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SGA President Oleka discusses past year, looks ahead

by UofL Today last modified Feb 05, 2010 10:04 AM

Student Government Association President O.J. Oleka delivered the annual State of the Student Body Address to a packed Chao Auditorium Feb. 2.

He outlined the group's accomplishments since his administration took office last spring, including improved communications to the student body and working on the university's meal plan and no-smoking policy. He also talked about goals for the coming year, including lobbying for higher education in Frankfort and encouraging the construction of a new student recreation center. The text of his talk follows. A video of the speech, broken into three parts, is available on SGA's youtube site.

(Editor's Note: UofL Today added headings to the text to aid reading.)

Vice Presidents Bonenberger, Rolf and Woltermann; esteemed senators, members of the Executive Staff and the Supreme Court; university staff, faculty and administrators; community members; my fellow students. Thank you all for joining me today as I deliver this address, to assess the state of affairs of the student body.

Started in 2006, the state of the student body address is a time where the student body president discusses and defends the record of the current SGA administration and explains the actions thereof. But more importantly it is a time to articulate the course of the student body, and where it should go in the future. It is the future improvements of the student experience that matter most to a university.

A university is an institution of higher learning. Its product is an education and its customer is the student. And as far as student government has been concerned, this year has been very good for business. But that wasn't always the case.

When I took over as SGA president in May of last year, I came into office facing an unpopular dining program, a broken relationship between the student body and SGA, and an ever-increasing per-student cost for a college education. The last of these, I quickly learned, was not unique to the University of Louisville, but was an issue across the state. Something had to be done to address this issue.

In the first meeting with the Board of Student Body Presidents, the state board that is made up of SGA presidents across the state, I outlined my vision for bringing down the costs of higher education and making college more affordable. Voting to make me chairman of the board, the BSBP endorsed that vision and we have since enacted it across the state.

Accomplishments

We have successfully lead higher education awareness events; many of which have been attended by state lawmakers. Here at our own university, under the leadership of Blake Christopher, our higher education student advocate, we have had four successful "Listen Up Legislators!" events where we've sent over 700 letters to the governor's office voicing support for higher education. We brought in Gov. Steve Beshear, Council on Post-Secondary Education President Bob King and many others.

But that wasn't enough. College affordability is a deeper issue than just rising costs. With a lagging economy and a tough job market, students are losing opportunities to make money; which they could use to pay for school. So we in SGA thought outside of the box. We started a partnership with the Louisville Asset Building Co., to perform tax services at no costs to students. LABC works with the governor's office and the IRS to make sure that citizens get the largest refund possible on their tax return. SGA has brought this opportunity to campus.

Starting yesterday, Feb. 1 until tax day on April 15, students at the University of Louisville can receive free tax services. The idea is that if students can have more money in their pockets, they will have more money to blunt the costs of education. Once we see the successes of this initiative, we will launch this program statewide.

Another initiative that we felt needed improvement was communication between SGA and the student body. When we first met as a newly elected Top 4, we promised ourselves that no matter how controversial our decisions were; no matter how much it would hurt us "politically," we would be as open and transparent as we could be. And we have.

Under the leadership of Staci Kolkmeier, our director of communications in SGA, we have increased our presence through our Facebook fanpage with over 1,300 members; we've broadcasted several videos on facebook and the SGA website updating students on issues and decisions we are making. We have a Twitter account and have conducted surveys that have reached students on issues related to dining, academics, newspapers on campus and other salient issues.

On the website, we added a "Tell Your SGA" feature, which allows students to anonymously describe a complaint. This new feature has directly contributed to some of the best ideas we've had this year, including some resolutions that were passed in the senate. Under the leadership of John Weber, my presidential assistant, we've hosted several town hall forums in the fall semester that ranged from topics such as free speech, to the smoking ban. Between these various initiatives to reach students and face-lifting the image of SGA, we have directly reached or heard from nearly 4,000 students on the issues.

Because of our transparency with our decision making, we have been able to repair many strained relationships. As president, I have hosted meetings with commuter and non-traditional students.

During the fall semester, we went out as an executive administration and took Krispy Kreme donuts to Papa John's stadium as well as packets on how to spend time on campus. Now, many people may not view this as anything worth noting. But it was important to us to show commuter students they have not been forgotten. I have regularly scheduled meetings with leadership in the Association of Black Students, to include issues in the black community in our strategic initiatives. In the fall semester, we hosted the 10th Anniversary of Cardinal Park, which highlighted that student athletes are students, too. At that event we also had the first SGA-sponsored concert in over a decade. Including the field hockey game, soccer game and Nappy Roots concert, we had over 1,000 students attend.

One relationship that needed reevaluating was the one between SGA and the university administration. Contrary to some beliefs, the administration is not against students. The administration is very much interested in furthering the student agenda. How do I know? Their actions.

