CMU students must open conversation with Student Government regarding accountability

The Tartan has dedicated significant space to the political process this year, for both national elections and the student body ones occurring here at Carnegie Mellon. However, while we often talk about the effect of policy, we rarely talk about what the responsibilities of an elected official are and how they affect the campus community.

Elected student officials have two obligations: to follow Student Government’s rules and to advocate for the student body that elected them.

The first obligation to the bylaws serves three purposes. The first is that this is an important check on the bylaws and constitutional requirements of the Student Government. By following its own rules, student government representatives can understand the burdens and costs these rules place on other students. This asymmetry created when they do not follow the rules makes it harder for Student Government to advocate for students and for students to trust the government’s actions.

The second is that organizations deserve predictability and consistency, which they look to Student Government to provide. When officials violate their own bylaws, it has the potential to burden students’ organizations with unexpected consequences, and it becomes harder for them to fulfill their purposes. The third is that, should Student Government officials violate bylaws, it constitutes an argument from the government itself that the law needs exceptions. This means the government ought to look into changing the rule entirely rather than just breaking it. Otherwise, the rule loses authority.

Student government officials are also obligated to advocate for the student body with the power afforded to them in the Constitution and bylaws. Officials are put in power with students’ votes, meaning students’ interests should be the goal of the government. When Student Government officials fail to advocate for students, they reject the nature of their own job.

Yet democracy is not a one-way street. The student body also has two duties. The first is to be well informed, active participants in the voting process. With student government elections just wrapping up, this obligation has recently been center stage.

A second, less frequently discussed piece of the process is our responsibility to hold student government accountable throughout their term. As we look towards the future, it seems like an important time to look back at an example of why these obligations are important and how to give students recourse.

The first time most organizations heard about the 2016 Student Organization Summit (herein referred to as Summit, not to be confused with CMU Summit, an event hosted by the Chinese Student Scholar Association) was through an email that threatened de-recognition for the organization should they fail to attend. The Committee on Student Organization (CoSO) Bylaws state that “CoSO is expected to accept applications for re-recognition from groups whose complete and accurate application demonstrates a continuing pursuit of their stated primary purpose,” and make no mention of an event like Summit in the definition of a complete and accurate application. Although the bylaws seem to make it so that Summit could not be grounds for derecognition, many students were not familiar with the bylaws and took this threat seriously, resulting in confusion and panic among those dedicated to the organizations. Students who were not free on Valentine’s Day, did not expect this threat, missed the email, or plenty of other occurrences that were not their fault suddenly felt their organizations were on the chopping block.

While student organization leaders may not know the bylaws and inner workings of CoSO, were taught about the re-recognition proccess by their predecessors. A drastic change to the process needs to be handled carefully because it can cause difficulty for an organization, and confusion that would hurt the organization’s ability to pursue their goals.

Many organizations were greatly confused by the transition surrounding Summit. Beyond the turmoil surrounding the derecognition threat, there was confusion about whether Summit was in addition to the re-recognition process as per usual or whether it replaced the process entirely and about who the change applied to. Traditionally the re-recognition process for mature organizations, which are organizations that have been on campus for seven years or more, is separate from the process for young organizations due to their different needs. Summit lumped certain young organizations who were working through the standard procedure but had not yet finished getting re-recognized in with a subset of mature organizations.

This situation becomes more troubling when one realizes that, as explained by a source within CoSO, “much of the reason [young organizations] weren’t re-recognized during the fall was because CoSO wasn’t doing it’s job properly. They weren’t finishing up. They weren’t meeting with these organizations properly and weren’t discussing these organizations in a timely manner.” This ended up applying inconsistent standards to young organizations applying for re-recognition based on whether CoSO managed to have time for them in the fall or not, and punishing organizations who got lost in the process with a sudden move for things that were not their fault.

In the end no one was derecognized for their inability to attend Summit, which indicates that the threat was empty to begin with. This means the letter of the bylaws was not directly violated, but the spirit of them was and it is quite possible that the trust of organizations was. They were threatened with a serious punishment for failing to do something not central to their purpose on campus. This is not fair to those organizations and certainly not advocating for them.

In addition, while no one was de-recognized, organizations were put on probation for failing to attend the event on Feb. 14. Probation can cause significant inconveniences for organizations based on the consequences assigned by CoSO and, more simply, can scare and confuse an organization. When their organizational efforts are focused on figuring out why they were on probation, this can take time and resources away from an organization’s function.

The other problem with probation is that the burdens on organizations to avoid it are well-defined. According to the CoSO Bylaws Article VII, Section B, “Criteria for Recognition Probation include 1. Repeated and/or egregious failure to meet the expectations placed on Student Government Recognized organizations, as described in the Carnegie Mellon University Student Body Constitution (herein referred to as the Constitution); 2. Decrease in membership to less than eight (8) members of the student body.” Those responsibilities, according to Article VI Section D the Student Body Constitution include a requirement to “1. Notify [CoSO] regarding any change in name, mission, or purpose; 2. Notify [CoSO] regarding any change in contact information for officers of the organization; 3. Pursuit of the organization’s primary purpose and goals, in the form on record with the Committee on Student Organizations; 4. Adherence to [the bylaws and constitution of Student Government, the university, and the organization].”

These are the ground rules and expectations that have been laid between Student Government and organizational officers. Violating these expectations by placing burdens on them outside of this scope is both a failure of Student Government to follow its own rules and harmful to the organizations.

Of course, the Constitution is a living document that can be amended if a branch of Student Government wishes to change its policies. This process, however, is intentionally structured to ameliorate the issues stemming from a big change, many of which are described above. No amendment was passed.

Summit is only one example of an issue the Student Government and student body need to have a dialogue about. With elections wrapping up, the vast majority of the voting that will happen already has. However, going forward, the next Student Government has important considerations to make regarding how to keep itself accountable to its bylaws and responsibilities.

The first is fiscal transparency of Student Government actions. This makes it easier for students to see how Student Government money is used. This will both improve campus knowledge of various funding sources and what they are used for and create accountability for Student Government officials to use their funds within the scope of the existing rules.

The second is better avenues of protest through governing bodies like Student Senate and the Graduate Student Assembly. Organizations should have been able to challenge the derecognition threat or probationary period in regards to Summit, and they should also be able to challenge actions by the Student Government they feel to be wrong as a whole.

Senate and GSA are representative bodies and have knowledge of how Student Government processes work, making them a good check on the actions of the Student Government Executive Branch.

With these and perhaps other new measures in place the student body will have the resources it needs to uphold its end of the bargain.