The Student Government Association (SGA) hosted a policy roundtable with State Comptroller Peter Franchot, who serves as Maryland’s chief financial officer, at Shriver Hall on Wednesday. At the event, Hopkins students from groups including the Black Student Union (BSU); Multicultural Leadership Council (MLC); and SGA’s Policy, Research and Development Commission (PRDC) shared their perspectives on sexual violence, gun violence and mental health on campus and in the Baltimore community.
In an email to The News-Letter, SGA Executive President AJ Tsang stated that Franchot’s office reached out to SGA asking if they would be interested in organizing a roundtable as part of the Comptroller’s ongoing series of listening sessions with college students across Maryland. Tsang elaborated on the roundtable’s objectives.
“Our primary goal was to provide a platform for representatives of civic advocacy and student representative organizations to raise their voice on both campus-specific and Maryland-wide issues to the Comptroller, who plays an integral role in setting economic policy for the state,” he wrote.
Franchot’s chief of staff, Len Foxwell, expressed the importance of the Comptroller’s duties at the roundtable.
“We’re known primarily as a tax collection agency, but the Office of the Comptroller is far more diverse and interesting than that,” Foxwell said.
Franchot noted that his position gives him the ability to interface with various offices.
“Everybody answers the tax collector phone call,” he said.
Tsang added that SGA members sought to help students foster relationships with Franchot. Tsang said that since Franchot is a state official, he could amplify students’ voices as a statewide official on issues like the planned private police force, University tax policy and environmental sustainability.
Franchot began by outlining his history in Baltimore government. After serving for 20 years on the Maryland House of Delegates, he ran for Comptroller, thinking that he would lose and be able to retire. He won in 2006 and has since been re-elected for three more terms.
Foxwell initiated group discussion by asking students in attendance whether they feel safe on campus.
Richard Elliott, a graduate student in the Department of Political Science, said that although he felt safe on campus, he was concerned about security at the Garland Hall sit-in. As an undergraduate, Elliot founded UMBC Progressives, a group that intends to effect political and social change at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) and in the surrounding Baltimore community.
“At first, it was regular HopCops. Now there’s armed policemen. Somebody came in from the fucking military. The escalation shows that Hopkins is not going to stop. If they already had the armed police force, they probably would’ve acted more belligerently,” he said. “Hopkins has an interest in building a greater empire within Baltimore City.”
In response to Elliott’s concerns, Franchot characterized the role that the University plays in the state’s economy.
“It’s good that they employ a huge number of people. The problem, as far as I can know from your perspective, is that they link up with the machine. They have to in order to get anything passed. They have to be on good relations with the Annapolis machine, a Democratic machine and the City Democratic machine,” he said. “Both of those two entities — 50 percent of what they do is terrific, 50 percent of what they do is corrupt.”
Elliot argued that reforms like limiting the number of terms the leadership in Annapolis can serve could help reduce these problems.
Franchot attributed the difficulties that many college students in Baltimore experience to corruption in regional politics.
“A lot of the issues that you are concerned about — not being listened to, not being taken seriously, things happening way too quickly… happen because the system is so out of kilter with normal checks and balances,” he said. “What Richard is talking about is a subject ripe for Hopkins students to take a look at because it breeds the behavior that you resent.”
MLC President Kendall Free, who is also the incoming president of the BSU, said that though does not feel unsafe, she has concerns about some of her friends. Free recounted seeing students being racially profiled from Campus Safety and Security guards as they tried to enter buildings on campus.
According to Free, alumni who graduated 30 years ago told her they experienced the same issues.
“It’s kind of scary that these issues are still continuing, especially when you factor in the fact that someone could have a gun in this confrontation,” she said. “I don’t have that much confidence that anyone from the University could handle that appropriately because it’s already handled inappropriately when it’s just security guards in these interactions.”
Free views sexual violence as the biggest safety concern for the student body. She clarified that sexual violence is a threat internal to the student body, not a threat external to the University that an expanded police presence on campus could remedy.
“Personally, my biggest safety concern would be sexual assault and sexual violence,” she said. “That’s not something that a private police force could directly address or prevent.”
Freshman Grace Wang, a policy adviser on SGA’s PRDC, echoed Free’s concerns, with which Franchot sympathized. She endorsed enhancements to training programs and information about sexual violence, along with appropriate punishments for perpetrators.
Wang added that she has observed support for a private police force from parents of new Hopkins students.
“Things like a private police force sound really appealing to new, prospective students and parents who are sending their kids off for the first time,” she said.
Foxwell identified two primary causes of gun violence, and related these to specific issues facing Hopkins students.
“One is access to guns,” he said. “The other is mental illness. I bring it up because you walk through this campus, and there are so many people facing so much stress.”
Franchot said he was willing to hear suggestions as to what his office could do to help. He added that he wanted the University and Baltimore stakeholders to listen to the concerns of Hopkins students regarding the planned private police force.
“The bill was passed. The question is whether Hopkins moves forward with it,” he said. “It’s important to continue dialogue because obviously the University can make all sorts of adjustments. Why shouldn’t they? You’re the customers.”
Franchot also mentioned that he would be open to discussing the planned private police force with Maryland Governor Larry Hogan.
Tsang commended the roundtable discussions.
“Overall, I think the roundtable was quite productive,” he wrote. “It seemed like the Comptroller was more than willing to come back to Hopkins in the future and continue hearing and supporting student voices and viewpoints.”