The last place Stony Brook commuter Mathew Christoforou would think he’d be on a Friday night is back on campus. He usually at home or at a party, both far away from the Academic Mall, he says.
Only this Friday evening, he is standing outside the SAC waiting inline with more than 700 people, eagerly anticipating the night’s main attraction: a free Immortal Technique concert. This is a change for Christoforou, a junior mechanical engineering major, who says events on campus are non-existent.
“Some schools have a lot of concerts during the year. Students at those schools say it’s awesome,” says Christoforou, before addressing the stark contrast with his Alma matter to be. “I’ve come to expect it to not have many events. It’s Stony Brook.”
But last week that perception changed for Christoforou and for many students at Stony Brook, when, courtesy of the Undergraduate Student Government and the programming of the Student Activities Board, Stony Brook students were given the opportunity to see prime-time comedian Aziz Ansari and rapper Immortal Technique live in concert—both free of charge.
And it’s only the beginning of a semester packed with SAB planned events that include other prominent figures like Christopher Hitchens, Ralph Nader, a $40,000-dollar-comedian and an end of the year concert to be priced at more than $100,000, both soon to be signed.
It’s what the current administration of SAB and USG has been planning for months as it approaches the one-year anniversary of its tumultuous transformation from “old SAB” to “new SAB.”
The 2010 spring semester marked a rapidly growing rift between the members of the old SAB the previous members of USG. At the time, SAB was criticized for largely consisting of members from African-American and Latino Fraternities and Sororities, which in part led to a lack of diversity and outreach in events, critics would say.
The breaking point between the then independently-operated old SAB structure and USG occurred at the end of the last spring semester when there was no clear artist planned for the annual end-of-the-year concert called Brookfest. It was then, through a series of bills and legislation, that USG, specifically through the office of the Vice President of Student Life, coordinated Brookfest.
The old members of SAB felt their voices, opinions and input was not being heard by USG, and thus removed themselves from the planning of the concert. They instead focused their activities on the carnival aspect of Brookfest.
Towards the very end of the spring 2010 semester, USG disbanded the old SAB and centralized the current structure that exists today. The current structure operates with an executive board that includes representation from the Residence Hall Association and Commuter Student Association, as well as a student nominated director, who is in charge of planning events.
For the past few years, the SAB received a budget of roughly $200,000, plus $70,000 budgeted for an end-of-the-year concert, the amount that Moiz Khan allocated for the organization as the USG Treasurer. Khan then resigned and was appointed by USG President Matt Graham as the Student Programming Agency Director. It is currently Khan’s job to plan and coordinate events with the $270,000 allocated from funds paid through the student activity fee.
Since Khan resigned, SAB has received an additional $144,000 in it’s budget, which comes from the closure of ALIRRT, a $20,000 program that would provide students discounted LIRR tickets, and $80,000 from the streamlining of the USG accounting office budget. An additional $30,000 came from an additional readjustment of USG operations.
In another attempt to raise the SAB budget late last semester, students voted 117-101 to raise the student activity fee from $94.25 to $100. The USG Supreme Court ruled against the raise, citing a claim that the vote was not heavily publicized, resulting in a lack of votes and factual errors in the document.
Khan saw this potential increase in activity fees to equate to an extra $163,000 for USG to allocate, money he sought to use for SAB. “Pragmatically, it’s only $5.75. It will legitimately benefit students, either if it’s SAB, which essentially means large events for this semester, or if it’s put in the general fund,” says Khan, who has criticized the vote void, arguing that it sets a questionable precedent.
But thus far, the SAB budget has paid for many of last fall’s events that include the bi-weekly RockYoFaceCase concerts held in the University Café, the student-run Modern Art by Modern Artists show, a mentalist known as Banachek, the Upright Citizens Brigade Touring Company, as well as the $10,000 bill to bring comedian Christian Finnegan and the $5,000 tab to have Indie band Best Coast perform.
But only a quarter of the $404,000 reserved for SAB has been spent, leaving more than $300,000 left for upcoming performers and artists. That’s the plan, at least.
“It’s still incredibly difficult to plan a semester of large events with $300,000,” says Khan.
By dishing out $51,000 for Aziz Ansari, SAB has cemented its philosophy that hosting large, high profile events will foster a unifying, community atmosphere that’s been ever-so-lacking at Stony Brook.
“We’re working so hard this year to build community and pride,” says Graham. “We’ve taken a completely different philosophy. We want to put on these big events that the entire campus talks about, get them hyped.”
Thus far, the events held both in the fall and spring have attracted near capacity crowds, including Christian Finnegan, Best Coast and Banachek.
This coming March, the likes of scientists, political figures and commentators are scheduled to appear at Stony Brook, breaking the short-term tradition of attracting only entertainment. Speakers that include Nader, Hitchens and a slew of New York City based scientists are meant to diversify the events.
But there’s still planning and funding for that too. SAB is pursuing a television-actor and prominent stand-up comic valued at more than $40,000.
The large end-of-the-year concert, which will bill to more than $150,000 including security and booking the athletic complex, will not be named “Brookfest,” breaking a short-term tradition.
Instead, it is likely that it will take the name of the national tour of the prospective artists that SAB is currently pursuing, artists who performed at the Grammys. Due to contractual issues, The Press was asked to withhold the names of these artists.
