What I Would Change About UC Berkeley
Tuesday, April 8, 2014
The time has come once again for UC Berkeley's student government elections, and this season revives many of my feelings of frustration, helplessness, regret, and disillusionment. When I read the campaign platforms of the next cycle of student representatives, I see trite phrases and empty promises. I see meaningless slogans and timid suggestions. I do not see fire. I do not see purpose. I do not see passion. I do not see great big dreams. And this scares me. This angers me. This depresses me.
So what do I do? I write. I write about what I would change if I could. I write to rant. I write to start a conversation. I write with the hope that perhaps someone less disillusioned can be motivated by my words. I should warn my readers that my unguarded feelings may be controversial. I think, however, that my thoughts only echo many of emotions felt by my fellow students - frustration about bureaucracy, helplessness in the face of an organization hampered by traditions and inefficiency, regret about our own lack of involvement, and mostly disillusionment. Disillusionment about the student government that more than likely stems from disillusionment with our own nation's government and politics in general. The following are just a couple of ideas about how the student experience could be improved that I hope will begin a much-needed conversation.
1. Get rid of unproductive bureaucracy and upgrade technology.
Honestly, I don't understand why there is so much bureaucracy. Why are there so many forms to fill out, permits to file, grants to write, and trainings to attend for things like event registrations? Events already require so much planning and effort to run successfully. Why are there are so many things that hinder their success? Is it all necessary? I really don't think so.
Berkeley is one of the technologically leading institutions in the world. Many essential services should be automated so that there is less paperwork and bureaucracy for both those who file paperwork and those who must deal with it. In particular, I think two large segments of campus services need to be restructured.
The ASUC LEAD center is responsible for leadership development on campus in practical areas such as event planning and organizational management, funding, and University relations. If you are a student group leader, this basically means that the LEAD center is how you process most of your financial transactions. If you are a student leader for an organization that deals with money each semester, then the LEAD center in practice translates to a big headache and a pressure point for student leaders on campus.
Processes such as training signatories, using your own organization's funds, receiving reimbursements, and processing invoices take large amounts of paperwork and require dedicated time from student leaders who usually have much better ways to use their time. Furthermore, every process is exceedingly slow and often hurts students. For example, student leaders must often pay for events from their own pockets then wait weeks (even months at times) for reimbursements.
Let me compare this to the modern conveniences of using bank account credit cards or payment systems through companies like Square, PayPal, or Stripe. Is it too much to ask to for student organizations to be issued cards to more easily draw funds from their own accounts? Is it too much to ask for ways to file paperwork online? Is it too much to ask at the very least that students receive their reimbursements in less than two weeks?
Another large pain point on campus is the room reservation process. Thankfully, most of my experiences with room reservations have been relatively painless thanks to the wonderful EECS department staff that manage Soda & Cory Hall reservations. However, I feel for other student groups without ties to the EECS department that must use the reservation request format for the rest of campus.
I have only had one experience with trying to reserve a non-Soda room, and it was a terrible, unsuccessful experience. It was impossible to send a request far in advance of the event happening, and our request was denied. My student organization ended up going back to a Soda room (which was smaller than what was need for our intents and purposes but far more readily available). For context, the event was an educational workshop teaching front-end web design to interested students. Surely there is a way to use more advanced scheduling software to optimize on-campus spaces for productive and interesting activities.
2. Being an ASUC intern should be a meaningful experience, and elected officials should be held accountable for promised projects.
This next segment may hit closer to home. I know it does for me. My freshman year, I interned for an ASUC senator who is no longer involved in the student government after an unsuccessful re-election campaign. I honestly must say it was one of the most useless and unfulfilling of my obligations that year. I applied and entered the intern program with naive optimism that I would be working on interesting projects that would benefit the student body. I was excited to work for the university I already loved and was looking forward to be an engaged and active student.
The reality was from this. I felt that most of what happened was all talk and no action. I liked many of my senator's platforms. However, nothing progressed with them. We met for strategy meetings that were just reiterations of proposed ideas with no actual assignments or progress made. Every attempt I made to get started on projects was impeded by lack of clear guidance or task assignment. Rather, I feel that my particular senator was mostly motivated by the need to be re-elected rather than the need to fulfill the promises he made during his first campaign.
