A Case for the ELRA

Two College Council representatives explain why they support the ELRA, arguing that it would be especially beneficial for low-income students.

By Marlin Figgins and Myles Hudson

As College Council representatives who were present during the public Student Government (SG) Assembly session that voted on the Executive Leadership Remuneration Act (ELRA), we want to explain the resolution and our reasons for supporting it.

Before looking at the resolution itself, it is important to understand the purpose and structure of SG. SG is headed by the Executive Slate—the president, the vice president for student affairs, and the vice president for administration—which oversees College Council (CC) and Graduate Council (GC). CC holds public meetings once a week, while GC meets less frequently. CC representatives sit on various committees, which distribute RSO funds and approve new RSO applications. Both councils hold public Assembly meetings with the Executive Slate three times a quarter to hear committee updates and vote on resolutions and budgeting decisions. SG representatives do important work to improve student life, but the primary purpose of SG is to allocate the entirety of its annual budget to committees and RSOs.

The ELRA states that the president of SG should be paid $1,500 and the two vice presidents should be paid $750 each after the successful completion of each eligible quarter they serve: autumn, winter, and spring. Assuming these students work 10 hours a week (for 10 weeks), the president receives $15 per hour and the vice presidents receive $7.50; however, this should be taken in context with the actual estimates of the hours they work per week (12, 10, and nine). Taking into account these estimates brings these numbers to $12.50, $7.50, and $8.33 per hour for the president, vice president for student affairs, and vice president for administration, respectively.

Another important note is that no one voted to pay themselves. The resolution was introduced by a graduate student, and the incoming Executive Slate’s voting members both abstained. No one who voted “yes” would be paid under this resolution, either now or next year.

But the question is about student life fees. To quote College Council Representative Tony Ma, “Student Government members should NEVER have the power to pocket our student life fees—hundreds of dollars each of us pay in our tuitions—without explicit permission of the student body.” What is crucially missing from this account is that the people who voted for this resolution are your democratically elected representatives, whose jobs are principally to determine the use of your student life fees and to whom you have given power by voting into office (or by not voting at all). Student Government allocated $2,361,000 of your student life fees for the 2018­–19 school year. This $9,000 constitutes 0.38 percent of that annual budget and is exclusively drawn from those allocated to the SG Administrative Budget, which itself constitutes 0.91 percent of the total 2018–19 budget after having been reduced 36.76 percent from the previous year. This money is not coming from the SG Funding Committee (SGFC) and Annual Allocations (which together fund most of the 411 RSOs on campus for a total amount of $803,635), the Coalition of Academic Teams (which funds $249,404 to College Bowl, the Debate Society, Mock Trial, Moot Court, the Model UN Team, and the chess team), the Program Coordinating Council (which funds $539,991 to COUP, MAB, Doc Films, Fire Escape Films, University Theater, and WHPK Radio Station), Student Health and Counseling Services (which is not funded by Student Government), nor any of the other RSOs or students groups we know and love because these groups were allocated their funds on April 23, 2018, three weeks before the ELRA even came before Assembly on May 14.

Although the SG Administrative Budget has historically been underutilized, it fundamentally has a purpose: to be used at the discretion of the Executive Slate. The ELRA puts this administrative budget to regular use, which fulfills the purpose of that fund.

Nationwide, paying student government executives is not uncommon. Many other universities’ student governments pay their Executive Slate equivalents, including UC Berkeley, UCLA, George Washington University, and the University of Texas at Austin, to name a few. That point aside, there seems to be a feeling that Executive Slate doesn’t need to be paid, and that since RSOs are not paid, Executive Slate shouldn’t be either. However, the history of Student Government shows that the jobs performed by Executive Slate were performed by paid University staffers prior to SG’s acquisition of the Program Coordinating Council, Coalition of Academic Teams, and the establishment of SGFC. But most importantly, it is necessary to understand that we live in a society in which paid labor is the norm. That is to say that the idea that you shouldn’t be paid for your labor assumes that you are able to make money elsewhere or merely have it available. Ideally, all labor should be paid or compensated by some means (the sentiment implicit in the goals of Graduate Students United, which has garnered huge support at UChicago), meaning just because one group is not paid does not mean that we all should be unpaid. In fact, we should be trying to work towards this ideal that everyone is paid for their labor.

