Sidney Perkins, SEAS ’17, is the Engineering Student Council Vice President of Policy (or, as he puts it, the “leader of the policy juggernaut of ESC”). He’s been prominently featured in our ESC coverage recently because of a resolution he tried (and failed) to pass in order to put Legos in an engineering student center, as well as other resolutions related to mental health on campus. Managing Editor Betsy Ladyzhets sat down with him to talk about these resolutions, his view of ESC, and the role of student government in general.
Bwog: How did you get involved with student government at Columbia?
Sidney Perkins: My sophomore year, I ran for class council, because I wanted to help plan events for my classmates, help get them in touch with prospective employers, and then my junior year I did that again because I really enjoyed it. And towards the end of last year, having spent a lot of time on the policy committee as a committee member, I felt a pretty big calling to work on the executive board in that capacity.
Bwog: What do you think that the role of ESC, or student government at Columbia in general, should be?
SP: There are four big realms that we like to think about: policy, student life, finance, and communications, which are the committees that we have on the Engineering Student Council. My own role in policy… there are introspective and proactive subroles, so introspective is enforcing the council’s policies within the body, making sure people aren’t missing so many meetings, enforcing our rules and regulations among our own members. And outside of that is the policy committee, and the policy aspect of ESC is to push for larger changes on campus – in terms of making sure there are adequate mental health resources, making sure there are sensible policies in place. For instance, making sure that TAs aren’t found guilty of sexual assault.
Bwog: What are your thoughts on stress culture and mental health at Columbia? I know that’s something you’ve been involved with in policy so far.
SP: I think it’s really challenging. There’s a huge number of things that play into stress culture and mental health on campus. A couple of weeks ago, the policy committee submitted an addendum on mental health – it was ten pages of suggestions regarding the issue, identifying some of the root causes. In general, I think it’s hard to identify a single thing. But there’s a lot of student isolation, there’s a lot of concerns of academic stress… There’s a lot of tiny little examples of “Columbia ironies” that I think capture the idea of stress culture. For instance, think about how Lerner, which is supposedly our student union, isn’t open 24/7, and Butler, our student library, is open 24/7. Like, is Butler actually our student center?
The thing that student council tries to do, is we try to take anecdotal concerns that students have, quantify those, and try to push specific policies as results of our analyses. We’ve had a lot of trouble the past term – in fact, in the past three years that I’ve been on council – in terms of actually making the results of those surveys a reality. This is really frustrating, especially given that every one of our initiatives comes from some student stressor.
Bwog: What are the challenges of making those policies a reality?
SP: There are several ways it can be challenging. One is that you might be working with a network of administrators who are all well-meaning individually, but because the administration as a monolith is so bureaucratic and network-y, it might take upwards of seven meetings to get a printer installed in Carleton Commons. That’s an actual example. We’ve had seven meetings, and the meeting count continues to increase.
Another example is that you might go to an administrator and they just flat-out reject or push back against what you have to say. We wanted to put Legos – and I know this is a trivial example – we wanted to put Legos in the commons of the Engineering School. And we did everything you’re supposed to do: we made a proposal, we got student feedback. And then they were just like, nah, it’d be inappropriate. So you can experience pushback like that.
Bwog: Could you talk more about the addendum that you mentioned, with all the different suggestions [for the administration on mental health]? What were the major suggestions you had, and do you think you’ll be successful at all in getting the university to be receptive to them?
SP: For a little bit of background: the addendum was to a memorandum authored by the Senate that’s going to Prezbo. But we’re also using it as a document that we touch base with every once and a while; we’re having meetings with our Deans. We’ll be meeting with the Dean of the Engineering School and going over the addendum, saying here are the things we should implement. Some of the big touchpoints are that we want to have mandatory gatekeeper training for students who are in student-based positions of leadership, like ESC members, TAs, RAs…
I’m also a COÖP leader. COÖP is another organization that’s very near and dear to me… Last year, [the Deans] were considering implementing constraints that would have reduced the number of students who could do it. We did a lot of research in terms of finding that outdoor orientation programs, and especially pre-orientation programs that occur for first-year students are very useful for building up networks that help students adjust to a new environment full of stress. So one of our recommendations for the Deans that’s something we will be highlighting [in our meeting] is that we need to be expanding pre-orientation programs like COÖP for all students. Dartmouth, for example, has these programs available for every single student that’s coming into their college. And something we want to see in the next ten years is the funding in order to have every SEAS student, and I would love for every CC, Barnard, and GS student to have the opportunity to participate in these trips.
Bwog: Right now, is it just CC and SEAS that can do it?
SP: Yeah, I believe so.
Bwog: How much do you think students know about what you’re doing? How receptive are they in coming to meetings, making suggestions?
SP: Me personally?
Bwog: You personally, or the policy committee in general.
SP: I think people should come to my meetings [with the policy committee]… I want everyone in this school to be part of the process of advocating for new policy. And I don’t think it’s constructive to have closed meetings. We meet at 4 pm on Sundays in the SGO, and anyone is welcome to come. I’m adding students every week to our listserv. That said, I think there are other students who feel really frustrated with the student councils, who don’t think that we get a lot done… It’s easy, when you look at the student council, to say, “Why aren’t you pushing for X, Y, and Z?” when you don’t know that we are pushing for X, Y, and Z. Getting things implemented is much harder than a typical student might assume.
