May 31, 2016

Uncommon Interview: Outgoing SG President Tyler Kissinger

Jamie Manley / The Chicago Maroon

Chicago Maroon (CM): How does the Student Government (SG) you first came to know compare to that which you are leaving behind? 

Tyler Kissinger (TK): I mean, I think people are aware that it exists. When I first ran for Student Government, which was the end of my first year, I actually ran as a write-in candidate—I don’t know if you know this but if you know this let me know and I can skim by this—I didn’t come to school thinking I’d be involved in Student Government. I wasn’t in high school. 

I wasn’t really that interested in being publicly political, but I’d gotten really involved with the University Community Service Center (UCSC).... I came from rural North Carolina, [and had] never really been in a city before. I’d never even been to Chicago before I came to move into UChicago; that was my first experience.  

I did a lot of programs like Chicago Bound, Seeds of Justice, and then Summer Links at the UCSC. That got me really interested in the way that the school interfaces with community and…being someone from a rural area that had no idea how cities work, that was my initial entryway to the University of Chicago community. 

And so spring of my first year, I met this guy, Michael McCown, who ended up running this kind of activist-y campaign for SG the end of my first year. And I was like, wow, that’s pretty neat, but I still didn’t really think of it as something I’d be interested in being involved in until all of the candidates were announced. I wasn’t particularly happy with the one person who was running unopposed for the community and government liaison position, based on all these experiences I’d had, based on my interest in us getting a UPass, based on a few other things, and so I decided to run as a write-in then.  

And then I’m sure you can look at the old Maroon articles…being disqualified through a recording. It’s like a consistent theme for some reason, people just want to make recordings and it’s not a good idea ever…. And so then I ended up winning, I ended up winning with 500 write-in votes, which was like, I definitely didn’t know 500 people at that time.  

And I think when I look back at how SG was during that first year of involvement, again, under a different Slate when I was community and government liaison, I don’t think it was an active presence on campus. I don’t think people heard about what it was doing. I don’t think the leadership at the time really had a sense of what the possibility of it was. Even when I ran for president the first time I don’t think I even appreciated the possibilities then. I was with Arlin [Hill] and Aseal [Tineh] running against Moose, and I don’t think people felt the stakes…of the institution until we actually did a fair bit with it the following year after we won.  

I think what makes me excited is I see year-to-year participation in elections is increasing a lot. This past cycle, the most people voted ever…in SG elections, at least going back to the ’90s…and so I think people are imagining it as a vehicle by which they can actually change the conditions of students and increasingly the community…. That conception didn’t exist my first year when I talked to folks who were on campus before me, that didn’t exist for them, and I think that’s what’s exciting about it. 

CM: How does last year’s Slate compare to that from this year? 

TK: I think all three of us last year didn’t quite have a sense of the possibilities of what we could do. And I think when you look at the way in which we went about doing that work is a bit like searching around in the dark. We didn’t really know what it was that we could do, because we didn’t really have strong examples of predecessors who were very active and very visible on campus. 

A lot happened that year that gave us the opportunity to be visible. So this was coming after Politically Incorrect Maroon Confessions, there were a lot of incidents of racial bias on campus, the confederate flag, and then there was a pretty big incident in the fall with Halloween costumes that I think really initiated a lot of conversation about race on campus. I think that was the first time that we started really working on being visible and talking about issues more visibly.  

But again I don’t think that we had a strong sense of what was possible in the roles until we actually started seeing things happen, until we were able to work with RSOs on campus and work with groups that had a stake in the campus climate report happening, and then getting the University to commit to doing two of them, the sexual misconduct and the catch-all one—I don’t even know what they call it but the broader campus climate survey…or until UPass happened, or until we worked on reformulating our stipends proposal into what evolved into SLRA [Student Leadership Recognition and Access Program].  

I think that was very much a learning year, both for myself and for Arlin [Hill] and Aseal [Tineh]. They both graduated. Kenzo [Esquivel] and Alex [Jung] were both involved in the community that year as well through different roles, and so I think all of us were able to learn through that experience and incorporate a lot of those lessons into the work that we did this year, and that was beneficial.  

