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October 4, 2016

Uncommon Interview: Student Government President Eric Holmberg


President Eric Holmberg discusses his plans for Student Government.

Zoe Kaiser / The Chicago Maroon

The Maroon sat down with newly elected President Eric Holmberg yesterday to discuss his plans for Student Government (SG).

Holmberg, a third-year geography major from Nebraska, began his SG career by running as a Class of 2018 representative in the spring election of his first year. He was selected by fellow College Council (CC) representatives to chair the council last year. Alongside current second-year Salma Elkhaoudi and graduate student Cody Jones, Holmberg led the United Progress Slate to victory last May.

Last spring, The Maroon interviewed former SG President Tyler Kissinger at the end of his term.

CM: Thank you for coming. Let’s just jump into it. What inspired you to become involved with SG?

EH: Well, I wasn’t involved in SG my first year actually. It wasn’t until spring of first year that I decided to run for CC. Much of my first year I was involved with [the University Community Service Center], Seeds of Justice Cohort Program, learning about social justice in Chicago and on campus. I also became involved in the campaign for equitable policing, and so my eyes really being opened to the University’s relationship with its students, with its community, and asking questions about that relationship. So I guess I was active in those circles; and as a result, I wanted to get involved in using a SG platform to kind of move on issues. Policing was one example. The first thing I did when I got to SG Assembly in the fall was pass the resolution regarding the UCPD in appointment to the Independent Review Committee. So anyway, that was the key issue that got me involved.

CM: What has been your greatest success as a member of SG?

EH: One that I’m feeling really positive about right now with the new school year has been the creation of the Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Committee that started out in CC last year. We were able to use funding for sexual assault awareness month last year, and I think it’s a good example of success because this year it’s a full SG committee. It got increased funding for the year and we’re putting an awesome team together to lead that. That’s coming at a moment when the University is also getting more serious. This year we have mandatory timeline training that we’ve all been taking. We have the addition of Shea Wolfe onto our Title IX staff. That’s exciting for me, and I think that’s a good combination of SG raising an issue and devoting more resources, and the University getting serious about this issue and increasing resources. So, in tandem, I say that this is a big success.

CM: On the contrary, what has been your greatest setback or mistake during your time in SG? How has this shaped your plans as president?

EH: I think my greatest challenge was the learning curve last year being CC chair and on Executive Committee, working with all of the undergraduate student body, and all of the graduate student body. That’s a challenge just because of sheer numbers and the character of each school and division of the college is so different and diverse. Over the course of the year I think I learned and grew into that role on Executive Committee and working with graduate leadership and undergraduate leadership, so it was an exciting challenge. This year, I knew that it was key to have a graduate student on Slate to reach more constituencies and continue to develop relationships with graduate students, ensure that graduate students are accurately represented on committees. If you recall, we also allocated significantly more resources to Graduate Council(GC) this year, so that’s one thing that I’m really dedicated to seeing succeed, is all that money being used successfully to improve graduate student life. I wouldn’t call that a setback by any means, in fact I think we’re improving on how graduate students are involved in SG, but it’s definitely a challenge because this is a sprawling university with lots of different student needs, so learning about that as a college student is exciting and challenging.

CM: In our conversation with your predecessor, Tyler Kissinger, last year, he expressed regret about initially trying to work an “inside track” with the administration instead of being publicly critical. Do you have a sense of what your approach will be?

EH: I do have a sense. I have solid working relationships with several administrators already and I’m looking to develop more. Just to keep using the example of the Title IX office, working with Sarah Wake and Shea Wolfe is a key way forward on that issue and I don’t see that as an inside or outside thing. I think that are student groups like Phoenix Survivors Alliance, and there’s this administrative office, and I listen to and communicate with both of those entities. I see that as my role. SG is the voice of the student body to liaison with University administration so a key part of my function is doing that and being that liaison. That said, the relationship is that SG can push for something and get a reaction from the administration.

CM: Do you think that the administration will be more likely to meet with SG and address the demands of SG in comparison to last year? I remember there were meetings that you would invite the entire administration, they wouldn’t show up. There was the Assembly meeting with the Provost, and it was very much like an interrogation given that there were hostile relations between the student body and the administration about how they didn’t meet often or at all, how the student body felt ignored. I’m curious as to how this year the relationship between SG and the administration will be different or improved.

