Transcript: State of the Student Assembly Address

SUNY Student Assembly President and SUNY Trustee Marc J. Cohen delivered the following address at the biannual SUNY Student Assembly fall conference on Saturday, Nov. 12:

Delegates, friends, officials, and distinguished guests: Since taking office on June 1st, it has been my honor to serve as the President of the student government for the largest system of public higher education in the country. I am proud to report to all of you that the state of the assembly is bright and that the future holds more promise for us than ever before.

I want to take a moment to recognize a few people:

Our Vice President and Chair of this incredible conference, my partner in crime, Bridget Doyle.

Our Treasurer and Chief Financial Officer, Patrick Gareau

Our Secretary, Morgan Wood

Chief of Staff for External Affairs, Nicholas Simons

Chief of Staff for Student Affairs, Robert Drumm

And Deputy Chief of Staff, Carolyn Sheridan

Without this incredible Executive Board, the outstanding work we do each and every day would not be possible.

I also want to recognize the members of my Cabinet. Will all Directors and Chairs please stand to be recognized?

I have surrounded myself with the best of the best to ensure you are all served well. Thank you to the members of my Cabinet for your unwavering dedication and support.

Now for my bosses, our Representatives, will the Representatives please stand to be recognized?

You have all done an incredible job of representing your campuses and we owe you a debt of gratitude.

Speaking of our campuses, I’d like to recognize all the student government presidents here. The work of the Student Assembly is not just about our statewide initiatives, but about the positive community impact that the students on each campus have. Presidents, you are the front-line leaders of SUNY students, and I thank you for all the incredible work that you do every day. Please stand. Thank you.

I’d like to give a very special thank you to each of the incredible student leaders with us here today. Your passion, your ingenuity, and your leadership are what makes SUNY the finest institution of public higher education in the world. At no small personal cost, each of you logs countless hours in what can often be a thankless job.

And finally, to Andrew Binder, Advisor to the Student Assembly, we wouldn’t be here without your dedication to the students of this system. Thank you.

Let me turn for a moment to the bigger picture. What we do at these conferences, and in between them, matters. We, as a student community, are bigger than this room, or this system, or this state. Every four years this nation has an opportunity to choose a new leader and in this election, the choice was between two distinct schools of thought. As we move forward with our new leader, we cannot let issues of higher education slip through the cracks. It is even more critical now that we unite and remain a strong voice in national discussions. Our conversations about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion will not go unheard. Our passion for environmental sustainability will not be inhibited. Our efforts to be affordable and accessible for all will not falter. In a changing political climate, we must be a sturdy anchor tied around these issues. We have the duty to ensure these conversations are here to stay. We as the recognized student government for the largest system of public higher education in the nation will not let key federal issues like the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, increasing Pell grant awards, and student loan refinancing fall by the wayside. To those of you who are losing faith or hope remember:

In divisive times, there is a premium on unity. When it seems like the fabric of society is splitting in two it is our job as leaders to hold it together in the face of hatred, in the face of bigotry, and in the face of incredible odds. We can dislike the reality of today but it is imperative that we work toward a better tomorrow.

This is the time to make sure the student voice, our voice, is heard.  This is the hour where we prove our strength. This is the hour where we show what our numbers can do. Where we fight for what we believe in and move forward together resolved to build our nation to be stronger than ever before. I am proud to be standing here in front of you ready to join hands and lead that charge.

This is a transformational time for the Student Assembly and it is both a daunting and rewarding task to be at the helm during such a critical point in its evolution. I consider each member of our leadership team to be vital to our success. The motto of this conference about building pathways to future success is applicable to more than just our own individual journeys: it is a testament to the pathway we are all constructing for the future of this assembly.

