By Lara Becker
A committee assembled by the College administration is reconsidering select student leader stipends that originally ranged from $10,000 to $15,000 yearly for the executive president roles of Student Government (SG), Student Finance Board (SFB) and the College Union Board (CUB) since 2019, according to a 2020 report shared with The Signal.
Effective in the fall of 2021, the committee intends to cut the stipends for these positions down to $5,500 — an approximate 63% cut for these roles.
Looking at the timeline that got to this point, Vice President of Student Affairs Sean Stallings was approached by SFB in the spring of 2019. The organization asked for a review of the wages of student leaders. According to a 2019 document that was obtained by The Signal, SFB felt that their current pay was not accurately reflecting their weekly hours and that their pay should better align with current tuition. Prior to the request for raises, the yearly pay for the top student executive roles for SFB, SG and CUB was $10,032 each.
Stallings agreed to a “temporary increase while we then actually do a formal review,” since he was not in the role of Vice President of Student Affairs when previous student payments were formed.
Following the 2019 request, Stallings obliged with a $5,000 increase for the three top executives of SG, SFB and CUB — a 49% temporary increase. The stipends would later be reassessed to determine appropriate compensation. The current proposal by the administration was based on that planned reassessment.
This pay cut proposal propelled the conflict that is now in tow. After addressing SFB’s concerns in 2019 with the temporary raises, Stallings got a glimpse into the kind of money that the College allocated for these roles and formed a review team to determine if they were appropriate.
The SAF (Student Activity Fee) Student Leader Wages Review Team was organized in the academic year of 2019-2020 to review all wages in student organizations using national averages and data from the American Student Government Association (ASGA) that was overseen by committee member and statistician LaMont Rouse.
The committee weighed the importance of student leader payment as a whole and involved members of the community, including the 2019-2020 presidents of SG and SFB.
Referencing data gathered through a Qualtrics survey sent out by the review team in order to supplement the ASGA findings, the report states that “no other institutions pay their student leaders as much as TCNJ," out of the institutions who responded.
The cuts are now intended to fall more in line with the data the College cites using the ASGA national average. Data on CUB and SFB equivalents at other institutions were also included in the review team's research.
The original proposal from the administration was $3,500 for the executive directors of SG, SFB and CUB. Since then, negotiations took place with the committee, upping the yearly pay to $5,500 for next year. This is still a significant decrease from $10,032 yearly pay to these roles in 2019 prior to requests for raises.
Feeling blindsided by the changes, these organizations reached out to The Signal to raise awareness of what was occurring.
“It just goes to show how administration can really, at the end of the day, at the snap of a finger … they can basically change student pay. I think our end goal is to basically show students that, we’re not saying they’re the bad guys, but we just want to inform students,” said Aagna Patel, the 2020-2021 executive president of SFB, in an interview with The Signal.
Stallings says that this issue arose from these organizations themselves when they requested he raise their stipends in 2019.
“When you look at the average across the country, the average compensation for student leaders in these types of roles is $3,200... And we were off the chart. I don’t mind us being a leader, but we were way out in left field,” Stallings said.
Stallings said he wanted to start from scratch and look at the basics of why student leaders are paid. He stressed the concept that student executive positions more closely resemble opportunities to serve the community than jobs befitting of five-figure compensation.
Executive leaders of SG, SFB and CUB feel differently about this. They argue that the immense time and dedication they put into their roles should be classified as jobs and that their pay is justified. These leaders often work many hours during the semester, summers, winters and overtime to serve the student body.
However, Stallings stated that per the rules of the College, working extensive hours for the institution is not allowed. The maximum amount of time permitted for a student worker is 20 hours per week, and he said that the College can not base pay on weekly hours exceeding that. The student leaders cite that their work week usually entails a minimum of 25 hours of work.
“The hourly wage would be so astronomical — it wouldn’t make sense to be paying students at that hourly wage,” Stalling said. “Those are all things that I had shared with them, for them to have some conversations with their respective leadership.”
Student leaders feel as though the administration is imposing on their ability to function effectively when they cut pay by a large margin without strongly considering the ramifications.
“I think it’s just a slight on students in the first place that we’re not involved in discussions; we’re not consulted about what’s the best thing for our organization and it’s not a collaboration. It's a mandate, basically,” said Suchir Govindarajan, the 2020-2021 president of Student Government.
To this point, however, Stallings shared with The Signal that the committee did involve members of their organizations, but from the year prior. The communication of these changes may not have been passed transparently from the administration to the current e-board members amid the push to virtual work in the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It was very important to us to make sure their voices were included as part of the conversation. We did not move forward past any particular section until we had consensus of that entire active group,” said Susie Orecchio, director of administration and operations for student affairs and the advisor to SFB at the time of the first negotiations.
As a final message to the College administration, Govindarajan emphasized a plea for students to be treated with fairness.
“There have been consistent reasons to show why administration doesn’t listen to us,” he said. “[Students] don’t see the level of disregard that they have for student input and for the student experience.”
And as Stallings moves ahead to next semester with the stipend amounts, he sent a message back: he feels these changes are fair.
“I want to emphasize there was no intent to try to harm students. But again, as I’ve said, you all asked me to look at this,” Stallings said. “And I did, and so now I feel obligated to do something about it. So, unfortunately, it didn’t turn out in the way they wanted it to turn out.”
Correction: The story has been updated to reflect that the review team found no other institutions paid as much at the College out of the surveyed institutions in a Qualtrics survey, Stallings was at the College when pre-2019 student payments were formed, though not in the position of Vice President of Student Affairs, and the review team included data from SFB and CUB equivalents at other institutions in their research.