This is why I’ve been harping so much on the examples of Legos and a printer. One of my friends was like, you need to stop bringing up Legos, it trivializes everything that ESC does. But that’s the point. We couldn’t get something so simple done. I want to make it clear to people that these are the kinds of frustrations that we deal with. We’re trying our best, and we can’t put Legos in a place.
Bwog: What was their rationale for not putting Legos in the lounge?
SP: We didn’t a really fully fledged response. We were just told that it was an “inappropriate use of the space.”
Bwog: So apparently Columbia has very good mental health resources, but it seems as though people don’t really use them or aren’t aware of them. Why do you think that is?
SP: We might have great mental health resources, but if you compare our health services website to our peer institutions’ health services websites, our website is not intuitive at all to use. I would recommend you look at Cornell’s health services website – it’s very straightforward, very easy to use… I think part of it is in messaging and outreach. And I don’t think there’s a mental health workshop during NSOP, which could also be part of it. If you’re not telling students the resources that are available to them, they’re not going to know.
I was talking to my girlfriend about this earlier today – we were walking by the Henry Moore statue, and I was like, if alums could just understand that the thing to donate isn’t a Henry Moore statue, it’s that same value in terms of mental health services, we could solve this issue in an instant. It’s a little bit less tangible – you might rename the health services building – but it might not seem as prestigious as a statue dedicated to yourself. I think it’s more prestigious, in terms of helping students.
Bwog: I [Betsy Ladyzhets] am in the Band, so you probably could’ve guessed that this question was coming: what are your thoughts on Orgo Night?
SP: I think the response [from the administration] was absurd, and totally uncalled for. But I’m also not surprised at how they handled the situation. It’s very reminiscent of fall Bacchanal, which happened two years ago – I mean, didn’t happen two years ago. The entire planning process was done, and then the administration last second was like, oh no, just kidding, you can’t do it. Which is pretty typical. They’ll cogitate about a thing, or they won’t even think about it, and then at some point they just wave their hands and say, “Sorry!”
I’m supportive of the Band’s endeavors. The policy committee and the student counsel put out an entire statement about Orgo Night being cancelled last semester – we think it’s unacceptable. I know there have been concerns about the content of Orgo Night in the past, but I also know that the Band has been working really hard to make sure that there’s an improvement, and it’s a bit of a straw man argument to focus on the content issue and pick on the Band for that. I think the real concern here, and the real concern that all of these student groups are facing, is that the administration is often clumsy, and often doesn’t make decisions that are in the students’ best interests.
I heard that one of the biggest objections to having Orgo Night was that it would distract students from studying, and that it wasn’t actually content-related, but I saw pictures of 209 from the night of totally empty.
Bwog: A Band alum took a picture of 209 during Orgo Night with like three people in it. This is also interesting, because, I don’t know if you’re aware, Ann Thornton [the Vice Provost and Head Librarian who initiated banning the Band from Butler 209] recently put out a statement that she wanted to have more events in the library to fight stress culture.
SP: There’s a bit of a hypocrisy there. The fourth floor of Butler used to be a collaborative, talking area, but Ann Thornton, in her capacity as librarian, initiated a new policy – pretty unilaterally – that you could not speak on the fourth floor…
I talked with one of the librarians in NoCo, and his take on this is absolutely fantastic. He wants the fourth floor [of NoCo] to be collaborative. You might feel uncomfortable talking with your friends, and you might get glares from people, but it’s supposed to be a place where teams go and chat with one another. We’ve been talking about possibly having a game night in that area, where we set out, like, Settlers of Catan, and are using the computers to play Agario, all sorts of fun things. And I think that’s a much more proactive way of making at least parts of the library feel lighter, instead of walking into ref room and having this wall of anxiety hit you. Which I think has been officiated because now you can’t talk there, officially.
But in terms of having more pop-up concerts, this seems like a way of saving face – saying, you can’t do this, but the administration can. This is something that students and administrators should be working on together. The issue of stress culture on campus is so complex that it’s fairly hubristic to have one or the other, students or administrators, say, “We alone can take the lead on this.”
Bwog: Do you ever read Bwog coverage of ESC? How do we do?
SP: Yeah, every week. It’s pretty good, although there are some small things – like, I’m not the Executive Vice President of Policy, I’m the Vice President of Policy…
I think the most important thing for me to communicate to you guys is that I really am trying. I put a ton of work into this. This isn’t something that I have to throw on my resume. If I’m pushing for Legos and printers, am I going to put that on my resume? No – these are things that I really care about.
I hope that, if I’ve contributed anything to ESC in the past year, it’s been to inspire the people on the policy committee, and to say, “We as a council can be really organized. We can push for policy. We can make it to the table with administrators, we can get our word in, and we can try to make change – albeit slow change.”
Carleton Commons via CU Engineering website