How the state of student representation at Rutgers affects alcohol culture

In this guest blog post, Rutgers University Student Body President Justin Schulberg discusses the implications of a lack of student power within the Rutgers Board of Governors. 

Nearly 40% of college-aged students binge drink every month. At Rutgers, our student government has made strides by implementing programs that promote safe drinking practices. But, we can’t make true progress without student representation on the Rutgers Board of Governors.

In the Fall of 2014, a second-year student at Rutgers passed away due to the overconsumption of alcohol. RUSA responded by creating an ad-hoc committee to look into the effect of New Jersey’s Medical Amnesty Law, which allows individuals under the age of 21 to call 9-1-1 in good faith if they or a friend is suffering from alcohol poisoning without facing legal ramifications.

After six months of report writing and seven months of lobbying our 22-page report to University administrators, the Rutgers Board of Governors passed Rutgers’ first ever Medical Amnesty Policy. The new policy protects underage students from student conduct code violations related to underage consumption of alcohol if they or a friend call 9-1-1 in good faith for someone suffering from alcohol poisoning. This is considerable progress and success on the part of student initiative and marks one of the first times in years that RUSA has affected direct policy change at Rutgers.

It is worth noting that the Board of Governors did not take our recommendation to include the same provision for drug consumption – something that is law in New Jersey. While the adopted policy takes good initial steps towards creating a safer drinking environment for students, RUSA will be continuing to improve this policy to include drugs as well.

Additionally, RUSA recommended that the University implement a policy whereby students who are witnesses to and victims of an act of sexual violence while under the consumption of alcohol and/or drugs can report the incident without facing violations of the Code of Conduct related to the consumption of alcohol and/or drugs. In so doing, RUSA aimed to encourage a culture of reporting sexual violence incidences and to remove a barrier to reporting. The Board of Governors has done great work to implement a policy similar to this; however, the policy they implemented contains an interesting caveat: it has allowed anyone reporting an act of sexual violence to be protected from violations of the Code of Conduct. Why is this a problem? It is not uncommon for a perpetrator of an act of sexual violence to report that act of sexual violence by saying that the victim is false reporting. Thus, while the policy that was implemented has good intentions, it has one glaring loophole in it that we will continue to work to change.

Why were our recommendations not implemented to the fullest extent? The root of that problem lies in the lack of student representation in closed door meetings of the Board of Governors and the lack of a student vote on the Board.

Though we have a student representative to the Board, he is a non-voting member and is excluded from the majority of discussions made by the Board. Over the past few months, RUSA’s Legislative Affairs Committee identified that the route to go about adding a student voting member to the Board is through state legislation; given that we are the State University of New Jersey, any changes on this high of a level require state approval. In the LA Committee’s research, it found two bills: S2249/A2134, which are identical bills in differing chambers of our state legislature calling for the addition of a student voting representative to the Rutgers Board of Governors. Since identifying these two bills, we have worked tirelessly meeting with every member of the Senate Higher Education and Assembly Higher Education Committees garnering full support for the bills. We have submitted the bills to the Office of Legislative Services for technical review.

Once they have been reviewed, we will have them posted to their respective committees. Once past committee, we need to get them posted to the Legislature by Assembly Speaker Prieto or Senate President Sweeney. After they pass both chambers, the bills will be sent to Governor Christie’s desk for signing.  It is through this process that we will hope to see students gain proper representation on the University’s highest governing board.

In these six critical months, I have learned that whether fighting to improve alcohol culture or advocating for lower tuition, I can most effectively serve as the chief representative for 33,000 undergraduate students only when there is a mechanism for me to weigh in on major decisions Rutgers University makes.

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