Perhaps not all interns had the same experience as I did. But I do know that I am not alone in my feeling of uselessness and disillusionment. No intern should feel what I felt. Interns should learn practical skills on their job and gain experience working on projects. Interns should feel that their senators work hard to make good on their election platform projects. Interns should see an end product that they can feel pride in having contributed to. The intern program should restructured and guided so that every intern feels that they have had a productive experience.
Senators and other ASUC officials should be held accountable by those who voted for them. Status reports should be clear, readable, and readily accessible online. ASUC projects should be transparent to students and frequently updated. Senators should be able to claim projects as their work. Most people feel more motivated if their work is under inspection and review. This is no doubt true for elected officials.
3. Improve online portals for campus services.
I am very thankful for the proposed evaluations and changes to essential online portals. I hope that improvements come naturally and quickly as much needs to be changed to existing systems. However, I have not seen any work scheduled for Callisto, which is the primary job portal for Berkeley students. There is little quality control for job postings, and its interface is outdated and difficult to navigate/search. A complete overhaul of the site might be a very good idea (and in my opinion doesn't seem to be all to difficult to complete in a reasonable timeline).
Another larger problem is the myriad of unorganized and uncollected different sites for campus job postings and research positions. Campus jobs are posted sometimes in their individual sites (like the ETS site) and sometimes in Callisto. Even more convoluted is research position listings. Individual labs might make postings, departments might have lists of positions, and many labs/professors announce openings through the URAP program. For example, computer science positions are located on the URAP site, the College of Engineering clearing house, and individual professor/research lab websites.
This makes it difficult to for students to search for appropriate and interesting positions and also limits the number of applications that professors receive. A cohesive site that faculty members are encouraged to use or perhaps even one that scrapes postings from other sites and redirects students may be extremely helpful to all parties involved.
4. Bring influential speakers and artists to campus.
There are many incredible people from whom Berkeley students can learn by observation and listening. There should be more officially sponsored events to hear professors speak on their topics of expertise and to bring in speakers from other areas. I am thankful for Berkeley Forum, which was formed for this exact purpose. These efforts should be encouraged and supported officially, especially financially, as these events provide a direct service to undergraduates in facilitating intellectual and political discussion and should continue to remain free for all students.
Art - whether it be fine art, music, or other art areas - should be accessible to all students. The Berkeley-affiliated Cal Performances does bring many wonderful music, dance, and theater performances to campus like the Chinese National Circus and the Vienna Philharmonic, but these events are often prohibitively expensive for most Cal students. For example, I paid nearly $50 for a seat at the Yo-Yo Ma concert in one of the last rows of the second level of Zellerbach, and the ticket had already been discounted by 50% because I was a Cal student. Furthermore, no tickets are reserved for Cal students, so they often quickly sell out to campus outsiders, thus exacerbating the problem of accessibility to students. I purchased the aforementioned coveted ticket several months in advance of the concert date because it sold out before most Berkeley students even knew about the performance.
5. There are many other possibilities for improvement.
There are also numerous other possibilities that would make this post far longer than it is now. One such idea is the argument that student organizations should be allowed and even encouraged to achieve non-profit status and to hold their funds in non-ASUC accounts. Inter-major events should also be encouraged, especially as very few academic organizations are broad and encompass many different fields (such as humanities and sciences). Perhaps more events like HackFSM, which brought together computer scientists and humanities majors to improve ways of conducting humanities research, would be beneficial in uniting students in different fields of study.
There are so many different wonderful ideas that it might be a good idea to invest in forums for students to propose and discuss ideas and solutions like Meta StackOverflow, a forum to discuss improvements to the forum StackOverflow. In the end, more discussion and space to propose ideas may be very healthy and beneficial for our campus.
In conclusion, I do feel frustrated, helpless, regretful, and disillusioned. Yet at the same time, I feel love and hope towards UC Berkeley and towards my fellow students. I have honestly truly enjoyed and appreciated my time at Cal thus far, and my discontent ultimately stems from my firm and unchanging belief that we can do better - that Berkeley students deserve more and that we are capable of making our school a better place.