The Student Assembly looked far different a few years ago, than it does now. Entire administrations were consumed with internal management issues to the exclusion of all else. Our conferences were poorly planned and at times poorly executed. The quality of our resolutions was questionable and quantity was often valued over quality. Thankfully under the leadership of several transformational presidents, and our own initiatives this year, the Assembly is the best it’s ever been. However, our work is not yet done until the Assembly is the absolute best that it can be. When I was inaugurated as President I vowed to spend every day re-imagining the way we do business. We’ve raised the standard for SUNYSA resolutions to ensure that we are adopting only the most thoughtful, thorough, and comprehensive positions. We retooled our approach to policy in general, exemplified by our multi-year tuition policy that puts us on a path to a debt free higher education for ALL students regardless of where they are in their educational careers or what sort of degree they wish to attain. We’ve done our part, we’ve paid our way, and it’s time for the State to follow suit. We are not bottomless ATM machines that can continue shouldering the burden of public higher education. And for those of you who have watched the Trustee meetings, you’ve seen me hold up this chart which shows a consistent decrease in state support of SUNY over the last decade. You’ve seen me hold our elected leaders accountable for the decisions they make. You’ve seen me vote against tuition increases time, and time, and time again. And mark my words that I will not be intimidated. I will not be silenced. I will represent the 600,000 students of this incredible University until we receive the support we need and deserve.

While I am proud of the work our Executive Committee has done, it is important to also recognize that when discussing the “State of the Student Assembly,” we are talking about our entire body of 600,000 SUNY Students. The student leaders here are in the upper echelons of advocates for the student cause. How many here have attended a meeting with an administrator on their campus to advocate for student interests? Raise your hand. How many here have helped a fellow student struggling with a difficult situation? How many have volunteered off-campus to help strengthen the local community? That is the embodiment of the Student Assembly of the State University of New York. Make no mistake that while this conference and the Executive Committee are important to focus on statewide advocacy, the positive work that all students do throughout the system is what makes the student impact of the Student Assembly reach throughout the state.

We should be encouraged by the work that we do as students, but we can never be complacent. The issues in front of us are too important and the policy battlefield too competitive. We know that affordable higher education needs to be at the forefront of policy debates. Students lead on this. But our elected leaders will fail to meaningfully act on these efforts if we aren’t persistent. We need a commitment from the state to drastically increase funding and reverse the trend of students paying larger and larger shares. We need additional funding for need-based grants like TAP and PELL so the most financially disadvantaged among us are not priced out of making a better life for themselves and their families. We need to make the terms of loan repayment as fair as possible to reduce the burden on students. Affordable higher education is a societal good that cuts across ideology, party, and demography.

It is simply not okay that so many people in our society are financially insecure, and that a dark historical legacy of racism and discrimination contributes to that insecurity.

Higher education can take the lead on improving our society and we can take the lead in higher education. Throughout the system, SUNY students are committed to raising the bar on their campuses to ensure that every student can flourish. Take a look at our leadership on the Ban the Box initiative. With SUNY New Paltz students leading the charge, the student assembly passed this resolution at our last conference which was adopted as SUNY policy and will change thousands of lives for the better. That right there is true leadership. That right there exemplifies how powerful the collective student voice can be.

While on the topic of safe campus environments for all students, I’d like to talk about an issue incredibly near and dear to me and so many others. On June 1st, I announced that we would make sexual assault and violence prevention a centerpiece of this administration. And we did. Partnering with our friends from the CUNY Student Senate, we have the support of student leaders from across this state.  I also set a goal of having every student government signed on to the pledge. And today, we did it. Finally, as you all know, the SUNY’s Got Your Back initiative to support survivors of sexual and interpersonal violence was successful due to your efforts. Vice President Doyle, has been the driving force behind our efforts and just yesterday, Bridget and I held the 10,000th bag which will go to help these survivors.

We have a long list of issues that are important to us as students, and that’s why we won’t rest until we see progress made in every facet of the higher education experience. Our committees have made substantial progress this year, and are just getting started.

I am incredibly proud to have your stamp of approval on the most progressive, comprehensive, and detailed legislative agenda in the history of this assembly. With Director of Legislative Affairs Rey Muniz taking the lead, we had tough discussions internally and with many of you on how to approach topics like tuition and affordability, sexual assault, sustainability, mental health, and so many others. As a result, our agenda is incredibly inclusive. For the first time, we sent out a survey to SUNY students across the system asking them for their input, assessing their awareness and involvement and discerning which issues matter most. We also refurbished the way we develop policy, extending and professionalizing our research and development time to ensure that we were outlining clear and sophisticated policy proposals.

