Last week, nearly 80 percent of Cornell students who voted in Student Assembly elections chose to support a $5 fee to fund renewable energy. The Student Assembly’s spring election ballot included three referendum issues students could vote on, including two questions about implementing the renewable energy fee. The $5 charge will be included in the Student Activity Fee paid through the bursar.
According to the S.A. website, 1,670 out of over 2,000 students who voted agreed that the fee should be included, with a slight majority saying it should be optional rather than mandatory.
The referendum questions were proposed by the student organization Kyoto Now!. According to former Kyoto Now! president Matt Perkins ’08, the S.A. was originally skeptical about the idea, but recently has become very receptive to the issue.
“In the past year and half, people have become more aware of the issues of climate change,” Perkins said. “If you look in the New York Times or Washington Post, global warming is not just in the news once a week, it’s there everyday.”
Perkins initially went to members of the S.A. with the idea of including the fee last year, but the S.A. did not know if it was something students would support, according to S.A. President Kwame Thomison ’07.
The S.A. uses the referendum in general as a quick and efficient way to survey student opinion, since it cannot speak directly to the more than 13,500 undergraduates at Cornell.
“Referenda are a good way to poll student bodies,” said S.A. Vice President for Internal Operations Elan Greenberg ’08. “It’s a good way to publicize the issue across campus.”
Greenberg and Perkins both call the referendum a very powerful leveraging tool in working with the administration.
“Instead of just saying … that me and my 30 other friends in Kyoto Now! want to do this, we can say that X number of students specifically said they would support this,” Perkins said.
The next step for Kyoto Now! and the S.A. is to take this data to the administration and work out the logistical issues necessary to make the fee a reality. The referendum is only a survey of public opinion and does not bind the S.A. to take action. However, Thomison said it is almost certain the fee will be instated because it will be hard for next year’s assembly to ignore the 80 percent of students who overwhelmingly supported the initiative.
This is the first time in at least three years that the S.A. has chosen to utilize the referendum. According to Greenberg, many members of the S.A. were fired up about certain issues this year more so than in the past and decided to step up and get them on the ballot.
“Virtually every other university with a student government organization uses the referendum,” said Greenberg.
The renewable energy question in particular was closely modeled off of similar questions asked at Harvard and other schools. Any student or group interested in proposing an issue can do so by contacting an S.A. member or attending a meeting. Perkins made a presentation for Kyoto Now! during an S.A. meeting in order to get the renewable energy questions on the ballot.
The S.A. thoroughly discusses every proposal to reach a consensus and make a recommendation to the election committee, which makes the final decision regarding what is included on the ballot. Thomison said if there are only a few ideas, it is possible to include all of them. However, in order to get a good response rate and to avoid overwhelming students, not everything can necessarily be included.
“We try to pare it down to hot topics and what we have had trouble making decisions on,” said Thomison.
S.A. representative Neal Nisargand ’07 is glad the S.A. is once again making use of the referendum because it is a good way to learn more about the issues that matter to students.
“I think students like having the opportunity to say what they think,” Thomison said. “I know sometimes it’s difficult for people to make it to meetings, but the referendum still allows them to actively participate in the decision making process.”