The administration at the University of Louisville has been incredibly helpful in the successes of SGA this year. To name a few examples, they are providing lunch and the buses we are taking to the Rally for Higher Education in Frankfort next week. The provost has also excused that day for students so we may attend the rally. Dr. Ramsey has put a new classroom building at the top of the list for building projects. I respect the administration at this university and I believe they seek to do well by students. We do not always agree, and we shouldn't always agree but they are not enemies of the student body.

An area where bargaining was necessary with the administration was with improving our student health services on campus. In the fall semester, SGA embarked on a campaign to improve the quality of student health services provided at UofL. After the flood nearly destroyed the current student health building, it became apparent that the quality of that building did not match the quality of the staff providing student health, nor the students who need it.

After nearly two months of negotiation, compromise and listening to what students wanted, SGA gathered support from the administration on moving the medical portion of campus health services to a new state of the art facility at Cardinal Station, located on Third Street next to the baseball stadium. Beginning in June, students will have access to a new facility that has longer hours, better parking and special discounts on health services.

This entire project was negotiated without raising a single dime in additional fees for students. The collaboration between SGA and the administration resulted in a better, more effective health facility for the student body.

But student health wasn't the only service that needed improvement. Krista Woltermann, your services vice president, worked with university staff to improve the sustainability initiatives on campus.

When Krista came into office, our sustainability rating in the area of student involvement at UofL was a D-minus. After one semester, we are at a C-minus and improving. But where students really need to take note of Krista's accomplishments are in regards to student safety.

At the beginning of the fall semester, Krista immediately began pushing for the hiring of more DPS officers to patrol the UofL area. She was successful in her efforts, and as a result we have significantly less crime reports and we are moving to a safer campus atmosphere.

In regards to academics, Michael Rolf, your academic vice president, has been working on developing a virtual headquarters for scholarships and internship opportunities for students at UofL. This project can significantly impact how students get jobs, gain experience in their field, and gain financial aid.

The senate is working on these initiatives as well. Under Stephanie Bonenberger's leadership as executive vice president, the senate has explored options for adhoc committees on student issues and has looked at new budgeting models for fiscal responsibility at the council level.

These are accomplishments we are proud of.

Other action

Of course, there are issues we are dealing with that were not started by our administration. One issue in particular was the university's controversial decision to change the smoking policy. As the executive branch we had a choice to make. We received opinions on the matter from both sides. Some students hated it. Some students loved it. So we chose to act on principle, rather than emotion.

We told the provost that we would not support the smoking ban unless students were given designated areas and resources to quit if they so chose to. Through our pragmatic approach to the situation, students now can receive free resources to quit smoking, and we have nearly 20 designated smoking areas on campus. Originally these areas were scheduled to be removed in June, but SGA successfully negotiated to keep them until next fall semester. Now, are all students happy with that decision? No. In fact, I had one student tell me to go to hell in an email. But had we acted differently, we wouldn't have any designated smoking areas next year, and we wouldn't have any resources for students to quit and the student voice would still be left out of the conversation.

One of the most important roles of SGA is to make sure students have a voice on the issues, regardless of what that issue is. Unfortunately, the perception of SGA's history in this regard has not been good. It has been suggested that SGA failed in communicating with students on the meal plan. As an executive administration, we decided it was in the best interest of the student body if we worked to make the meal plan better for students, rather than sit on our hands and complain about it. This year we have been determined to find remedies to the situation.

Since day one we have created opportunities to make the meal plan better and more affordable for students. One of the first acts of my presidency was a vote on the Board of Trustees to lower the cost of the commuter meal plan from $250 a semester to the current amount of $175. Krista has overseen the waiver process and advocated for as many fair waivers from the plan as possible. She also was able to push to keep Einstein's open longer on the weekdays.

As a result of her lobbying, Sodexo is looking to contract with businesses off campus for meal card usage. But the biggest program we are establishing is the Meal Plan Transfer System. This program would allow for students who couldn't afford or didn't want to have a meal plan to give their meal plan to another student who wanted it.

The university administration is behind this program, and Sodexo has done it on another campus. So this is going to happen.

More to be done now

Still, despite all we have done this year, there will be folks that will say we haven't done enough. And they're right. There is always more work to do be done and we are up to the challenge. Part of that challenge is helping the student body understand the differences between politics and progress. What I am referring to in particular is a bill that was introduced in the state legislature that claims to help lower the cost of getting an education.

The bill in question seeks to create a law that states that universities cannot charge mandatory meal plan or athletics fees to their commuter students. So as a student, this bill sounds amazing. It removes fees we don't like and seems to keep costs low. So many of you will say, OJ probably loves this bill! This is in line with everything he has been saying and doing so far.

