Monday, May 6—Interim Chancellor Katherine Newman announced before a small gathering of students that she would indeed be moving forward with Referendum Question 1, which adds a small, non-waivable fee to the undergraduate tuition for the purpose of increased MBTA subsidies.
The event was held at Interim Chancellor Newman’s request, due to her receiving mixed feedback from the Undergraduate Student Government about the referendum since the 2019 election results were announced on April 5. In total, 17 students showed up, the vast majority of whom were involved in USG. In attendance were current President Katie Mitrano, current USG Student Trustee Sara Tariq, Student Trustee-Elect Kush Patel, current USG Vice President and President-Elect Samantha Zeno, and USG Vice President-Elect Alexander Killian. Several other USG Senators, as well as senator-elects, were also present.
The students spoke with each other in the form of an open debate, in which the Associate Dean of Students, Shelby Harris, acted as moderator, calling on all students present who felt the need to voice their opinions regarding Referendum Question 1. Because the referendum is not technically binding, but rather acts as a policy suggestion which the Chancellor is expected to act upon, it is within Interim Chancellor Newman’s power to reject the referendum.
While some individuals did discuss the positive and negative aspects of the subsidy itself, the debate was primarily focused on whether low student voter turnout warranted a rescinding of a vote; an argument opposing the referendum was put forward by President Mitrano and Student Trustee Tariq. While Mitrano and Tariq voiced opposition to the referendum’s passing, along with a few others, such as USG Senator Jeffrey Suddy, the majority of speakers seemed to support the referendum question. Nearly everybody in attendance spoke, offering spirited defenses of their positions, and Senator Suddy called the debate “everything that USG should be.”
Referendum Question 1 has generated a rampant debate, so much so that four opinions pieces have been published in The Mass Media: three that supported the referendum and one that opposed. The question was originally posed in the USG election, asking students if they supported “the implementation of a nominal fee to increase the subsidy on MBTA passes for students at UMass Boston … The new [$20] fee will be called ‘UMass Boston MBTA Subsidy Fund.’ ” A total of 52.4 percent of the 492 students that voted in the election voted “yes.”
In the ensuing debate regarding the results of the vote, some USG members expressed discomfort with the results of the election, citing concerns that it was not properly representative of a student body that constitutes around 12,000 students. This discomfort was expressed to Newman, who suggested a poll be sent out to students asking if they still supported a referendum question that had passed. As cited in the debate, around 70 percent of students were opposed. However, some present on Monday proposed that the question was skewed deliberately, and many students reported not receiving the poll question at all, a consequence of the email being in their junk folder.
When questioned regarding her opinion of how the debate progressed, President-Elect Zeno said: “The event was great. In my opinion, as a current executive and elected executive, it’s the kind of event that we need to have before the election occurs ... Nothing ended up changing, but it allowed me to see the different conversations we should be having amongst representatives.” President-Elect Zeno expressed that, despite her disagreement with the contents of the referendum question, “I am not someone to invalidate the 492 voices that voted in the election.”
Students not involved directly within USG also attended the debate. Austin Schofield, a commuter and current junior at UMass Boston said: “Although I did find it both important and engaging to hear the perspective of those opposed to this question, I am pleased with the outcome of the debate and Chancellor Newman’s decision, as I find the advocacy for repealing to be an unwarranted threat to the democratic process. On the content of the referendum itself, I would say I am a full supporter, as I recognize the positive impacts this will have on a significant group of commuter students.”