once there were more campuses they added student trustees but did not add the votes, which I think is interesting. Say I was a voting member, I’m not a student of UMass Darmouth so, although the student trustee from Darmouth can tell me what’s going on, and I can try to help them, I’m not personally in their shoes, so it’s a bit harder. I want to be able to advocate for those closest to me. That’s another reason why I think there should also be graduate student trustees from the campuses that have undergrad and grad populations. I can work really well with graduate students, and listen to them and try to voice their opinions, but it’s a much closer connection if there’s also a grad student on the board. So those are two things I really want to see put into place. Beyond that, accessibility and affordability of UMass; it’s a public university and it’s become very expensive, so that’s definitely something I want to continue to work on. I know the board is always asking the government for more funding, and I hope they’re working really hard on that, but it’s something I’m going to continue to push. We also have to look to other venues for money. We don’t have as big of an endowment from alumni, and that’s something we can maybe work on.

Q: Have you spoken to any of the other trustees, or former trustees? Or have you been to any of the trustee meetings? And if so, has that given you a sense for the position, and what it’s going to be like advocating for students in that kind of a forum?

A: I’ve talked to Jen [Healy]. I’ve been meeting with her weekly to get as much information as I can. I’d love to go to one of the Board meetings, but I haven’t yet, so I can probably set that up with Jen. I’m planning to reach out to the student trustees from the other campuses before we start, just so we can start that conversation, and they can feel comfortable with me before we meet at the board meetings. I do know that –from Jen– the Board meetings are a very different experience –advocating for students on the campus level is much different than on the board level. The tactics you have to use, that will be interesting to see.

Q: One of the things we’ve worked on this year is trying to organize trustees from all of the campuses in order to mobilize to have more voting student members, maybe more non-voting grad student trustees as a starting point. So you said you are in support of that initiative, but can you say more about what you think needs to happen next to move that forward?

A: Yes, I definitely think that needs to happen. Talking to the other campuses will be very important on that; they’ll probably be my biggest allies with that. But I think that having them come in as non-voting members might be the best way to start it, because it might not get a lot of support from the non-student members. To move that forward starts with a proposal, the support of the student trustees, and then talking to board member individually that we think might support it. And we need to express the view that undergraduates and graduates are both an integral part of the campus, and they’re both doing amazing work, so both of their voice should be heard and have a say. Like I said, as an undergraduate, I don’t understand all of the struggles and issues a grad student faces. I’m living in the dorms, and I don’t have a family, I couldn’t understand everything that’s going on with our graduate students’ lives at UMass. So having them be there to represent their own viewpoint is very important. If we are going to truly value the student voice, then we need that. For much of the undergraduate population, the graduate population is almost invisible to them; other than TA’ing and teaching some of their classes, they don’t think about grad students very much. That’s very sad because we have amazing graduate programs here, and maybe there could be some more collaboration between them.

Q: There’s an initiative from Alexis (UMass Boston student trustee) who is working towards getting voting rights for the five current student trustees, and then our initiative to get grad student trustees. So there are discussion about how these two initiatives are parallel, but at what point might we be asking for too much? So what is the strategy moving forward for those different campuses and their trustees, and what should they be advocating for, because they’re supposed to be advocating for the entire campus. So how do we negotiate these two initiatives so they’re not antagonistic or creating tensions between the different student bodies? So, would you be willing to fight for both initiatives?

A: One of the things the Board has said in opposition to the proposal to have five voting student members is the difficulty of having to reorganize the board and those policies. I would propose that since we’re already doing this, instead of doing it twice, why don’t we also add graduate students now too; proposing that, well, if we’re going to make these changes, why don’t we look at all of the changes that need to be made (like adding graduate student trustees). I’m in favor of both things happening; I think they’re both very important. In terms of choosing one over the other, that’s a really difficult question, and that’s something I’m going to have to think about a lot. It depends on how I feel the board is listening to students who don’t have voting rights. If they’re actually taking their opinions into account, or completely disregarding them because they don’t have a vote, it’s important to weigh those kinds of factors. But they should both happen.

Q: Another thing we’re taking up at GSS is evaluating the Wellman document. We’re looking at the history of it –how it has been ignored by administrators, or only honored after the fact when invoked by students, rather than being treated as standard policy practice by the administration. How there might be issues with educating new staff and administrators about their responsibilities from that. But also in terms of the strength and limitations of it as a legal document. So where would you be coming from on that issue?

A: I think it’s great that we have the Wellman Document. I don’t think it’s strong enough in its language right now, because it’s interpreted by the administration in some very vague ways sometimes. For example, when they tried to get rid of the Peer Mentor program they didn’t have any student input, but they stated that the Wellman document was being honored because they were thinking about students’ best interests, and that’s not enough. The peer mentors were shocked, and rightly so, because there was no discussion about this with students beforehand. So we went to a lot of open meetings with signs and protested, showing up and explaining why peer mentors are so important, and we ended up getting 75% of the peer mentors back. In that case they said they complied with the Wellman document because they were thinking about students’ best interests, but that’s not what it’s about. You actually need students there, having a say in those decisions. So that’s something I’d like to see be a little more concrete in the Wellman document, so there’s not so much vagueness in the interpretation of it. In terms of educating administrators, I think that would be fantastic. If student legal services could set it up where they do trainings –that would be great. Let’s have a proactive approach to this; educate beforehand so we don’t have these problems.

Q: One concern we have is that we understand the student trustee to be an officer of the university, and not an officer of any particular student government. I personally [Robin] believe that the student trustee should not be ticketed with the SGA officers, nor would I want them to be ticketed with the GSS officers, because it’s suggesting that they favor or serve one student body over another. During the debate I asked Emily if she would be in favor of changing the SGA bylaws, so that the student Trustee position is on its own, and that way it might spur the student trustee nominees to reach out to both student bodies, and ideally be more involved with GSS. Particularly if there’s only one student trustee; obviously this changes if we’re ever able to get two trustees (one for each student body). So what do you think about revising the SGA bylaws?

A: I completely agree with everyone you just said. I actually thought about that during the campaign. I was telling student what the trustee is, what they do, and they say, “oh, so you’re part of SGA.” And I say, “well not technically. I’m an advocate for the university.” I’m going to be working together with SGA, but it’s not an actual SGA role because I’m not just working for the undergrads. And that’s why I tried to reach out the grads as well, especially through GEO. Unfortunately, even the [GSS and SGA] elections are at different times. I think that’s unfortunate. Even graduate students, many of them don’t know that they can vote for student trustee. So that’s a pitfall of the way its set up now. Ideally I’d like to have undergraduate and graduate trustees so this wouldn’t be an issue. But if that’s not going to happen, revising the bylaws would be important. Even in perception, you’re right. Even though I will be working with GSS and wanting to advocate for the whole UMass campus and not just certain parts, changing the bylaws would be important to change how people see the student trustee role.

Interview conducted by Matthew Ferrari (GSS Publicity & Outreach Coordinator), and Robin Anderson (GSS President – Elect). April, 2013.

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