This post was updated Oct. 8 at 2:01 p.m.
USAC finally found a way to get students on the Academic Senate – by giving them money.
The Academic Senate is an institution that provides UCLA faculty the ability to participate in the University’s governance. The Standing Committees of the Senate, the Academic Council, the Assembly of the Academic Senate, and its Divisional counterparts work in conjunction to form a cohesive voice for the intellectual community.
But after a year of consistently unfilled undergraduate seats on the Academic Senate, the Undergraduate Students Association Council announced its appointees will now receive stipends for their time on the senate – a change geared toward more accurately representing the diversity of UCLA’s undergraduate population.
Finally, a cause for celebration – getting enough students on board to represent students at all.
And while this is a massive improvement, the proposed implementation of the supposed game-changing stipends is flawed. USAC does plan to give representatives money, but it will not disclose the dollar amount or mandate it in its constitution for the years to come. Instead, it is referring to the compensation as a small stipend, only to be disclosed after applicants are appointed.
Not only does mandating the stipends in the USAC constitution put students interested in on-campus policies at risk – it threatens USAC’s ability to fill seats at all. Failing to disclose the precise monetary compensation for these appointments is unsympathetic to the historically underrepresented students USAC claims it wants to attract. If students’ voices are truly invaluable across different councils within the organization, USAC should be doing everything in its power to secure these stipends for the future, while keeping them as transparent as possible.
For students struggling financially, the size of a stipend could make the difference between whether or not they even apply. But without a number to go on, the risk of not knowing could outweigh the potential reward.
Forty-two seats are split in half between undergraduate and graduate students in the Academic Senate. USAC is responsible for selecting 21 students to fill up its share of the committee but, in February, only filled a meager eight positions.
Not only that, but these low numbers mirror a remarkably low voter turnout with the USAC elections earlier in 2019. Only 16.18% of students voted for the mere 16 candidates running – less than half the number of candidates from the year before.
But USAC seems intent on brushing off the Academic Senate’s engagement problems, preventing a meaningful system change to dodge a relatively small inconvenience.
The small stipends offered to undergraduate senate members will be coming from the office assistance budget of the USAC Academic Affairs commissioner. While there were initial talks about writing stipend positions into the constitution – which would formally ensure compensation in years to come – USAC decided against it so as not to extend the hiring process or overwhelm the council’s appointment review committee.
Naomi Riley, the front-runner for these stipends and the Academic Affairs commissioner for USAC, noted concerns outsiders may have.
“I think there is a fear. I think about it a lot and I think that’s what any commissioner or executive officer would think – is my work going to be undone?” Riley said. “I’m confident that whoever comes after me, should it be myself or someone from within my commission, or someone from outside, that they understand that the AAC would lose a lot of institutional power without the Academic Senate.”
But creating stipends for these roles using only the office assistance budget serves as a mere Band-Aid solution to a severe numbers problem. Boosting participation with a stipend needs to be a permanent solution, not a one-time fix for this school year.
“I would feel uncomfortable knowing there was a stipend without the amount being disclosed,” said fourth-year political science student Jack Kirakos. “I would want to know how much it was and I would want to know if (the job) was worth it.”
Sure, USAC may have every intention to uphold the stipend in the years to come. But the student body has no way to hold USAC accountable unless that plan is in writing.
While she was unable to comment on current applicant retention rates, Riley explained that the lack of disclosure surrounding the stipend was intentional, as the AAC wants compensation to serve as a reward for service instead of an incentive.
But, if the mission of these stipends is to welcome more lower-income students into the Academic Senate, they shouldn’t expect students to choose an undisclosed figure over any other potential income, especially on top of an already strenuous schedule.
Eric Wells, the committee analyst for the Undergraduate Council, explained that often the time and effort expected of the UGC and other councils is not a walk in the park.
“In terms of workload, it can be quite substantial,” Wells said. “Students are a very important part of the council because they provide the faculty there with the student perspective.”
Yes, these stipends are intentionally small, but what seems like pocket change to one person is significant revenue to someone else. The monetary incentive will widen the net of applicants – and it has. But instead of waiting for appointment day to find out who will drop, USAC would only help itself by being upfront about the stipend – the pool might thin, but at least it won’t leave at the sight of a short stack of bills. And if USAC bothered to actually write these stipends into its constitution, low-income students might at least have a reason to come back.
This was a step in the right direction. But if permanent stipends and financial transparency show up on the agenda again, take on the extra burden of implementing them.
The people who need the money will thank you for it.