Current President Gupta Talks Shop With Successor Ben Hassine

Andrew Oh/Guardian

After a competitive Associated Students campaign season, A.S. President Utsav Gupta and A.S. President-elect Wafa Ben Hassine sat down with the Guardian to discuss some major issues and controversies the council faced this year, and those it may face in 2010-11.

The two also commented on what they think the responsibilities of councilmembers — in particular, the president — should be. Ben Hassine said she envisions a council with a greater focus on external efforts, such as lobbying Sacramento to fight student-fee increases. Gupta, however, said he believes the council should concentrate primarily on internal efforts — ensuring the $3 million that students pay into the council ends up serving their best interests.

Other topics included the possibility of opening an A.S. store in Price Center East, which Ben Hassine said would allow students to sell items such as “sweatshirts with Greek letters, organizational T-shirts, sustainable pens [and] sustainable bottles.”

Gupta was more wary of the financial burden such an undertaking would present. He pointed out that the initial investment might be as much as $100,000.

For two councilmembers who, only one week prior, were competing in a hotly contested race for the same post, Gupta and Ben Hassine remained calm and collected throughout the discussion. Gupta insisted his primary focus — now that he’s a lame duck — is to make the transition as smooth as possible for next year’s councilmembers.

Guardian: I’d like to start this discussion by addressing the office of the president specifically. Utsav, every A.S. president has a different idea in mind for what role the council should play. In your mind, what should the role of an A.S. president be here on campus?

Utsav Gupta: I think the primary role for the A.S. president is to represent the undergraduate interests to the best of his or her ability to the general campus. In a lot of ways, we represent a funnel where we have the administration here at the top, students here at the bottom. The only real connection they have is the Associated Students, and it’s primarily a position where you refer information back and forth and try to move the student interest forward.

Wafa Ben Hassine: I also believe that the office of the president, in particular, is kind of a channel between students and the administration. It holds responsibility to council that’s ensuring that council is on the same page, and that we have good working relations with outside relations besides Associated Students. It’s showing the general population of students working together and having fun on this campus.

G: Utsav, you have taken a bit of criticism for allegedly going around the council and pursuing your own agenda — maybe going around the council, via your own staff that you built up around you within the office of the president. How do you respond to that kind of criticism?

UG: In regard to the staff of the president, I think that this is the first year where we’ve actually had a real staff working on specific projects and goals within the office of the president. In terms of going around council, there is no real way to go around council. I would ask for a specific example where we’ve been able to move around council in some way or another. The staff was working mostly on policy shifts and how to reach out to administrators, bringing policies forward to council, doing background research work, driving policies with approval from council, researching policies to ensure we bring the best-educated decisions to council.

G: Are there any projects started this year in particular that you would like to pursue next year?

WBH: There are quite a few. One of the ones that was recently brought up by Tobias Haglund was the A.S. store. I personally have not worked on it, but this year he’s been doing a lot of research on it. It’s an exciting idea, where students can share what they have and sell to the general public if they want — sweatshirts with Greek letters, organizational T-shirts, sustainable pens, sustainable bottles. It’s something I’m definitely excited about. We went over the brief business plan that he made up, and I’m looking forward to that.

UG: A.S. store would be an investment, and an investment that the council has to decide whether to make. Next council will decide, given appropriate research and consideration. I would recommend to council next year to really take a close look at the numbers and ensure that if we are creating an enterprise that it is profitable, and — if we don’t expect it to be profitable — whether it’s worth creating a new service in form of a retail place. A.S. store would represent at least [a] three- to five-year commitment, and the one-time cost would be the largest form of cost, in the tens of thousands of dollars — potentially $100,000.

G: While we’re on financial issues, let’s talk about the A.S. budget. Wafa: During your campaign, you discussed the idea of cutting wasteful spending. What are the things you currently want to address in putting together your budget for next year?

WBH: I don’t know what could be wasteful at this point. I haven’t formed a committee yet, but particular attention is to the Sun God Festival budget because it’s really big, and that’s a very big chunk of our $3 million. One of the first things as president I will do is charge a committee to look at the budget and make sure we’re allocating our money, and where it’s going is where it’s being spent — like the Student Promoted Access Center for Education and Service, the Sustainability Resource Center, what have you — with programs that are being carried out. I want to make sure money’s being allocated wisely and appropriately to these different constituencies.