“I honestly think it’s for the better because we are having these big events that Stony Brook hasn’t had in a long time,” says Graham.
But the access to such events is quite limited. For example, only 1,500 students got tickets to see Ansari perform, leaving more than 14,000 students without a seat or a laugh. Of the 800 people who showed up at the Immortal Technique concert, roughly 100 people, including some Stony Brook students, were turned away after the room reached capacity.
It’s an increasing problem with little growing space, and it’s also one of many.
The largest venue on campus aside from the athletic complex, is the Staller Center, which seats near 1,050. However, Staller is often booked for live performances and events planned months in advance. And even when a show is not taking place, there is often stage construction and preparation for upcoming events, which makes it more difficult to book the venue.
Even areas like the SAC Auditorium, which seats roughly 600 people, are booked many weeks in advance by other clubs and their respective events.
An even bigger curveball to program planning is the administrative paperwork required, from security checks to guests lists and contracts.
“There are not enough events… The main reason is that planning any scale of event is difficult on this campus,” says Khan. “We have lost artists, lost plans, we have paid more money constantly because there are not many venues on this campus, [and] it’s incredibly difficult to lock one artist when there is this whole security check policy that takes too long. It hasn’t been welcoming to anyone.”
One of the biggest delays, and often the reason that USG fails to book a certain artist, is the security check process in which a performer must provide three college events they have previously performed in. The University Police Department confirms with the police departments of each respective university or college and either approves or denies an artist. Recent arrests or charges lessen the chances that an artist will be booked.
This process has stifled SAB operations.
“If you wait 6 to 24 hours on a security check, a particular artist could already be booked by a competing offer,” says Adam Taylor, an employee of Concert Ideas that is contracted to work with USG in coordinating events. “It’s been one of the biggest hurdles at Stony Brook.”
Amy Wallin, who is in charge of security checks from the Student Activities Office, could not be reached for comment.
As SAB approaches its one-year anniversary of its radical transformation under the 2010 Establishment of Student Life Act, the contrast between old SAB and new SAB has been stark, based on the attendance of events.
To put it into perspective, the Immortal Technique concert, was priced at $9,500 for a DJ and three performers, which included the headliner. This event proved to be as successful as last year’s Brookfest concert, which cost $60,000 to bring Wale and Matt&Kim. Roughly 800 people showed up to the Immortal Technique concert, mostly students, compared to the 540 students who bought Brookfest tickets last spring semester.
But the same criticism that was raised with the old SAB has been raised with the current one—it is too exclusive.
“It’s not fair. It’s a small amount of people who are planning the events,” says senior biology major Nadine Peart. “There is no type of communication between the student government and the students regarding events,” she says. Since she was a freshman, Peart was involved in the old SAB as a general body member until it was disbanded. She is now part of the Senior Committee, which plans events for senior students. At the time, Peart says, she was optimistic in the transition, waiting to see how things would pan out.
But after a fall semester of few events, and a denial of Peart’s request for funding of an $8,000 senior formal, Peart founded the Students for Change, a group of discontented students organized to protest against the leadership of USG and SAB at the time. Following the denial of Peart’s formal request, the senior committee’s budget was rescinded for claims made by Khan that its services were repetitive and the committee was not diverse enough.
“I think they are doing a great job planning. It could’ve been more effective if done from the beginning,” says Peart, who says she is pleased with the types of events that have been held but is taken aback by the lack of student involvement in the planning process. “When too much power is in very few hands, that’s almost like a dictatorship.”
In old SAB, each meeting was set up similar to a town hall, where gallery members, around 20 to 30, would vote for each proposed event. In new SAB, there is a small concert committee comprised of less than 15 members, who work on coordinating and planning events with SPA Director Khan.
USG President Graham would agree that the openness has been an issue that hasn’t been heavily addressed. “It’s been a lot a lot of work. We just really wanted to get it done,” said Graham about planning for this semester. “So we haven’t really had the ability to focus in on having a lot committees, input and event planners.”
For junior Kristin Agathos, the change has been for the better. Agathos was involved in the marketing of old SAB and now helps run the new SAB funded RockYoFaceCase showcases.
“The events coming out of this new structure are significantly better than what came out of the old,” said Agathos, who has some reservations as to how the transformation between old and new SAB took place. “SAB was taken down and reconstructed by Moiz Khan and a few USG senators. Now Moiz Khan is in charge of all that money. I don’t know, does that seem corrupt to you? I don’t know.”
“It’s not I’m just sitting here picking every artist I like,” says an agitated Khan days before Aziz Ansari is set to perform on campus. “It’s legitimately a team process. There are some people who understand how to work part of a team and some people who don’t,” he says, dismissing the criticism.
Standing next to Christoforou in line is computer science major Imran Brown. The Brooklyn native who lives on campus has attended just a few USG funded events in his three years at Stony Brook, but already feels that this semester is different.
“It’s been better this year. Definitely. It seems they’re pushing forward for us to have more fun,” he says.
But Brown still believes in the Stony Brook stereotype that it’s difficult to have fun on this campus. But this Friday night, that stereotype was proved half wrong.
“I mean the stereotype is half true, but it’s not as bad as it sounds,” he says. Asked why, he replies: “Because I have Immortal Technique and it’s free.”