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Saturday April 17th

The Interview: New ASG president Atul Bhula is still lacking some substance to his proposals. But he's got the right idea.

The Interview is a new opinion page feature. We’ll have extended interviews with people who affect our community, written by members of the editorial board. Today, Mark Laichena writes about Atul Bhula.

Listening to Atul Bhula, 2010-2011 president for the University of North Carolina’s Association of Student Governments, one gets the feeling that the association is on solid ground.

It certainly needs it. ASG has underperformed through much of its recent existence.

Never really working out how to make the most of the $1 it has collected annually since 2002 from each of the more than 200,000 students in the UNC system, ASG suffered humiliation as its president was charged with assault in 2007. Ignominy continued as some UNC campuses sidelined ASG and others withdrew their delegations.

Greg Doucette, the next and most recent former president, brought stability by serving enthusiastically from 2008-2010, though the results were hardly worthy of the hundreds of thousands of dollars the organization cost students.

So Bhula hasn’t exactly taken on the most popular job in town.

No matter: For the next seven months, he represents the entire UNC-system student body — even if not all students support his role.

Bhula launches into a discussion on tuition when asked about his top priorities, echoing practically all his predecessors by talking about keeping it “as low as possible.”

Reaching what he thinks ASG can actually do takes a little more prodding. He refuses to be tied to any targets quite yet: The organization “is still waiting for output from ASG’s research division” on the potential effect of tuition raises on UNC students, and a tuition subcommittee has just been formed.

It seems that Bhula, an MBA student at Appalachian State University, has embraced bureaucratic organization as the way to carry ASG forward. He says that he could have an action plan by October — so we’ll have to reserve judgement for now.

The ASG president’s main role is representing students to the UNC-system Board of Governors, but “hitting the legislature is a main priority.”

Bhula highlights contingency planning as a challenge ahead. The $750 tuition raise that came from the legislature over the summer blindsided the ASG, which had led a successful but comparatively insignificant tuition petition in the spring.

“So it really shows the power of the state government, and the importance of engaging them.”

There’s a frankness to Bhula’s outlook that is refreshing­ — particularly compared with his immediate predecessor, who engaged in aggressive character attacks through regular blog posts, called “T. Greg’s Tomes”.

Bhula sees a core part of his job as “selling the university.”

It’s a reminder of how big the job is: The UNC system comprises 16 universities and the N.C. School of Science and Math; more than 170,000 full-time students and almost 50,000 part-time students.

“The legislators aren’t hearing enough from students,” he says. “They love talking to students, especially those from the constituencies they represent.”

“ASG can get students there, and make sure they are informed.”

The ASG president is keeping his cards to his chest on the big ideas for connecting students to the state government, but it’s not hard to imagine the options on the table. For Student Day at the Capitol last May, around 30 students went to the legislature: A significantly larger presence during the General Assembly’s long session in the spring might send a strong message.

Bhula indicates he is looking to past projects for ideas. He mentions the Personal Stories project, a book that aimed to put faces on UNC-system students, which was produced during president Amanda Devore’s term in 2004-05.
“You still see it in legislators’ offices,” he said.

Thinking about projects leads us to the $260,000 question: How ASG spends its budget. Many have been critical of officers’ stipends, which range from the $7,000 for Bhula down to $1,000 for the secretary.
Bhula thinks the figures are fair.

“Students working for ASG could be working or interning, so if we don’t compensate them, ASG will only be open to elites who don’t have to work.

“And if officers don’t do their jobs, I’ll fire them,” he adds.

He’s quick to suggest other ways to save money, such as returning to one- or two-day meetings to cut hotel expenses.

And what to do with the saved money? “It’s all about returning value to students by funding for projects that benefit UNC-system students. That’s where the Personal Stories book might come in, and I’m not going to give up on working for campus innovation grants.”

Bhula has answers for the standard criticisms of the ASG, but he doesn’t have an answer for everything.

The ASG president admits that he doesn’t know what similar student associations in other states are doing.

“But that’s a great idea.”

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