I think the short way of saying that is that we’ve started to develop institutional memory. It used to be kind of a clean slate in and out every year, and that’s not to say that SG experience is necessary to be successful in SG, especially SG leadership, but also an understanding of what the possibilities are is important, and I don’t think that existed before. And so I think that’s the primary thing that’s changed. 

CM: In retrospect, are there any projects pursued during your administration that you wish you could have improved? 

TK: [laughs] Probably all of them.   

I think this is relevant because it’s an ongoing conversation right now, but stipends, which if you noticed we moved away from using the language “stipends.” That’s not a political thing, it’s that the legal association that stipends have carries a very particular meaning for the University. What it does is attach it to a certain dispersal process that relies on certain tax documents that undocumented students don’t have, so there’s a different dispersal process that doesn’t do that...I think [the stipends program proposed in 2014]—and I know not everyone would agree with this—was well-intentioned from the beginning, but it wasn’t ever well-messaged….  

What we sought to address with the program was that the work that Student Government does is not more important than other RSOs, it’s not more important than the work that student leaders do across campus, but it’s also integral to allowing RSOs to do the work that they do. If leaders in SG aren’t able to dedicate the time that they need to effectively allocate funds, oversee IT resources, that has consequences that impact the student body. And in theory we also want students of all backgrounds to get access to those roles.   

But obviously that is not the understanding that has permeated campus. And so I think the lesson that I learned from that was that it’s important that students be involved in the formulation of policy at every step of the process, I think we’ve worked on doing that better since then, and it’s also important to be open and transparent about what policy aims are, and I don’t think that was clear from the beginning. When we were initially seeking to fill the roles of director of communications, director of finances…by the way, you receive some sort of compensation to not entirely but somewhat account for the amount of hours that you’d be putting into this role. That doesn’t explain why that’s important, that doesn’t explain why that’s necessary, but I think when you walk someone through that it becomes more clear. 

CM: Following up on the previous question, are there any projects that you believe should not have been pursued by SG?  

TK: I guess what I would kind of squabble with a little bit was the premise of the question. I think a lot of the projects we pursue have been, it just doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Projects are almost all of the time in response to or coming as the result of work with students on campus and at the end of the day always require the approval of the representatives of, the duly elected representatives of the student body. And so I guess it’s a hard question to answer. I don’t know, do you have a specific example?  

CM: Not like a specific example, but maybe the controversy regarding the divestment movement? Maybe you want to talk about that, whether or not you think it was in the purview of SG to pursue this initiative? 

TK: I think ultimately the purview of Student Government is giving students a voice in the way in which the University operates. I think if you look at the language in our constitution it’s relatively far-reaching. I guess one thing that I’m reminded of is—I was actually reading before coming to this—an article written in 2013 just before the election, “A Progressive Path for Student Government,” and it had an interview from a vice president…from 2011, who talked about how SG was essentially just a funding body. I think those were almost his exact words. And I think one thing that has become pretty clear is that SG isn’t just a funding body and that a really wide swath of campus wants students to be involved in very serious ways in the operation and governance of the University. I mean, that is a concrete thing, that is not a diffuse, advisory sort of way. Students want concrete authority on being able to appoint their representation to the Independent Review Committee in the UCPD. Students want SG to be able to push administration to do things like conduct a campus climate survey or establish a Level I trauma center. And at the end of the day the bounds of that, the bounds of students having a role in the way that the University works are I think defined by students, not by Student Government. And so when issues are brought to Student Government or the College Council I think it’s the duty of the representatives to give them due consideration and I think by and large that happened in this case. So I don’t know if I’m maybe talking all around your question, but I think at the end of the day the duty of Student Government is to do what students want it to do. And students elect representation and as long as proceedings are conducted in an open and transparent way and students are involved in the process kind of every step of the way, I think that ultimately, then SG is serving the purpose that it’s supposed to do. There’s not necessarily a clear policy boundary around that.

CM: What have been your greatest successes as SG president? 

TK: I mean honestly, I think the thing that I’m proudest of is that students are participating at higher rates than ever, like I mentioned earlier. Like having nearly 4,000 students vote in an election is huge. It’s over double from my first election.  

And…there are reasons why students are participating. I think, one of the things that I think about and talk about a lot is [that] I came to this university wanting it to have a UPass and wanting to personally have a UPass by the time that I graduated. While that’s not happening, while I won’t personally have a UPass, the fact that the school will [have UPasses], that the College will [have UPasses], I’m jealous. And I really think it will have a pretty big impact on campus life.  