On campus, the driving force behind our college experiences come from educational initiatives. Director Evan Rufrano and his team are tackling issues that benefit students directly on a day-to-day basis. Most notably is the work they have done with the textbook advisory council at the SUNY-level ensuring Open Educational Resources are available to all and furthering our goal towards being an even more accessible system of public higher education.

Among the most critical issues we face as students are campus safety and mental health. Every year we recommit to making strides on these literal life or death issues. With your help and leadership, this Assembly passed a resolution calling for the SUNY sexual violence response website to be linked on every campus homepage. We have students on the system-level Mental Health Task Force which does amazing work to raise awareness and increase available resources on campuses to our students. We have included it on our legislative agenda calling for long term support to counseling centers. We have done great work in raising awareness on our campuses, but there are no self-congratulations in this area until we get the number down to 0. We will continue to make this a top priority.

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about our sustainability efforts. This planet should be all our top issue. Whether it’s advocating for the state to cease unfunded sustainability mandates or incorporating a sustainability curriculum into our gen-eds, the reason we have this committee is to make effective steps toward a safer environment.

A critical part of our mission as students is inclusivity. With our committee on Military Affairs, we can ensure that both current military personnel and veterans feel welcome on all our campuses. Especially this weekend, recognizing the efforts of our more than 10,000 SUNY family members who are or have worn the uniform is paramount.

We’ve made a lot of progress; however, progress doesn’t have a finish line. Our leadership team identified early on that increasing student engagement within the Assembly was key to jumpstarting our efforts on a statewide level. We opened our committees so that they are now comprised primarily of students outside our executive committee.

Another way that we have increased engagement is by hosting the first annual President’s Summit earlier this semester. The impact of our SGA presidents getting together to share and discuss ideas is significant and lasting. I am lucky to have developed strong personal relationships and great friendships with many of you as a result of that event and others.

One of the most important issues for the future of student life in New York State is the search to replace Chancellor Nancy Zimpher. I want to take a moment to recognize Chancellor Zimpher for her service to the people of New York and the institution of higher education in the United States and around the world. As your President, I have the privilege of being a member of the Chancellor search committee. However, I recognized immediately that one student opinion is insufficient to represent the system’s largest group of stakeholders. That is why I convened an advisory council of SGA presidents from SUNY representing all sectors. I want to thank Oswego President Emily Nassir and Monroe Community College President Blake Moore Jr for their leadership as co-chairs of this committee, and Oneonta President Nicole Pereira for joining me in Albany to testify with Blake before the Board of Trustees.

Being a Trustee is one of my most important and rewarding roles. I will never stop sticking up for students on SUNY’s singular system-wide policy making body. Students are better represented than ever on the board with the advent of the Student Life Committee, which I will co-chair and my successors will lead for years to come.

We’ve made progress this year in building new relationships. I’ve had the pleasure of developing a renewed connection with the CUNY University Student Senate, adding hundreds of thousands to the unified call for college affordability, sexual assault prevention, and other issues in the context of New York State policy. I’d like to invite CUNYUSS Chair Chika and members from her leadership team to please stand and be recognized. We have also had dialogues with other system-wide student governments outside of New York State and are seeking partnerships for federal advocacy. Additionally, Nina Tamrowski, President of the Faculty Council of Community Colleges is here in the spirit of shared governance. With her help, our resolution calling for community college student government autonomy and student control was supported by the FCCC. Nina please stand to be recognized.

This year we will fight harder than ever before for students. For our best friends. For our adopted family. We will raise our voices for affordability, inclusion, sustainability, campus safety, and a better tomorrow. We will do it by coming together and leaning on one another in our darkest hours and celebrating one another during our greatest triumphs. We will not cower in the face of hatred and vitriol. We will stand up to racism and sexism and bigotry and discrimination.

We are the future and it is our job to shape it. We are trailblazers. We are thinkers and innovators. We find opportunity in crisis and strength in our diversity. We are strong. We are capable. We are the students of the State University of New York.

Thank you.