By Nick Batson and Jodie Mann
A huge challenge faced by any event planner, like the director of Stony Brook University’s Special Programming Agency, is managing to find the time and space appropriate for any event.
Jackie Cowles, this year’s SPA director seemed well prepared for the challenge. After working with RockYoFaceCase for several semesters, Cowles knew the amount of work required for successful events on a college campus. The SPA director is the one and only organizational position in the Student Activities Board, and is responsible for pitching and planning large, expensive campus events, like last year’s Bruno Mars concert. The position also involves coordinating relationships with other campus clubs that want to plan events on campus but need funding assistance from SAB’s roughly $530,000 budget.
“I chose to apply for the job in SAB because it was event planning, much like the work [I had] experience with,” Cowles said.
While her event planning skills lined up with what the USG job would involve, Cowles was still hesitant to apply.
“With RockYoFace, it’s a very organic, natural and raw environment,” Cowles said. “I never pictured myself working for USG, because it’s so different.”
The challenges associated with planning events on campus often mean dealing with an administration that has a history of imposing difficulties on student event organizations, like forcing expensive and excessive security measures that USG has no control over.
Former SPA Director Moiz Khan can testify to this.
“Our biggest challenge was a bunch of people in administration who weren’t very fond of taking risks,” said Khan. “My approach has always been slash and burn, and if someone gets in your way, then you steamroll them.” This ideology feeds into Khan’s reputation and w\career with USG. Along with others—like former USG Executive Vice President Alexander Dimitriyadi—Khan advocated for the controversial 2010 Establishment of Student Life Act that completely restructured SAB and created the SPA Director position. Khan himself would later serve as the first SPA Director.
He is quick to highlight that administration’s adversarial stance is nothing new. “I met some people at an event last semester who worked on the concert series back in the 70s and 80s, and the first thing they told me was how difficult it was working with the administration.”
Cowles found herself in for an even more complicated situation when she learned the spaces and dates reserved by SAB for the fall and spring semesters did not match up with the events the student body would be most interested in.
“We had one concert on a Sunday night because it was the best we could do,” Cowles said of last semester’s Chiddy Bang concert. “It was out of my hands.”
Another potential concert featuring Manchester Orchestra had to be completely scrapped because the only available space was the Student Activities Center auditorium, where students would have to remain seated throughout the show.
“That’s not the kind of show I would want to go to, so I wouldn’t have expected students to want to go either,” Cowles said. “It’s not a good concert atmosphere.”
Khan offered an explanation for this, stating that the system in which events are booked on campus is to blame.
“You don’t book a room for a concert, and then try to book the artist. That’s not how it works,” said Khan. “What you do is you find an artist that people want, and then you find a date that works for them, not the other way around.”
According to current policy, the SPA Director will book venues on campus and dates for events a year ahead of time. This leaves the next SPA Director with the task of finding artists to fill those spaces during those pre-determined times, which can be difficult. SAB, despite being an arm of USG, is still technically a university club and is allowed no preference when it comes to booking venues like the SAC Ballroom or the Sports Complex.
While Cowles is proud of the events she helped coordinate, her biggest regret is that she could not secure an alternative rock band for any date. As a big fan of the genre, Cowles said she would have loved to host an event that featured one of her personal favorites, like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. But divisions within USG over the band’s relevancy, and their massive $150,000 price tag, kept them off the table.
“I’d rather have a sold-out show than a band that I love,” she said. “There’s so much diversity among music tastes so it’s really hard.”
Cowles hopes that whoever takes over her job in the future has fewer issues with planning. Cowles secured as many dates as she could for next year to make it much easier for her successor. She also hopes they will have an actual agency to assist them because, as it stands now, the SPA Director has only a contracted assistant to help with all of the organizational duties, alongside the planning and carrying out of concert ideas. The contracted assistant position, currently held by graduate student and co-founder of RockYoFaceCase Patrice Zapiti, will only exist next year if USG decides to extend the contract.
“I wish I had more people working with me,” Cowles said. “Hopefully that’ll happen in the future.”