April 27, 2010

After vote, new SG position takes shape

Students will have one of their own representing them to community leaders after last week’s vote on a referendum to institute a Community and Government Liaison.

Seventy-two percent of the 2,350 students who voted in the Student Government (SG) election were in favor of creating the liaison position. The liaison will communicate with city alderpeople/aldermen, state representatives, community members, and the University’s Office of Civic Engagement.

“The Community and Govern-ment Liaison will be involved in community issues that affect students, facilitate communication between the Civic Engagement office and students, and form productive relationships with local government leaders,” said first-year College Council representative Frank Alarcon, the position’s architect, in an e-mail.

The new liaison will report to SG and sit on SG’s cabinet along with the executive slate, Graduate and College Council chairs, and the liaisons to the Board of Trustees.

Alarcon described the new role as “a reactive position that will respond to community issues as they arise,” as opposed to a proactive one that would propose changes. Alarcon, the incumbent liaison to the Board of Trustees, has described the position in a similar way.

The community liason’s interactions with the administration are intended to replicate the liason to Board of Trustees’ as well. Where the liaisons to the Board of Trustees work closely with the President’s Office and the University Secretary, “the Community and Government Liaison will work closely with the University’s Civic Engagement office to offer student feedback in regards to Civic Engagement projects,” Alarcon said. “The Civic Engagement staff will also advise the Community and Government Liaison.” It will also help RSOs coordinate work with organizations in the wider community, he said.

Although SG has yet to strictly define the position’s role, one of the liaison’s main objectives will be to improve communication between local government officials and the student body.

“SG presently has very little rapport with alderman and state legislators. The Community and Government Liaison will work to open the lines of communication between students and government leaders. The Community and Government Liaison will invite aldermen and state legislators to campus for student forums so politicians are aware of student sentiment,” Alarcon said.

Fourth-year Chris Williams, SG vice president for Student Affairs, said this communication would be a responsibility left up to the liaison personally, as SG did not survey local politicians to see if they would engage with the liaison prior to its inception.

Among other issues, the liaison will work on two perennial concerns of student and community members: transportation and retail. The University is a major developer in

Hyde Park, and its plans are often decried by community groups. When the University planned to replace the abandoned Doctors Hospital on Stony Island Avenue with a hotel in 2008, residents of the precinct voted it dry—meaning no alcohol may be sold there—until 2012, effectively ending plans for a hotel. The University recently announced it would become a Lab Schools building.

The hotel controversy flamed off campus, but few students were interested. “Maybe if there was an official student role, such as the liaison, students could have been more involved, even if we couldn’t have changed anything,” Williams said.

Transportation issues have also plagued student-community relationships. Bus stops became a point of contention—convenient for students, they took up parking spaces that neighborhood residents wanted available.

Two years ago, Fifth Ward Alderperson Leslie Hairston attempted to have the Chicago Transit Authority remove the #171 stop on East 57th Street and South University Avenue in order to open up space for four parking spots. One month of protests and negotiations later, Hairston announced she had changed her mind, and the bus stop stayed.

Williams said that incident was instructive. “With more communication with her office, she would have understood [the stance of the University community] better,” he said.

After the incident, communication did improve, Williams said. “We met with Hairston and we started meeting with the Office of Civic Engagement and we established a better relationship there,” he said. “But I think it was really Frank [Alarcon] and some of the first-year reps who realized there could be the need for an official position and official role.”

Alarcon proposed the referendum to SG in March, where it passed with a 15–6 vote. The incumbent slate hopes to appoint an interim liaison—undergraduates or graduate students are eligible—before allowing candidates onto a ballot in the Spring, when it will go before the entire student body, third-year and incumbent SG President Greg Nance said.

“Someone with work or volunteer experience on the South Side of Chicago would be great for the position,” Alarcon said.

But much of the what the liaison will do in office will depend in large part on the first liaison himself. “The position is a little bit unformed. It’s the first year so the person who takes up the position will have a large responsibility in forming it,” Williams said.