I know so many people who, for reasons that range from convenience to financial reasons, don’t travel off campus to the extent that they could or wish they could. I know people who…it’s a really significant financial burden for them to travel for basic things like internships or even grocery shopping or like medical appointments outside of Hyde Park, for whom that will become easier.  

And I think also having done a lot of work in the University Community Service Center, I think having a student body that is more engaged with the city of Chicago and understanding that there is a city around them and communities on the South Side that are worth visiting, I think it will help pop the bubble a little bit, maybe not entirely. 

So I’m excited about participation, I’m excited about UPass, jealous about UPass. And I think—this is again maybe a diffuse thing—the thing aside from participation that maybe excites me the most is that SG is recognized as a place that students can come to actually substantively impact policy at the University. When I think about this past year’s election, it wasn’t just students that were interested in it and interested in the outcome. You had stewards from the local teamsters that were meeting with candidates. You had faculty that are interested in students stepping up and playing a bigger role in University governance. You see a lot of shared policy priorities that essentially boil down to more shared governance at this university instead of just a top-down management. 

And those relationships and that vision, those are something that definitely didn’t exist when I came in and didn’t exist a year ago. It’s very new and I think presents a very exciting opportunity for the future of this university, because I think a lot of those stakeholders, faculty, students, graduate and undergraduate, and campus staff are frankly fed up with the way that decisions are made at this university, because they’re not made with all of those stakeholders in mind.  

And so then, to circle back and say one more thing there on the Student Government side, having more graduate student involvement in what we do, I think is also key. Graduate students obviously outnumber undergraduates close to two to one, and there’s so much those groups have in common, that they have shared stakes in. Like the undergraduate learning environment is the graduate teaching environment, the graduate working environment, and on issues from compensation to health care to childcare, there are shared issues that these groups experience, and I think it’s in everyone’s best interest to be having these relationships, because ultimately we’re a stronger student body when we’re able to talk about University governance with our TAs and with people who also have a shared stake in the way that the University works on a fundamental level. So I think that’s also something that’s very exciting and that didn’t exist previously.

CM: What has been your greatest failure as SG president? 

TK: There’s a lot, not that I’m having trouble thinking of things…. I think one thing that I really wish that I could have done better was really communicating to the student body the degree to which administrators don’t want students to be involved in University governance. I think I’ve done a little bit more of that recently as a lame duck and I think it’s been like clarifying for myself and for other people. 

Because it’s so easy to get caught in the day to day, like what’s going on with trying to pass a budget or trying to construct a budget or trying to fight to get students on this particular committee or try to have a say in this hiring decision, it’s so easy to get caught up in all of those little things to miss the bigger picture or miss communicating the bigger picture to the students who at the end of the day it’s the role of Student Government to represent. And representation requires the communication of that bigger picture. I think there have been so many instances over all of my four years at this university but especially over my years in SG where student involvement in University decision-making has been actively restricted, but at the time it felt better to play the inside game of working to try and change that from the inside rather than communicating that to the student body, and I think more of that’s happening, which is good.

CM: What are some specific examples of some scenarios where Student Government went to the administration with a problem and was basically delivered the message that the administration did not want students to be as involved as they are or as they intend to be? 

TK: So the one that is freshest on my mind is the IRC [the Independent Review Committee, which reviews complaints made against the UCPD]. At the beginning of this year, we were informed that the provost had changed their policy on appointment of the IRC, that whereas traditionally the Student Government had appointed seats directly, now CSL would be soliciting applications on behalf of the provost’s office making selections for student representation on the committee. 

It totally wrote out the role of students in selecting their representation on the board that reviews complaints against the UCPD, and we exchanged I don’t even know how many dozens of e-mails with CSL with staff in the provost’s office, we went back and found documentation on how traditionally policy was that Student Government would appoint to the committee, and ultimately we were just ignored. I was told that I could have a meeting with someone in the provost’s office in a month and a half, I sent information to the CSL, I handed them a piece of paper, a paper copy of the information that we had found in our archives, and it just went nowhere.  

