SGA approves referenda on meal plan fee reduction, per-credit tuition

Body dismisses proposals on community COVID-19 testing, affordable student housing


On Feb. 1, the SGA approved five referendum questions including per-credit tuition and a price reduction in meal plan fees.

Isabel Stephens, news staff

The Student Government Association, or SGA, approved five referendum questions Feb. 1 to be asked of students during the March 14 election, including a meal plan fee reduction, university MBTA discounts, per-credit tuition, mental health orientation programming and additional funding for University Health and Counseling Services.

SGA did not approve referenda proposing Northeastern cap President Joseph E. Aoun’s salary, guarantee new housing construction as affordable for students or offer COVID-19 testing to residents of surrounding communities. The five approved referenda must now accrue 750 signatures from undergraduate students by March 14 to be included on the ballot.

Joshua Sisman, communications director for Northeastern’s chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America, or YDSA, said he hopes the organization’s proposed reduction in university meal plan fees would partially correct what he calls a financial “slap in the face to students.”

Prices per swipe at Northeastern dining halls range from $11.59 to $19.11 depending on a student’s choice of meal plan, and the university requires students living in first-year residence halls to purchase at least the 12-meal plan, which costs $3,470 per semester.

“Considering the fact that at some point 41% of people who go to a four-year institution will experience food insecurity at one point, it’s just absolutely mind boggling,” said Sisman, a second-year political science and economics major. “It’s extremely, extremely important that if you are supposedly committed to diversity, and you’re supposedly committed to making your academic environment equitable for all students, then you need to make sure that the students are not going hungry.”

If passed by students, YDSA’s referendum would call on administrators to limit the price of the “unlimited” plan, which provides three meals per day, to about $3,000. The plan is currently priced at $4,245 per semester.

The organization also sponsored the referendum proposing the university negotiate with the MBTA to offer reduced fares to students, something SGA leaders said the university has come close to a deal on in the past. YDSA’s now-defunct affordable housing referendum would have asked Northeastern to scrap plans for a new 26-story Columbus Avenue apartment building and guarantee all newly constructed housing be affordable to students.

SGA leaders, citing the vagueness of the term “affordable,” blocked the referendum before it came to a vote.

Hannah Nivar, SGA’s executive director of communications, said in a Jan. 21 vetting meeting that the question’s suggestion that housing be affordable for “ALL” students was “leading” because it “[made] people think that right now [Northeastern housing] is not inclusive.”

Northeastern’s average room and board pricing for on-campus students is $17,480 per year, more than 40% above the $12,200 average for private four-year universities in the United States.

The referendum calling on the university to charge students taking reduced course loads by credit hour rather than by semester was the only one of the Roosevelt Institute’s four submissions to pass in the Feb. 1  Senate meeting. The Roosevelt Institute is a progressive policy think tank whose focus on the Northeastern campus in recent years has been to organize SGA referenda.

In addition to proposing the cut to Aoun’s salary, Edie Olmsted, president of the Roosevelt Institute’s Northeastern chapter, said the organization wanted to give students a chance to vote in support of referenda amending the referendum process itself — which she said is needlessly cumbersome — and opening Northeastern’s COVID-19 testing center to Boston residents. The Senate denied all three proposals.

Olmsted, a fourth-year politics, philosophy and economics major, said she sees SGA’s dismissal of the COVID-19 testing proposal as “classist” and “transparently racist.” Massachusetts residents without access to convenient, free testing centers like Northeastern’s face steep prices and wait times that can stretch beyond the coronavirus’s incubation period.

“It’s the smallest thing we could possibly do to help the surrounding communities,” she said. “As soon as we presented it, we were met with an onslaught of objections.”

In a Feb. 1 meeting, senators and members of SGA leadership questioned whether it was feasible to test residents of the communities surrounding the university and asked Olmsted and colleague Anna Brown, a fourth-year political science and international affairs major, if they had planned out the “logistics” of testing community members. Brown countered that that responsibility would typically fall to the administrators themselves, and SGA leadership later backed up this claim. One SGA leader suggested testing people other than students and staff would “[make] the campus a hotspot.”

In an emailed statement to The News Feb. 16, Nivar pushed back against Olmsted’s characterization of the situation.

“To say that the entire reaction of the association was ‘classist’ and ‘transparently racist’ is inaccurate considering that the surrounding communities of Northeastern comprise a wide array of individuals of all socio-economic backgrounds,” the statement read. “The idea that the organization can despise all kinds of people is simply hatred of all persons. I would accept that claim far more easily than accepting that the association is either ‘classist’ or ‘racist.’”

SGA Senator Ioanna Plumi, a second-year biology and political science combined major, said she liked the idea to test community members and was infuriated by some of her peers’ arguments against it. Ultimately, however, she thinks the proposal didn’t pass simply because other referenda ranked higher on senators’ lists, particularly because the drawn out timeline of the referendum process would make short-term initiatives like COVID-19 testing less impactful. She said she still sees opportunities to organize on the issue outside of the referendum process.

“I think that if it was legislation, it could get passed [in the SGA Senate],” Ploumi said. “I think we could use that and a petition to mobilize student support.”

Sisman, who attended the Feb. 1 meeting, said he senses a “huge detachment” between the priorities of SGA leaders and the needs of working class people. Some SGA leaders, he said, entertained a referendum proposal by self-described “satire magazine” Husky Husky to make Northeastern’s Self-Authored Integrated Learning program, or SAIL, optional but were opposed initially to the idea of reducing meal plan fees.

“If you’re gonna vote for the SAIL referenda on the basis of ‘inconvenience,’ then you have to vote for the meal plan, because you do not understand the inconvenience of being hungry,” Sisman said.

Nivar wrote in the Feb. 16 email that support for the SAIL referendum was at least partly a question of “feasibility” compared to other proposals.

“SGA is responsible for prioritizing student concerns,” the statement read. “If members of the association’s body have heard students complain about SAIL more than their dorming circumstances, then that is what they should be voting for.”

Olmsted said she’s focusing on getting signatures for the per-credit tuition referendum right now, but that she’s frustrated by what she worries is a lack of “potential for change” in SGA.

“Honestly, within my membership body right now, people are tired of working with SGA,” she said. “If this is like the way it has to be, I don’t know if there is a future for the SGA referenda.”

Students can cast votes in the SGA election from their MyNortheastern portal the week of March 14.

This story was updated 4:10 p.m. Feb. 22 to clarify a detail regarding the nature of one of the referenda questions.