By Charly Himmel
There are not very many places on campus that Brooklyn College students might affiliate with total autonomy besides the Student Center. Over the last fifty years, the Student Union Building Organization affectionately known as SUBO has provided shelter from text anxiety, a place where students can relax, have a bite to eat, a cup of coffee, play video games, hear keynote speakers or meet with like-minded club members.
“Because we own the building,” CLAS President David Rosenberg explained, “we’ve been able to control the space and make sure that it really is a space where we can go relax and not think about school.”
But with upcoming plans to transfer ownership of the building, Rosenberg fears that autonomy might change.
SUBO was built in the 1960’s, and has operated under an independent, not for profit corporate entity called the Brooklyn College Student Services Corporation (BCSSC) since.
The board is comprised of fourteen members, eight administrators including one ex-officio member, and six student government representatives. The seven administrators include President Karen Gould, Assistant Vice President/Comptroller Alan Gilbert, Assistant Dean Vanessa Green, Associate Provost for Academic Programs Sharona Levy, Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration Joseph Giovannelli and others. Student government board members include the CLAS, SGS and GSO presidents.
“It’s not as if it’s a totally independent corporation,” said SVP Giovannelli. “It has certain overlaps with the college.”
This board is responsible for administering student activities, and collecting student fees, including student activity fees and revenue from outside rentals.
“That’s not a very typical model,” said Giovannelli. “The problem with that model is if you’re going to have a corporation that owns an important asset like a building, it has to invest in that building over time or it will fall down.”
Herein lies the problem. Over time, SUBO has begun to deteriorate. The cost of maintenance includes major expenses, such as outdated elevators, electrical and heating issues.
“The situation got very bad last year where the building’s insurance company said, unless you make certain fixes, behind the scenes stuff, this was in the heating system and the electrical system, we won’t write insurance for you and we wouldn’t be able to operate the building in that case,” said Giovannelli.
At the risk of losing the building’s insurance policy, BCSSC has proposed to transfer ownership of SUBO to the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York. According to Giovannelli, all other Brooklyn College facilities under DASNY’s ownership are entitled to capital moneys from the state. These funds would allow SUBO to continue operating up to code.
“The issue is not day-to-day maintenance,” said Giovannelli. “The issue is, where do you get five million or six million dollars from to redo the electric and the plumbing systems?”
For Rosenberg, transfer of ownership is not the issue.
“I have no problem with the dormitory authority taking ownership of the building provided that students still maintain control of it,” said Rosenberg. “It was always owned by the corporation, but the corporation is controlled by students in that we control the votes… To do anything on the board, a majority vote is not good enough. You need a two thirds vote, and so you do need some students to be on board in order for anything to go through.”
He cited BC’s plans to hire twenty new faculty and seven to ten advisors over the next few years. And with future plans to demolish Roosevelt and packed offices in Boylan, Rosenberg fears a restructuring of SUBO that would change the face of it altogether.
“What we’re scared of is that if the administration takes full ownership of the building, that students will no longer control how the building is used…I think that someone might come down the road and use the student center for office space,’ Rosenberg said. “So what we’re asking for before this transfer goes through is a guarantee from the administration in terms of putting it in the language of the resolution, that even if the ownership of the building changes, use of the building still must go through the students.”
But Giovannelli assures there is no cause for concern.
“Right now, the only issue is this question of ownership,” said Giovannelli. “SUBO maintains the building now, SUBO takes the student fees, has a three or four person staff who maintain the building, that would all continue unless the committee wanted to change any of that. But our feeling is, that’s not really a problem. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”
The future of SUBO remains uncertain. Future BCSSC board meetings to discuss transfer of ownership have been scheduled for later this May. But Rosenberg has his trepidations.
“No one’s been willing to say they want to give us the language. We’ve been told, ‘no, students already control the space we’d never do that,’ but no one has been willing to say, ‘fine, we’ll put it in the resolution,’” he said. “And that’s what we’re looking for, a written guarantee, in the bylaws, that even if students no longer own the building, students are still the ones that control how the building is used.”