We Used to Run USG: Austin Tong Would Break It, But Tina Thermadam Needs to Make it Better




Daniel Nasta and Kayla Wolf were the Treasurer and Vice President of Operations, respectively, of United Student Government (USG) during the 2016-2017 school year.

To put it simply, voting for him is not worth the meme.

Austin Tong’s larger-than-life personality and ubiquitous campaigning have accomplished something previously thought impossible: it’s made the USG election a topic of interest at Fordham Lincoln Center, which includes both Fordham College at Lincoln Center and the Gabelli School of Business.

Lincoln Center students have shed their apathy for USG this election cycle, as everyone feels the need to share their hot takes on Tong. As previous members of USG’s executive board, we felt some responsibility to offer a warning to the members of our community. Many of Tong’s proposed policies are either impossible to implement or would destroy any good the present USG provides for the student body.

To put it simply, voting for him is not worth the meme.

Austin Tong was previously USG’s Vice President of Operations before stepping down from the position in November in a flurry of controversy. In this role, Tong chaired the Operations Committee and was tasked with ensuring that all clubs had fair elections and maintained full executive boards. He was also the go-to person for anyone who was interested in starting a new club at Lincoln Center.

Tong’s website demonstrates that he views his work at USG as part of a flawed system. His platform states that he wants to “Completely rid [the] bureaucratic norm of student government deciding if a club is worthy or not to become an official club based on subjective analysis” and that “USG will embrace the creation of clubs rather than control the factors of success or failure.”

The procedures of the United States Government are quite distinct from that of Fordham’s United Student Government.

As it stands, the new club process is not a prohibitive amount of work. Interested students are given a new club registration packet, the up-to-date club guidelines and a template constitution. The prospective clubs are required to name a four-member executive board, a staff or faculty advisor and at least ten undergraduate students interested in their club. They must submit a sample budget, a short questionnaire about the club and a club constitution. That constitution is not as daunting as it sounds, as an available template constitution knocks out most of the legwork. The vast majority of clubs on campus actually have identical constitutions, save for a paragraph-long mission statement.

Perhaps it can be conceded that the process to start a new club at Lincoln Center is too dependent on the Office for Student Involvement. At many points, the Vice President of Operations has to wait for the approval of various administrators, and this can lengthen the process. It is important to note, however, that the USG Senate casts the final vote on the approval of a club. Because clubs receive their funding from the student activity fee which all undergraduates pay into, there has to be some sort of regulation for starting new clubs. Having new clubs voted on by an elected USG Senate is about as democratic as it gets.

Tong speaks repeatedly about “departmentalizing” clubs as well as the “Executive Branch” of USG. This keystone of his platform is left incredibly vague, as he never defines what he means by departmentalization. After a close reading, our best guess is that this would be almost no change from how USG currently runs.

USG has three main committees: Operations, Student Affairs and Facilities. Each Senator serves primarily on one of these three committees and, in theory, shares the responsibilities of that committee. Tong’s departmentalization of these committees seems to amount to renaming them.

It is unclear how this will make his departments more efficient. Tong’s platform spills plenty of ink on strengthening the power of the USG Senate, specifically so that senators have greater “legislative authority.” This is peculiar, because in our time on USG, we never saw an opportunity for writing a law.

The procedures of the United States government are quite distinct from that of Fordham’s United Student Government. Tong’s desire to govern like the former betrays a lack of knowledge of the latter.

If club leaders can spend large sums of cash at a whim, petty cash will dry up quickly.

In addition, Tong’s proposed reform of the treasury is dead on arrival. In his platform, Tong suggests that each club should be allocated a lump sum to spend on events as they see fit. This would be a huge departure from the way the Student Activities Budget Committee (SABC) is currently run.

At the moment, SABC receives funding requests for most events a semester before they occur. SABC will only approve requests if they are a responsible use of their money, collected from a fee that every Fordham student pays. Tong takes issue with this procedure, calling it inflexible and inefficient. While there is some truth to this criticism, SABC also allows additional funding to be allocated at biweekly meetings, adding a serviceable amount of wiggle room for clubs to change their minds or expand their events.

Tong characterizes the current model of SABC funding as “plan ahead and hope for the best.” Planning ahead is not a leap of faith, and “hope for the best” more accurately describes Tong’s own proposal.

From four years of working on SABC, we know Tong’s lump sum idea would be unpalatable to the Office for Student Involvement. The potential for irresponsible fund usage is far too high. The office already struggles under the workload of consolidating credit card bills and petty cash requests from club funding approved far in advance. Petty cash requests in particular require a lot of advanced notice for Student Involvement to procure the cash from the university.

If club leaders can spend large sums of cash at a whim, petty cash will dry up quickly. Club activities will rely on club leaders spending their own money up front and waiting longer for reimbursements. This dynamic would privilege club leaders of a higher economic background with more credit to lend the university.

Fordham students don’t know what USG can do for them.

This criticism of Tong’s funding overhaul stands only if you believe the version he has presented on his website. During the debate on Friday, however, Tong seemed to retreat from his ideas. In the end, he declared that traditional SABC funding would still be in place under his administration, but self-funding would be emphasized.

This, to those keeping track at home, is a far cry from a “Great Rejuvenation.” This version of Tong’s proposal is merely better communication of the guidelines as they already exist.

The fact that a slight alteration of the status quo can be pitched as a grand overhaul by someone unfamiliar to USG operations alludes to the genius of what Tong’s outsider perspective is doing. Fordham students don’t know what USG can do for them. As two students who ran USG for two years, Tong’s platform jarred us from the misguided idea that USG is run in the best way possible.

While Tong’s solutions are messy, the underlying areas he addresses are, in most cases, in need of review.

Tong’s idea of including free feminine hygiene products is a great one. The fact that he is the first candidate to bring this up is honestly surprising. His position on this topic seems to have inspired his opponent to take up this issue as well, although Thermadam waffled on her answer on this subject at the debate by yielding responsibility to groups at FLC that she says already pursuing this initiative. Whether or not other clubs or departments within the Fordham University community are working toward this goal, it is very valuable for USG to throw its name behind a worthy cause like this.

The only tragedy is that her platform isn’t more interesting.

To speak more of Tina Thermadam, she made it clear on Friday that she knows her stuff on USG policy. She has a clear understanding of how things operate, and accurate expectations of what her capabilities will be in the role.

The only tragedy is that her platform isn’t more interesting. Thermadam offered that she was looking to “stick to the status quo” in the debate, and while this isn’t a bad thing, it’s not great either. Tellingly, one of her main three pillars is amending Residential Life policy to permit overnight guests of the opposite gender. She is not the first, and likely not the last, to fight this fight, but it shows a lack of connection with the Lincoln Center community.

While student activists pursue this year’s issues, like working with the university to allow students to be referred to by their chosen name, Thermadam is still championing last year’s causes. It’s been well-covered by The Observer that despite best efforts of student activists in the Residence Hall Association, there is no immediate future for this issue. Including this as a staple of her campaign is a moot point and seems even out of touch with the realities of what really can get done on campus.

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In the end, Thermadam is a more sensible choice than Tong. Tong’s campaign (and, seemingly, life) motto is “Serve the people,” and he spent a lot of time on Friday speaking about the virtues of democracy, but his proposals show an allergy to democracy that add up to something frightening.

Getting rid of a popular vote for USG e-board members and replacing them with presidential appointees is an embarrassingly autocratic idea, and many of his other proposals concentrate power under the presidency.

It is very doubtful that his platform can become USG policy even if he should win, but our community needs to make the responsible choice and not give him the chance to try.