Let me be perfectly clear. The sole aim of this administration in regards to higher education is to keep costs affordable for students to attend college. But this bill, should it pass, which I don't think it will, would do the opposite. Let me explain why. If this bill passes, the fee that commuter students pay would disappear. However, the COST of the meal plan would not. Instead, that cost would be bundled into the university's expense account in the budget, meaning revenues would have to be adjusted in order to pay for this new expense. The usual ways student initiatives are funded are through 3 methods: fees, state funding and tuition.

So, in order to keep costs low, the best option would be if the state increased funding. During the budget address the governor gave a couple weeks ago, he stated that under a best-case scenario, higher education, which means the University of Louisville, would receive a 2 percent cut. But with a troubled economy, a rough state budget and a political atmosphere that doesn't favor higher education, a worse scenario is likely. So, that option is out; which leaves only one option left for funding a dining program: tuition.

In order for the university to recoup the revenues lost by the meal plan fee, tuition would have to increase roughly around 10 to 12 percent, which would be about $500 dollars each student would have to pay. So, instead of a meal plan waiver and a meal plan transfer system, you would just have to foot a new $500 dollar bill. $175 v. $500. You tell me which is cheaper. This bill doesn't eliminate fees, this bill eliminates choices. If anyone tells you that this bill is good - whether it be student, administrator, lawmaker, whomever - they either have no idea how higher education is financed in this state or they have some alternative agenda.

So what is the answer? The answer is for our state lawmakers to quit playing politics, stop trying to get short-term political gain from a controversial issue and put forth a bill that increases state funding for higher education. It's time for state lawmakers to quit being cowards and start thinking about the future of the commonwealth.

I agree - let's get rid of all these fees and unnecessary increases in tuition. But do so in a manner that helps the student body, not in a manner than bankrupts us. Make policy that is responsible; not political. If lawmakers seek real change and real support behind higher education legislation, they will consult the people that it impacts most: the students. SGA is the number one supporter of this goal. Join us in support, so we can show up 22,000 strong, calling for fairness and funding in Frankfort.

Looking ahead

But we won't let the state's misappropriation of funds shrink our desire to improve our campus community. As a student body, we are committed to growth. But we have a history of improving during hard times. Just ask the graduating class of 1983. In '83, there was a down economy, yet UofL was on the rise as a major school in the commonwealth. Students were getting a great academic experience, but their campus life was lacking. They knew they had to do something.

So they imagined a campus community that had a central location for students to hang out, eat with friends and meet with student clubs. They blueprinted a section that was carved out for racquetball, working out; intramurals and fitness courses. Those students believed in their groundbreaking idea of a new Student Activities Center so much, they agreed to pay a fee seven years before it was built - meaning they would finance a building they would never use; and deliver an experience they would never get. But they did it anyway. Because they knew it wasn't about them.

They knew that when the building finished construction and was finally opened, as it finally did in 1990, every single student that came after them would have a greater experience because of the sacrifice they gave. And we benefit from that experience today. If it weren't for those students believing in the future 27 years ago, we wouldn't have intramural sports; we wouldn't have the radio station; we wouldn't have the game room or the multipurpose room, where so many student events and memorable experiences are held. ULDM. Diwali. And so much more.

I share this story because we are in a similar position today. We have the opportunity to build a new Student Recreational Center that will significantly improve the quality of recreational activity on our campus, as well as our campus experience as a whole.

SGA this year has been working tirelessly to promote the building of a new student recreational center. The proposed new recreational center will provide much-needed space for the expansion of recreational and fitness opportunities for UofL students. The 128,000 sq. ft. facility will be state of the art. Features will include six basketball courts, an indoor running track, three aerobics studios, a fitness lab, four racquetball courts, multipurpose activity space, and nearly 20,000 sq. ft. of weight and cardio equipment.

In this new rec center, there will be a lounge area for students to hang out in, as well as a turf field outdoors to be used for intramurals and sports clubs. There will even be a juice bar! To put it in perspective, our current facility is 48,000 feet. If everything goes as scheduled, the building will be up and open for usage in Fall 2013.

Student government, being cognizant of the fees that students have to pay for other initiatives, are advocating for a phased in approach - meaning the fee will begin with the class of freshman that come in this fall. The next generation will be able to benefit from the ideas of our generation. The class of '83 would be proud.

They would be proud because the student body carried on an initiative that was necessary for a better student experience; which means a more quality student body, which translates into a better degree for UofL graduates. But it took a fee for the classes of '84 to '90 to keep that initiative going, and it will take a fee for the next generation to keep the rec center idea alive.

What about initiatives that won't necessarily cost money to improve, but still need improving? For example, who keeps the dream alive of advocating for more faculty usage of Blackboard? Or a consistent grading policy that doesn't leave one student with a B-minus and another with a B, even though they received the exact same number grade in the same class, just with different teachers? Who advocates for creating a campus that has more spirit and traditions, a deeper dedication to sustainability or a stronger commitment to diversity and cultural acceptance?