We believe that this resolution is a first step in achieving this goal, though that is not to say that the ELRA is perfect as is. There is certainly room for this resolution to be amended. For example, we support the idea of Executive Slate only receiving their payment after they’ve released a public report on what they have achieved in that quarter for the sake of transparency. That being said, if you deem a certain Executive Slate has not done their job, it is possible to pose a resolution or referendum to prevent that slate being paid for that quarter (or even the whole year). Looking beyond this, we can create and improve upon opportunities to fund RSO leaders like the Student Leadership Recognition and Access Program (SLRA), which aims to grant stipends to students whose work in RSOs prevents them from taking on a job and gaining additional income during this time period. Publicizing and expanding this program in the future may help achieve our overall goal.

The point we’re most personally interested in is accessibility. Each year, the student body elects several College Council representatives who are low-income but dedicate their time to improving student life for current and future classes. Unfortunately, it is rare to see these same people stay and move into Slate positions because a lack of compensation often makes the time commitment unreasonable. Speaking from the position of a College Council representative who is low-income, I, Marlin Figgins, found myself unable to run for an Executive Slate position. This is because in order to do so—and to do so well—I would need to quit my job. This may not seem like a serious issue to some, but I need to work to survive! Honestly, there are several representatives who share my sentiment. By opting to pay Executive Slate, you open the door for low-income students to confidently be able to run and take on positions that significantly impact the student body. In other words, more people will be able to take charge and be involved in Student Government in a very substantial way. 

Current vice president for administration Sabine Nau said in Assembly: “I do think that it’s important to echo the sentiments about compensation for labor. SG is seen as a cursory position for a resume, but the actual work that we’re doing is real, and I’ve had to take less hours at my job to do this work. Compensation would’ve been helpful, for me at least, but yes, talking about the numbers is a fair conversation. I would really like to see this conversation expanded in the future, and to recognize more and more workers. Not recognizing this work is, I think, a disservice to future SGs.

Frankly, the amount of money that this resolution ensures is not worth the effort for those who would run for the position just for the money. Before seeing even the first third of the payment, the three candidates that form a slate would have to collect 300 signatures from the student body as well as campaign for three weeks, win the election, and complete the autumn quarter term of their service as the Executive Slate. Simply put, there are much easier ways to earn $1,500 ($750 in the case of the two vice presidents). Defaulting to the narrative that Executive Slate shouldn’t be paid because people would run for the wrong reasons is a disservice to the people who would do it for the right reasons but can’t due to financial barriers. If anything, this resolution should lead to an increase in competition during executive slate elections, as the past two slates ran virtually unopposed. (This year, members of Delta Upsilon ran under the Moose Party slate as a joke.)

This is a reason to be invested in Student Government, to be engaged in how we vote, to talk to your representatives and tell them how you feel, but the claim that Student Government does nothing or is doing the wrong thing falls on deaf ears when no one is paying attention in the first place.

Moving forward with this goal in mind may be difficult; it will require communicating your ideas with your SG representatives as well as a personal investment in ensuring this happens, but surely this is a first step in transparency, accountability, and paying student labor, as well as ensuring that positions on SG itself are accessible.

DISCLAIMER: I, Marlin Figgins, will not be able to run for Executive Slate next year because of this piece. This year, there was a financial burden preventing me from doing so, and now, it’s because I’ve chosen to stand up for the idea that Executive Slate should be paid which, I believe, is really the right for people to be paid for their labor, the right for low-income students like me to be able to take on these positions in the future. I have no stake in this other than my personal need to fight on the behalf of low-income students to the best of my ability.

I, Myles Hudson, have no intentions of running for Executive Slate in the future. As emphasized in this piece, the time commitment, responsibility, and expectations of all three positions are immense, and I am content with continuing to push for change from my position as a College Council representative. My purpose in campaigning for the ELRA is to drive home the idea that all labor for the University should be paid and to increase access to low-income students vying for Executive Slate positions.

Marlin Figgins is a second-year, and Myles Hudson is a first-year in the College.