The new "My Groups" network

Last night, in the Faculty House’s fancy Skyline Dining Room, representatives of the 89 activist, political, religious, and identity-explorative student groups represented by the Student Governing Board met came together dinner to induct new groups, create an advisory council for the University Chaplain’s Office, and debate whether or not they should merge with the Activities Board at Columbia, which represents 150 other student groups.

The SGB was created in the aftermath of 1968, as a forum for students to discuss the administration. Comprised of representatives from the four undergraduate schools, it is dedicated to preserving to free speech, and promoting politics, humanitarianism, religion, spirituality, activism, by representing student groups with these affiliations.

First on the evening’s agenda was a presentation from the Columbia’s Office of Civic Action and Engagement, the administrative office that advises SGB. A representative encouraged the groups in attendance to use My Groups, a social network Columbia designed that enables people to check out all the different student groups at Columbia, join different groups, and view a calendar with all student groups’ activities (right now ‘Upcoming Events’ only lists the next 20 SSDP meetings).

After this, representatives from the 10 groups hoping to win SGB recognition were given two minutes to make their case to the audience. The SGB executive board had already voted whether or not to recommend recognition for each group, but that decision could be overturned if 2/3 of SGB groups disagreed with the board. As it turns out, none of the recommendations were overturned.

This means that recognition was granted seven groups: Camp Kesem, which recruits Columbia students to staff a summer camp for the children of parents with cancer; Columbia Students for Human Rights, which raises awareness of human rights issues; Students for Education Reform, which promotes discussion on the best way to fix the broken American education system; Design For America, which has set up a student-run studio to “use design to bring about social change”; the Journal of Global Health, which publishes academic papers on global health issues; Maranatha, an informal Christian prayer group; and Proud Colors, a group dedicated to understanding the complex identities of queer people of color.

Three groups were denied recognition: AustismSpeaks U, which aims to promote autism awareness but has only held one event so far; buildOn, which aims to build schools in poor communities in countries like Nicuragua and Malawi; and MEDLIFE, whose representatives didn’t even bother to attend the town hall.

After voting on new group recognition, the SGB groups in attendance were given the chance to vote on a major amendment to SGB’s constitution creating a Chaplain’s Council. SGB was originally created under the Office of the University Chaplain after the 1968 protests, as a way to protect the free speech of student groups. A few years ago, though, SGB moved from the Chaplain’s Office to Student Affairs, which made it tougher for the Chaplain’s Office to connect with student groups. The Chaplain Council, consisting of eight non-SGB members a chair from the SGB executive board, is an attempt to make sure the Chaplain understands and cares about student concerns.

Some SGB group leaders argued that the council wouldn’t be that effective, since the Chaplain isn’t exactly known for respecting student input. Barry Weinberg, president of SGB, explained that the point of locating the Chaplain Council in SGB was to ensure that student concerns would be addressed and SGB could use its institutional muscle to mediate between the Chaplain’s Office and student groups. The amendment passed with a 2/3 majority and takes effect today.

After the amendment vote, more than half the audience left. Those who stayed heard Weinberg explain that ABC, Columbia’s other governing board, had approached him earlier this semester offering to merge and create a new governing board for all the student groups at Columbia, though the negotiations fell through in October and haven’t been resumed since. There are some important differences between ABC and SGB: while SGB was created by the University Senate and covers groups at all of Columbia’s undergraduate schools, ABC was created by the class councils of CC, SEAS, and GS, so it does not cover Barnard groups. ABC also has a reputation for an overly complex and stifling bureaucracy. “ABC contains a lot of student-generated bureaucracy,” Weinberg admitted. The leader of one student group recognized by SGB was less polite, saying “one can’t take a piss without tripping over one regulation or another.”

The overall consensus was that SGB should consider the ABC merger offer if it is offered again, but must ensure that the resulting super-activities board respects the history of SGB (which specifically protects political and identity groups) and doesn’t contain too much bureaucracy. With that, the town hall was over and the few student group leaders who hadn’t already left headed for the exits.

All SGB meetings are open, and take place at 6:30 PM on Sundays in the Lerner West Ramp Lounge