These are initiatives that won't cost money, but if not cared for they will come with a bigger price. And that price is leadership. That price is institutional change. Who will stand up and fight for these issues that are so near and dear to improving the student experience? We will.

The student body through the Student Government Association must champion a "new Cardinal experience" for students. A new Cardinal experience that focuses on answering the questions on college affordability issues, campus atmosphere and the general college experience at UofL. SGA has the duty to create this new Cardinal experience; SGA has the role to develop this new Cardinal experience; and SGA has the moral obligation to implement the initiatives to make this new Cardinal experience work for students.

It is the purpose of the Student Government Association to provide unconditional support for the permanence of college affordability, campus vibrancy and quality services for students at the University of Louisville. Right now SGA is working on a strategic plan to make this new Cardinal experience a reality.

Student 2020 Plan

Right now, SGA is developing a strategic vision for the next decade, so that the next 10 years will be a new era in student government leadership; one that is focused on long-term solutions for student issues, rather than short-term fixes. It seeks to turn student government from an annual club of elected leaders to an institution that has a particular cause and focus.

This strategic proposal aims to enhance the quality of student life at UofL in the areas of academics, college affordability, student engagement, student services and student facilities. It is through improvement in these areas over the next 10 years that student life at UofL can best evolve into something incredible. SGA is working to make sure that the students who come to UofL in the year 2020 and beyond will have an experience that is infinitely more rewarding than anywhere else in the country.

And the great thing about this Student 2020 Plan, as we're calling it, is that it came from students. This wasn't something that was constructed from just a few people within SGA. The proposal was developed from the surveys and thoughts of nearly 1,000 UofL students where they listed that issues like the grading system, campus spirit and traditions and dining services should be top priorities for student government. So what we are doing now is developing those ideas and creating practical solutions.

However, these solutions aren't quick fixes that can be completed in one year or during one term. They are long-term, systemic and institutional changes that take a while to implement. However, if student government can focus on these particular issues with dedication and diligence, SGA can be a real institution for change and student advocacy. Through this Student 2020 Plan, SGA can assume its role as a major leader for campus development.

And as always, we want a clear message that the student body wants this. The student body will have a chance to vote on the Student 2020 Plan during the March elections. Every year new SGA leadership is chosen by the student body with a mandate for their vision to build a better UofL.

This year, the student body will be able to provide them a blueprint. After the plan is thoroughly vetted by Top 4, the Executive Board and the Senate, SGA will host a town hall on the matter and get full student opinion before the vote. And you should vote for this. The university administration has seen it and they fully endorse it. Dr. Ramsey has personally stated this can be an official corollary to the university's strategic plan, which will impact how the entire university moves forward.

So in March, we will have a clear choice. We can vote for possibly good, possibly bad leaders who may or may not have a vision for the future beyond their term. Or we can vote for continuity. We can vote for the Student 2020 Plan and provide a blueprint for greatness. We can vote for a pathway to a new Cardinal experience for every student.

Imagine a campus where on football and basketball game days there is a buzz and unbelievable excitement. Coach Strong is taking us to another Bowl Game; the student section at the downtown basketball arena is packed and fans are cheering as our baseball team just won the College World Series. In the classrooms, retention is up and students are getting quality instruction from faculty who care about the success of their students more than the publishing of their research.

And in their pockets, students are finding more money to invest in their educational experience and do things like study abroad, take an extra summer class to graduate on time, or give money to community charities. They will be able to do that, because fees won't be un-payable, and tuition won't be unbearable. It is possible. We can get there. The students at the University of Louisville deserve a bold plan and even bolder leadership from student government. The Student 2020 Plan will get us there.

Conclusion

This plan may seem unrealistic. Some may even say it is impossible. Some people will say it can't be done. But people said that about a new Student Activities Center to a bunch of restless UofL students in 1983. And people said it every year until those doors opened in 1990. And I'm sure people have said it to you. They said you would never pass that class. But you did. They said that event that you planned all by yourself would never go well. But it did.

There will always be people who will say that dreams don't come true; visions never come into focus and long term student leadership never works. But all of us have had impossible stories that turned out to be possible.

Why should a better campus life be any different? I say, we have the right to dream big dreams. And when we look back at what we've done, we will say that we did our best to get it right. We kept fighting and we kept the faith. We kept the faith in something deeper than ourselves; the faith in the belief that students who come after us have every right to enjoy their college experience as much as we did, if not a little more.

And why shouldn't we believe that? After all, we are students at the University of Louisville. We are Cardinals. So dream with me, vote for the 2020 Plan, and let's make this experience, that much better for the next generation. Thank you, God bless you, and God bless the University of Louisville. Go Cards!

 

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