G: So when you said you were going to cut wasteful spending throughout your campaign and endorsement interview, you weren’t referring to any specific line item or any specific spending? You were being general?

WBH: I believe that we should look into if there is wasteful spending and eliminate it, because I do believe it’s part of institutionalizing activism, which is ensuring that the students’ fees are going to things and programs that benefit them — that we aren’t putting it to things that aren’t being carried out, or programs that look good on paper and don’t have general results coming out. I’ll charter a committee to look into that and see what in the budget might be useful.

G: You mentioned responsible over-allocation. In your mind, has there been any irresponsible over-allocation? How should the council fund media organizations, and should the council’s re-examination of the existing guidelines continue? Are media orgs being funded too much? For example, No. 15 magazine is getting $9,000 for one 3,000-print run.

UG: When I talked about responsible over-allocation, I meant considering how much we’re going to over-allocate by sticking with the numbers throughout the year. A.S. Council decided not to stick with the numbers we decided on, and that’s irresponsible over-allocation when you take line items such as the media orgs’ funding at $45,000 per year and decide to allocate an additional $20,000 over that.

That is going to strip even more into the carryforward, and because of those specific actions, we may go into the negative for next year and dip into our reserve. I think that’s a dangerous precedent to set — to continuously over-allocate line items — and it’s one that’s going to come back and bite the council. If they want to allocate $65,000 worth of media funding next year, where is that $20,000 going to come from?

G: Wafa, you’ve voted on many of these allocations. In your mind, has there been any irresponsible over-allocation?

WBH: Whatever the students pay into [the A.S. Council] should go back to them the year that they’re here at UCSD. I think it’s really important that we keep our level of mandate reserves and level of carryforward in the minimum. Right now, it’s around $1 million, which is a third of our budget and quite a bit of money that’s not really necessary at this point. A lot of student orgs, multicultural orgs, what have you, all want more funding, and I do believe that we could allocate a little differently this year. The Vice President of Finance-elect Andrew Ang and I are thinking about increasing the student-org operating funds from $400 to maybe $600 or $800 — and this also depends on how we fit everything else into the budget as well.

G: What kind of financial planning goes into determining whether there’s going to be too much allocation taking place, to the point where you have to run another student referendum?

WBH: Doing the budget is — from what I know — it’s a balance of having enough of mandate reserves and carryforward and a balance of not spending too much. And you want to try to avoid running referenda at all costs, but we’re actually in really good shape right now because our source of funding is guaranteed. And it’s quite a bit of money, so we have to make that distinction.

You brought up media orgs — there are media-org guidelines that we aren’t really paying attention to, certain things like you have to fund 20 percent of your printing through advertising, and I feel like we should look into those more in order to determine how media orgs are funded and how we allocate media funding.

G: Would you be a proponent of putting a cap on media-org funding?

WBH: Not a cap, though it’s a possibility. We should look into the guidelines more to ensure that we don’t overspend.

G: The guidelines seem kind of arbitrary. It seems like it’s kind of up to the Student Org Funding Advisory Board and the associate vice president of student organizations to determine what those recommendations are.

WBH: The guidelines aren’t really arbitrary. They’re there, they’re just not being followed. I’ve talked to the VP finance now and VP finance-elect, and there were mistakes that happened last year that we’ll try to avoid. If we’re obliged to put a cap on media orgs, we have to make sure we fund different orgs fairly, but maybe that’s an option we could consider. We need to revisit guidelines and ensure that we’re following them, which could mean that there’s a lot of research to be done into that before we formulate the budget this year. As president-elect, I’m meeting with people, discussing what they’d like to see in the budget, any recommendations — but that’s one thing in particular we should look into more than anything. There is no limit and that could be dangerous.

G: I’d like to end on a slightly lighter note. Who are you looking forward to most at the Sun God Festival?

UG: Definitely Drake.

WBH: Michelle Branch.

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