EH: I think it’s important to differentiate that there is this strong student movement on campus and there’s also SG. I think the administration certainly needs to be meeting more with groups that are organized around issues. I know that the new Provost, Daniel Diermeier, has extended invitations to several of those groups that had difficulty meeting with Provost Isaacs, so that’s a positive step. I don’t think that ever negatively impacted SG’s relationship so much, the hostility was coming more from…I didn’t view the relationship between SG and the administration as hostile. I certainly think that this year we have a fresh start with those relationships. I would say it would be in the best interest of the administration to not only meet with SG as they have been but also to directly meet with many of these groups raising issues on campus.

CM: In what ways are the objectives of this Executive Slate different than those of last year’s Slate? In what ways are they similar?

EH: Some are similar, some are different. A similar one: we’re continuing the work of implementing the U-Pass. I love public transit, love the CTA, love the city of Chicago, so that’s kind of a personal passion project but also something I think is great for the student body. There’s a lot of excitement and energy around it, so I want to implement that well and make sure that students are getting the most out of that program. You’ll be seeing SG encourage students to use the U-Pass, both in Hyde Park and out of it. We’re going to be expanding the local business discount and pairing that with U-Pass to access this discount provided by SG. That’s one thing that’s a continuation of previous goals. Some goals have also changed due to the political landscape with [the National Labor Relations Board] ruling on graduate worker unionization, we have more ability to weigh in on that issue that previous Slates have. Of course there’s been great work to push toward that, but now that the political, the legal landscape has changed we have the ability to weigh in on the issue in a different way that’s new and exciting. Another one that is similar and different is the campus climate survey. There was previously a lot of energy into getting the climate survey done, but this year we will be seeing the results, and that critical moment for discussion and change will come. I hope that our Slate will be able to actually be a part of the changes and the dialogue produced by the results of the campus climate survey.

CM: Is there a single agenda item you’d like to make the center of your platform this year?

EH: I guess I’ll say broadly my single driving idea is that the University of Chicago should be a place of teaching and research that allows every individual to participate in that mission. That includes faculty, students, and staff. There are a lot of barriers, I think, in the way of that now. So you saw with Shared Services and the cutting of academic staff over the summer caused a lot of backlash amongst faculty, staff, and students. So I think we need to be lobbying to protect the academic mission of the University and make sure that there are the resources we need as students and teachers to accomplish that. It’s hard to boil it down to one agenda item, right? I think we need more labor unions on campus. I’m pushing for graduate unionization. I think that will help achieve that. I’m pushing for a raised minimum wage because it’s difficult to run a university when you don’t value the labor of the people who make it run. All summer I’ve been working on the Responsible Business Act on the Cook County level which would raise the minimum wage to a living wage. That’s a huge thing I want to see happen this year. There are a lot of barriers to full participation due to a toxic campus climate, to be frank. We’re going to see that quantified as a result of this campus climate survey. But when you do have structural racism and sexism, and this kind of climate, you’re going to limit the opportunities available to people. So that’s the sweeping vision we want to work on. Of course we have to move the needle on all these issues—I want to move the needle on getting more funding for student disability services because three staff people is not enough to serve the needs of 15,000 students. That’s a way we can move the needle. Working with the Center of College Student Success, or LGBT student life, to increase for the support for students so that they have their basic needs met and they feel that they are supported and welcomed at this university. That’s important to every student being able to learn and grow here. That’s the broad vision, there’s a lot of specific manifestations of that.

CM: The Maroon has been publishing articles about U-Pass since 2005. After at least eleven years of discussion, U-Pass has become available to students. Do you think SG’s role in pushing U-Pass could change people’s estimation of what SG can accomplish?

EH: That’s really encouraging for me to hear since this has been going on for so long and I get to be at the University when it actually comes to fruition. I think it definitely did help. The U-Pass referendum, for example, made it a prominent issue among the student body. It was something the administration could no longer ignore. It really did channel student needs and demands in a way that the administration had to respond. So the college is implementing this program and they say: “You asked for this, students in the college, you said you wanted this, and that’s why it worked out.” That’s how the University should work. When students decide democratically that they want or need a program, that’s when decisions should be made. SG was able to facilitate that decision-making process, and I think that’s a great example of how SG could operate in the future as well. I think there are other issues…. Just a few years ago, just looking through some Maroon archives, and just a few years ago SG began talking about issues like graduate unionization or getting a Level I trauma center. A few years ago, that was very far off. But look where we are now. The Level I trauma center, it looks like there will be a strong graduate student unionization effort this year…. Of course SG isn’t solely responsible for that, but SG has added to the voices and added to the legitimacy of voices calling for those things. I think there’s a huge role there.

