RUSA unites despite past conflicts
In an effort to increase cohesion in a newly developed student government, Rutgers University Student Assembly President Yousef Saleh took time to show members how far the organization has come.
In his State of Assembly address to RUSA, Saleh acknowledged his fears coming into the new school year that it may be a lost year for the student organization because of issues among members.
"There was a lot of internal tension between different members and we were fresh off the election," said Saleh, a School of Arts and Sciences senior. "People had agendas that they wanted to get through. I just felt we were not very unified coming into this year."
But after RUSA held its annual retreat in October, Saleh said there was a newfound enthusiasm among members that helped move the group toward a more unified voice.
"We don't throw poop at each other anymore," he said. "We have become a higher level thinking organization instead of passing fruitless and senseless resolutions that go nowhere."
Although Saleh conveyed his content to members with the current state, he made sure they also knew RUSA was not always like this.
When RUSA formed, Saleh said there was a notion everyone would speak with a unified voice. This is something Saleh said never occurred though.
"But what ended up happening was that there was a lot of competing interests between governing councils," he said. "We did not have a unified voice."
Saleh said an example of this dismembered voice could be seen through the tension in housing lottery reform. The Busch Campus Council wanted the housing lottery to be based on seniority while the Pharmacy Governing Council did not, creating an argument that Saleh said RUSA is not meant for.
"The whole point of RUSA and its founding goals was so these people could convene, talk to the administration and send one clear concise message," he said. "But that was not the case."
RUSA Vice President Matt Cordeiro said problems also arose because there was no clear process for how people were elected and was undemocratic.
"I think a very big part was that there was not very much access to RUSA unless you joined a council," said Cordeiro, a School of Arts and Sciences junior. "General students will care about it more when it is an open process and would feel involved."
The breaking point came during the winter break of the 2008-2009 school year, when the election board decided to draft a new constitution for RUSA without the input of other members, Saleh said.
"Basically, the constitutional review committee was turned obsolete and the e-board had decided to change it themselves," he said. "That caused a lot of ruckus in RUSA."
RUSA Internal Affairs Chair John Aspray said the conflict with the new constitution was not a lack of member input but the impact it had on special population groups across the campus.
Before the e-board drafted the constitution, special population councils like the Latino Student Council and the Educational Opportunity Fund had a representative on RUSA, Aspray said. The new constitution eliminated their seats and planted the seed for action.
"If we leave our student government alone, it will basically seem that black, Latino and Asian students do not have a voice. These are dangerous things that must stop," said Aspray, a School of Arts and Sciences senior. "In order to be represented, we must represent ourselves."
In response, Aspray brought in these lost representatives to form Rutgers United, a ticket he ran on in RUSA's spring elections, whose goal is to increase the voices heard in student government.
"No one was talking about a state-wide student organization, in-state tuition or renters' rights when this whole thing started," he said. "Through Rutgers United, all of these issues came to the forefront and people are actually taking action on them now."
With the help of Aspray and fellow RUSA members, Saleh said the University's student government organization is evolving into a voice for all students.
"I feel like moving forward. We have spoken with a unified voice from the end of October to today," he said. "I feel like it is starting to get realized and we have made tremendous progress."
Cordeiro said the structure of RUSA improved extensively because with the new constitution implemented last spring, student government became more open than in the past.
"We have got some really good people onto RUSA and we have done a lot of good things for being a transitional and fairly new body," he said. "We also have a lot of things in the works so we are definitely getting better."
But even though Saleh strives for unification in RUSA, Aspray said it is an unnecessary component that would hurt student government rather than help.
"[RUSA] should be a place where these different interests come together or butt heads as they are elected to do," he said. "In the end, there is a product, campaigns and things done on behalf of students and that is the goal."
Although the State of Assembly is not normally held for RUSA, Saleh felt members appreciated the speech and seeks to make it a tradition.
"It is giving everyone a pat on the back and telling them we have made it this far, let's continue strong," he said.