The Student Union piano funding debacle was entirely avoidable
It’s easy to miss the local news these days. With so much going on in the world and with finals rapidly approaching, students understandably have other things on their minds. Small wonder, then, that it was news to many of the first-years I spoke to last week that electric pianos were coming soon to a lounge near them.
Just in time for Hanukkah, Class of 2022 Senator Alex Chang has miraculously squeezed $800 out of $80. That money, much of which was previously designated for next semester’s Midnight Buffet, has gone instead toward two new electric pianos. The Polaris and Shapiro Lounges will be receiving one piano each, along with the necessary accessories — stands, covers, how-to-play books, speakers, headphones, anti-theft systems and so on. Even more astonishingly, Chang somehow managed to do this despite having close to zero support from the student body at large. Let’s back up a bit. How did we get here?
This whole mess started several months ago, after Chang, who ran on the optimistic if clichéd slogan “Chang for Change,” was elected to the Student Union. Since Chang was for change, he naturally had to change something once in office.
Unfortunately, the proposals he ran on — air conditioning for the first-year dorms, for instance — were beyond his ability to follow through with. Seeking to win a small success and build from there, Chang requested pianos in the first-year lounges, thinking that no one could be opposed to such a simple idea.
As Chang quickly learned, nothing in life is free. A potential piano donor was found, but had to be turned down because Brandeis was unwilling to pay transportation and maintenance costs. To avoid these, Chang changed his tactics, suggesting instead to buy electric keyboards which would be easier to transport and would not need to be tuned on an ongoing basis. The only problem was that there was no donor to be found; therefore, the pianos needed to be bought.
With this in mind, Chang and International Student Senator Linfei Yang approached Student Union Vice President Benedikt Reynolds, requesting $800 for the keyboards and related accessories. This is where things went off the rails. Reynolds informed the two of them that all but $80 of the Senate’s $20,000 discretionary budget had already been allocated, mostly to the Midnight Buffet and holiday Turkey Shuttles.
Chang and Yang allege that Reynolds instructed them not to tell the student body about the budget allocations, which they then proceeded to do anyway in two mass emails. Whether or not the emails were fair or unfair to Reynolds, they succeeded in drawing attention to the piano issue, kicking off a firestorm of critical comments on Brandeis Confessions. These comments notwithstanding, on Nov. 11, Chang’s funding proposal was heard in the Student Union and approved by a single vote. The pianos, or more accurately keyboards, have been bought and will likely be installed in the lounges by the end of the semester.
I have to say that, from the time I heard about it, I’ve been opposed to the piano proposal simply because I didn’t think it would do most of us any good. I neither play the piano nor frequent either first-year lounge, so I would rather the $800 have been spent on something I would benefit from — Midnight Buffet, for instance. For better or for worse, I was not consulted.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as if the lounge’s residents were consulted, either. From its inception to its approval, this entire process has been problematic at best and farcical at worst. There is little evidence that the first-years, let alone the rest of the student body, are in favor of the proposal. If they exist, the backers, besides the Piano Man himself, have kept themselves remarkably well-hidden. When I sat down and spoke with him last week, Chang assured me with Trump-esque confidence that many people supported him. As evidence, he cited a petition he had circulated several weeks prior, which he claimed 38 people had signed. It’s important to note that this petition was deleted, and even though I’m sure he was telling the truth, 38 freshmen out of 900 do not a quorum make.
In preparation for writing this, I spent last week in Shapiro Lounge talking to some of these first-years, asking them what they thought of Chang and his proposal. None of the ones I spoke with were supportive. When prompted, they put out several other requests — new furniture, a pool table, a functional TV and bathroom refurbishments, to list a few — that they thought should have taken priority over pianos. New couches, they argued, benefit everyone equally, while pianos only benefit those who can play them, and have the potential to irritate everyone else. After all, the first-year lounges are close to where a lot of people are sleeping, and electric pianos are both loud and easily accessible to inebriated students late at night.
To prevent night music, Chang told me, headphones have been provided, with the instructions that they must be used during quiet hours. Yeah, right.
Finally, I don’t want to put down pianos or pianists, but it seems to me that there are already a handful of others scattered across campus. Clearly, piano accessibility isn’t a crucial issue.
Alas, such discussions should have taken place weeks ago; the money has already been spent. Now that the pianos have been bought, I’m sort of curious as to what they’ll look and sound like. Besides, as much as I hate to admit it, Chang has a point. If we’d spent 800 more dollars on food at the Midnight Buffet, there would be no lasting change to Brandeis. Campus life wouldn’t improve much over a few extra plates of non-Sodexo food. Then again, unlike pianos and/or its dining-hall cousin, non-Sodexo food generally doesn’t unpleasantly wake students up at 2 a.m.
At the end of the day, for good or bad, the pianos are likely to be around for a while. I expect no less from Chang himself, and I have the oddest feeling that I’ll be writing about him again soon. Hopefully, his next big project will have a little more thought put into it, and will be something I can get behind.