CM: SG ended last year with controversy. Some of the advocates of an SG awards program suggested that they would try to bring it up again this year. You said, if I’m not mistaken, that it would not be on your agenda. Where do you stand on that issue, and do you have a sense of whether it will come up again?

EH: That’s correct. That’s not on my agenda. No members of Assembly have brought it to my attention that they would be introducing it again. When it comes to compensating student leaders, I think the Student Leadership Recognition and Access Program (SLRA) is going to push that this year, working with the Committee on Recognized Student Organizations (CORSO) to strengthen that program after trying it out last year. That’s the direction it will go in, for sure, to make that program a resounding success.

CM: You touched on this before, but it looks like graduate student unionization will be a big issue this school year. What role do you think SG can play in pushing that issue?

EH: It is a student-led movement, and I think there’s a role for SG to give students information about what this process is, what a union campaign will look like, and how they can and should get involved and participate. Because the idea of unionization centers around workplace democracy, and that means everyone needs to participate, so all of the teaching assistants and research assistants who are able to vote in the election should participate and do so in an informed way. I think SG can be putting out clear information about that. I also think there will be a role for SG to counter the narratives we’re getting from the administration. There were several emails from the president, provost, and local deans fear-mongering around this idea of a graduate union. I think there is room for SG to be putting out information about it and countering the messages that the administration has been putting out.

CM: Matthew Foldi’s free speech resolution was tabled indefinitely the last time it was brought up. Is there any chance this resolution will come up again this year?

EH: No member of Assembly has brought it to my attention that they plan to introduce that, but they certainly could at any time.

CM: What is your stance on that?

EH: I haven’t read it in six months and haven’t seen the current version that might be introduced, so I can’t comment on that.

CM: Fair point. Last question, in the aftermath of Dean John “Jay” Ellison’s letter, you told us you disapproved of disinvitation. Is there a meaningful difference between blocking a speaker from coming to campus and preventing them from speaking once they have arrived?

EH: On our campus, I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that. I think an example that people often point to is the Anita Alvarez at the IOP, but I don’t view that as silencing a speaker or not allowing her to speak. There were members of the audience who asked her pointed questions that she chose not to engage with. She could have responded, she could have addressed the issues that those members of the audience were raising, and she chose not to. I think as a public figure, I think it is her responsibility to respond. I disagree that something like that is not allowing someone to speak. I think that could have been a meaningful engagement. It was not, I’m going to use a double negative, it was not not a meaningful engagement because of the audience members. It was on the part of Alvarez that it was not a meaningful engagement. But we should still bring these figures to campus, engage with them in whatever way. Disinvitation is inappropriate.

CM: Okay, those were all of the questions I prepared for today. Is there anything else you would like to add?

EH: I would just say that where my vision comes from is, during my campaign I wasn’t just talking to college students. I was talking to graduate students. I met with adjunct faculty, faculty, I was endorsed by union stewards of Teamsters Local, which represents dorm workers, library staff, and academic staff. I have good relationships with the administration, but I have relationships with students, faculty, and staff who actually operate the University on the ground. Those are the people who are really agitating for change. It’s the dorm workers who have been working here for twenty years and still aren’t making a living wage. It’s the admin faculty who are fighting for a fair contract. It’s those people, in addition to students, really motivate me to make change in the lives of everyday people, whether they’re students, faculty, or staff at this university. Connecting the needs and struggle of students tov faculty and staff as well is key to making change on campus. That’s something that I hope to carry with me in SG.

Correction on Oct. 4, 2016, 9:18 a.m. CDT:

The original version of the article contained a handful of transcription errors. When discussing who he spoke to before the election, Holmberg referred to "adjunct faculty," not "admin faculty." Teacher assistants and research assistants will be able to vote in the upcoming unionization election. The resolution regarding UCPD's Independent Review Committee was passed, as well as being introduced.

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