And I think, just a few other examples. The University is taking a really aggressive stance against unionization of graduate students. It’s doing this amidst, in the context of its own commitment to not taking political stances, to open discourse, and I don’t think those reconcile and I don’t think that reconciles with giving the graduate student body the ability to freely make decisions without pressure, without threats or influence. When I think about decisions regarding health care, the University’s health care policy, decisions regarding the money that the University invests in student health care and student counseling services are made by administrators who at the end of the day don’t ever actually consult students.  

One striking example that I’m reminded of is during my first year, I was invited to sit on Karen Warren-Coleman’s “Vice President's Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion.” It was started after some incident of racial tension on campus, I think there was a confederate flag hung at a fraternity that was facing [the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs], and I wrote a kind of scathing article [“Institutionalizing Input”, October 15, 2013] in The Maroon about the way in which there exist, from dining, housing, health and disability and more, all of these advisory boards that at the end of the day don’t ever actually have any decision-making power but get leaned on just as this Council of Diversity and Inclusion was. In moments of crisis in the University [these advisory boards] are held up as an example of how students are involved in decision-making but don’t actually do any of that decision-making.  

And I wrote an article about this in The Maroon last year and was told that I shouldn’t have done that, by an administrator, because it would mean would make administrators not want to work with me, if I were critical of the way by which they made decisions publicly. And I think this is maybe, getting way back to your original question, but I think for too long I almost internalized that.  

I, in playing this sort of inside game, wasn’t as publicly vocal and publicly critical about the way in which this university made decisions, and should have been much more frequently. Which maybe sounds silly from the progressive slate, but I think there are and continue to be opportunities to do that more that I’m excited about for the future. And because there will be partners in faculty and campus staff who have those same issues about investment and academic resources or investment in basic campus life resources, like dining, that those critiques will be shared and I think much more powerful in the future. 

CM: What is your opinion on the expanded role that SG has taken over the past year? I guess you already answered this before... 

TK: Hm, do I have anything to add? I mean, this is mainly rhetorical, but I don’t know that I’d even say that it’s an expanded role. I think we’re starting to do the job that we’re supposed to do, and that students expect us to do. At the end of the day I really do think that students want to be involved in the way the University makes decisions…I wouldn’t say so much that it’s an expansion as so much that we’re starting to do the work that students want us to do.

CM: In your last General Assembly meeting, your proposals to standardize Graduate Council elections and provide Executive Committee members with monetary awards failed. Are you upset by the results of your last GA meeting? 

TK: I opposed the amendment that ultimately passed, but the language that I supported that [the Election and Rules committee] proposed also passed as well. And I think the outcome of the Graduate Council election amendments is now, we actually have rules in the book for how they should occur.  

I’m not, I don’t think they’re 100 percent where I want them to be but they exist. And we now will have a standardized process moving forward and that didn’t exist before. So I think it was actually really successful. There will be, I’m not as involved in this because [I won’t be] overseeing the elections next year, but I know there will be elections in the fall for at least some divisions and schools. And for the bylaw amendment that, again I did oppose but that passed, made it clear that if schools and divisions weren’t meeting specific criteria, that they weren’t submitting an election code that was, I think, approved by E&R and Graduate Council…. Essentially there’s a process now. I forget the exact specifics of it, I hadn’t seen the amendment until it was proposed in Assembly, but there is standardization and that really didn’t exist before.  

And more graduate students will have—and I’m thinking especially of divisional units, like humanities, social sciences, physical sciences, where a lot of students reside that haven’t had consistent or elected representatives before—will now have the opportunity to have those positions elected. And so ultimately I think that’s a win. I’m happy with that.  

With regard to the award proposal, I think it’s going to be a work-in-progress. I am excited by the fact that while there were concerns with the specifics of the proposal as it was last Monday, there was, I think, generally broad support for the idea that these positions should be accessible to students of all backgrounds and I’m pretty sure there’s going to be movement on that looking forward. I don’t know exactly what it will look like but I think that consensus is there, and so it will require additional work but I wouldn’t say I’m disheartened by it.  

And the SLRA program got a huge boost in funding, which I’m really excited about, I put a lot of time into that program. I came to this school as a first-generation college student and as a self-supporting student, not always feeling like I belonged, not always feeling like I was supposed to be here, having a lot of trouble managing academics, supporting myself financially, doing extracurricular activities, having some social life, but I think programs like SLRA are going to make that more possible for more students here, and so I’m excited about that. So I sort of reject the premise somewhat, I’m not disappointed with the last Assembly meeting.

