City set to formalize College Task Force, giving students new pathway to voice issues

Chase Karacostas

Austin’s first ever College Task Force will soon be finalized, giving students in the city a formal channel to voice their concerns regarding city issues.

City officials are still finalizing the details of the task force, but Bryce Bencivengo, public information specialist senior, said the city hopes to begin meetings for the task force next month. Once formed, the task force will consist of students from UT, Huston-Tillotson University, St. Edwards University, Concordia University, Austin Community College and others.

Work began on the task force in 2015, when the city temporarily created the Student Quality of Life committee with support from Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo to provide a snapshot of student opinions in the city. The commission was purposefully short-lived and served to give students the opportunity to tell the Council about issues they face in Austin.

Suchi Sundaram, UT alumna and former member of the committee, said they discussed issues ranging from campus safety to transportation. As the committee came to an end in 2016, Tovo said one of the suggestions they made to the city was to form a permanent version.

“I thought this would be a great opportunity, not only for the city side to hear our voices … (but), on our side, to allow us to develop a better understanding of the city,” Sundaram said.

Sundaram, University Democrats president Douglas Snyder, Student Government officials and city officials from Austin Youth and Family Services spent several weeks last spring advocating to the Council for the task force.

In May, the city passed a resolution tasking the City Manager to work with local universities and colleges to form a permanent student commission. Recently, the city has been consolidating and shutting down some of their commissions, so Tovo said the widespread support from City Council that the resolution received was especially meaningful.

“Because of the staff time and the community time involved, we are very careful about which commissions we create,” Tovo said. “(This) signifies that a majority of the Council saw it as an important issue and an important set of voices that needed to be heard.”

Snyder, management information systems and government junior, said he started pushing for the task force during the spring because he believed the city needed a better channel from which to hear student concerns. In some cases, Snyder said the city can inadvertently affect the quality of life for students in Austin.

Referencing the recent creation of the Aldridge Place Local Historic District near campus, Snyder said the city accidentally made it harder for new cheap housing or residential improvements to be made in the area, potentially raising the cost of housing for students.

“Even if we are temporary residents, it is still important for us to participate, to be a part of the community, even at the political level,” Snyder said.

While the members of the task force have yet to be selected, both Snyder and SG members pushed for it to be a mixture of students appointed by UT administrators and others selected by SG.

“The commission should be as representative as possible of the diversity of each campus,” said Santiago Rosales, SG chief of staff. “We’re glad that they are doing a mixed model.”

Rosales said he is excited for the task force because it will provide a new pathway of communication between colleges in Austin, allowing them to exchange ideas and solutions to various issues.

“There’s power in knowing people in the city going through similar issues,” Rosales said. “This would be a very institutionalized way that student bodies around Austin are communicating with each other.”