The will of the student body or the will of 12?

Last spring’s student body election gave PSU students the choice of whether or not to allocate millions of dollars to build a state-of-the-art, fully accessible, multi-use recreation center. Despite a motivated informational campaign in favor, turnout was low. Around 8 percent of the student body – 1,812 students out of over 23,000 – voted on the issue: 912 for, 900 against. With no minimum participation rule, the measure passed. The will of 12, or, if you will, 912 students determined how a gigantic chunk of money will be spent. Something about this struck me as wrong.

To allay my concerns, I exchanged a series of e-mails with ASPSU President Christy Harper and Campus Recreation Coordinator Alex Accetta, the driving forces behind the initiative. They spoke with great passion about the proposal. "I believe that Portland State – its students, faculty, staff, and alumni – are craving to have a PSU community. I believe that this type of building and these programs can have a dramatic impact on solving this issue," Accetta said.

Harper decried the limitations of our Stott Center, particularly the lack of wheelchair access. Harper made a good argument that the new center would be a full recreational center, as opposed to merely an athletic center, and said she envisions it as a campus-wide focal point, something like the Erb Memorial Union at the University of Oregon.

Together, the two are a powerful, eloquent one-two punch in favor of the proposal. But they miss the basic point in all this – the miscarriage of the student electoral process that gave this expensive project the go-ahead.

As is, the rec center is another example of an agenda being rammed down the throats of the student body, akin to the Higher One takeover of our financial aid dollars. Harper disagreed and pointed out that there have been efforts to involve students in the rec center process. Obviously the vote itself was such. But a tiny nod in the direction of comprehensive involvement is vastly insufficient when it comes to such a massive outlay of cash.

I believe that there should be a minimum level of student voter involvement before such large projects are approved. Ms. Harper again disagreed: "If you look at all schools and the percentage of students that turn out to vote, it is about the same everywhere. And you have to make decisions based on what you have. Referendums have been passed all over the United States to build rec centers with fewer [sic] percentages. I feel we did an outstanding job of trying to educate students about the vote and the impact. And we had one of the highest voter turnouts for that election."

This is all well and good, though I can’t help but think of Rummy Rumsfeld telling the troops we would go to war with the army we have, not the one we wish we had. In pointing out that things are done in this fashion elsewhere, she’s pointed out precedent, not correct practice. The two are very different.

On this issue, precedent can only add a patina of legitimacy. Other places have made decisions like this and they’ve been wrong to do so. It’s just not fair, bordering on irresponsible. We live in a democratic society, and one of the endearing little idiosyncrasies of democracy is the sometimes vapid, sometimes infuriating "will of the people." Harper pointed out that even if 10 percent of Americans vote for president, the vote still holds.

Though I’m sure she and the ASPSU are justifiably proud of their hard work, "an outstanding job of trying to educate students" does not equal outstandingly educated students and it’s simply not enough. Nor is having a higher-than-average voter turnout. Kudos are in order, but the job is light years away from being done.

The long and short of it is that we have far more pressing needs for our money than a new student center, even if the Smith Memorial Student Union and Stott Center are imperfect. Accetta comments, "We are doing this for all of Portland State…past students, present students and future students. Don’t forget we are the university, all of us."

That’s a nice idea, but when we see the disproportionate amounts of monies dropped on things like homecoming formals – in an atmosphere where a larger number of TA’s are teaching an increasing proportion of classes, fewer professors are being tenured, tuition is skyrocketing, and financial aid is tanking – it’s hard for me to argue that the best way to spend students’ money is on a rec center. Why not raise a chunk of money equal to that needed for the new center and establish a financial aid fund? Or a supplemental textbook fund? Why not subsidize present housing to lower rents, or hire a couple of excellent professors?

We all know why. A big, beautiful, accessible new center is infinitely sexier than the ideas I mentioned. It will look fabulous on the cover of glossy PSU info packets, shipped overseas to attract international students or sent out to wealthy alumni to grease the giving wheels for the next urgently required edifice. It’s all about profit.

I’m living in a fantasy world where a school – particularly a state college – should be run with the goal of providing the best education possible, not making a buck. I don’t doubt that Accetta and Harper believe what they say about the new center, and I agree that it would be nice. Maybe eventually it would bring in its wake the benefits I wish for. But to do so at the expense of current students – who are already suffering under growing costs and diminishing financial aid – while insisting that it’s for all students, past, present, and future… well, err…. I just don’t buy it.

Unfortunately, I might not have a choice.

Riggs Fulmer can be reached at [email protected]