CM: What advice do you have for the new Executive Slate? 

TK: I think one, and I talked about this, so sorry for repeating, one of the most important things will be, actually two things. One is being visible on campus, and not just on Overheard and not just on, like, social media…. In a sense we’re kind of lucky…. A lot of private institutions don’t have a Student Government that has as far reaching of a role as ours does, by nature of it being a private institution. I think [at] public institutions, the role is bigger than at private institutions.   

That’s particularly true for funding and when you look at most of our peers at private institutions, they don’t generally allocate funds in the way that we do, in a way that is democratically sourced via Student Life Fee. So we have a pretty substantive role compared to our peers’ schools for our Student Government and in a way that it functions, at least on the funding side, more like public institutions.  

Public institutions also have like 45,000 students. At UChicago, we have less. It’s 5,000 on the undergrad side, and the grad students that are on campus, I think that number is around 8,000 at the top of my head. It is a school of a size that you can reasonably easily be seen by and interact with a large number of students who call this campus home. And I think as SG continues to grow in the amount of work it does for this campus, and especially in the role it plays in graduate student life, I think personal interactions with more students, especially with peers on the graduate side, are going to be integral for a campus that can be so decentralized, a campus that can be so fragmented as ours. I think that’s another thing that makes UChicago unique, and not always in a good way. Not always in a bad way.  

We have a very divisional campus when you look at our student body in a way that’s relatively unique. And so being really intentional about developing relationships that stand, groups in the College that also stand, schools and divisions on the graduate side will also be important.   

I think the other thing, and I guess this is related, [is] continuing to build and develop relationships with faculty and with campus workers. I think all of these groups are kind of together, graduate students, undergraduate students, faculty, and campus workers, and want a larger role in University governance. I think the incoming Slate has already, frankly, done more to build relationships with campus workers, with graduate students, and faculty than we have this year—and I think that’s promising. Sustaining that and growing that role will, I think, yield really good results for the student body, because at the end of the day I think all of those groups have this shared interest.

CM: What’s next for Tyler Kissinger? What are your plans for after graduation? 

TK: Um…TBD. I’m applying to jobs right now, getting some interviews. Being at this school has been a really interesting experience.  

So I grew up—I’ll tell you my life story—in a pretty rural part of North Carolina, like a rural suburb. Neither of my parents went to college. I was never even particularly expected to go to college by them but they were excited that I wanted to, generally supported me in making that happen, and…. So my mom was a stay-at-home mom most of my life, and my dad worked in construction. After the recession, he essentially lost his job and my mom had to go to work and eventually started working in food service, for Aramark of all companies, and so she ended up working part-time in a public school cafeteria, part-time at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem for Aramark. And she’s making minimum wage in both jobs, working ungodly hours, and she ended up getting breast cancer while working.   

She beat it and still had to keep working while she was receiving treatment because of how much debt my family was in because we were in between moving into a new house and trying to sell an old one, right in the midst of the housing crisis. Then having to deal with medical debt and the costs—I have two younger brothers—of raising three kids. So all that’s to say I never really expected to end up at a school like UChicago, and I don’t know that UChicago always expected a student like me to end up here either. 

It’s been exciting to see the way in which some aspects that the school has grown during my four years here. It’s definitely gotten better at supporting…at least getting more first-generation and low-income students to campus. But it’s obvious to me that there’s still room to grow. And again, this is a super long answer to a pretty short question, but I think those experiences are what grounded a lot of my work in Student Government and on campus in trying to make this school, in partnership with a lot of people and a lot of organizations, a better place for its students, a better place for faculty, a better place for anyone who calls the University of Chicago, or Hyde Park, or anything it touches, home.  

I’m going to be committed to doing that most of my life. I don’t know exactly what I will be doing after, but I know it’ll be centered around those experiences. I’ll likely be doing organizing work somewhere, probably in the Midwest, hopefully Chicago. My plan right now is to stay living in Hyde Park, but beyond that I’m not really sure.  

CM: Do you think you’ll ever run for public office?  

TK: [Laughter] Um, I mean I kind of already have. So we’ll see.  

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