Student government exec talk Fence controversy, activities fee, and plans for the semester

The student government executive committee has had a busy first week. They dealt with the controversial vandalism at The Fence, as well as allegations that they had been pressured by administration to approve reductions to the student activities fee without approval from their respective legislative bodies, alongside the typical beginning-of-year initiative launches. In an interview with The Tartan, Govind Menon, Student Body President, Liam O'Connell, Undergraduate Student Senate Chair, and Josh Gyory, Graduate Student Assembly President, explained their plans and priorities moving forward.

Campus was rocked on the first day of classes after an unknown vandal changed the message on The Fence from “Black Lives Matter” to “All Lives Matter,” with "Black" crossed out. The response to the incident started with a Monday Zoom meeting initiated by SPIRIT. According to Menon, over 150 students were in attendance. “We were able to listen to some of the concerns and what the student body is really wanting at this moment in time,” he said, “we got a lot of good insights and ways that we could help from that meeting.”

Later, the executive committee sent out an email to campus Sept. 3, with the subject line “We MUST Do Better.” In the email, they condemned the vandalism as “ a clear display of hate speech and intolerance towards the Black community,” (emphasis in original). They pledged to take appropriate measures “to ensure that an incident like this cannot take place again,” and to work toward a campus that is “actively anti-racist.”

Since the email went out, the student government executive has met informally to discuss actions, but they have had difficulty enforcing the existing graffiti and postering policy. As O’Connell put it, “this incident is really complicated by the fact that it took place on The Fence… if this [vandalism] was done on a wall or on a sidewalk, I think it would be very, very clear cut.”

As of now, the rules that govern The Fence are essentially unofficial, existing outside of student government or university enforcement. “We, as students, can probably name several rules that we think govern the fence,” O'Connell said, but, “a lot of those rules are not codified at all, and aren't in the graffiti and postering policy.”

Because The Fence has been governed mainly by tradition rather than student government or university policy, the “main ideal that we’re all striving toward,” as Menon put it, is to codify the traditions into the postering policy in the student handbook. He added, however, “while we may be leading this effort, I don't think it's fair for us to make these decisions on our own... we really want to get community engagement and feedback on this process, because it's a student tradition. All students and community members should have insight on this.”

Menon says that The Fence incident, alongside the nature of this past summer, has changed his policy approach for this year. Many of the policy proposals he and Emma Cohron, Student Body Vice President, ran on were “very internally focused,” Menon said. Their priorities have now shifted toward collaboration with the “Undergraduate [Student] Senate and the Graduate Student Assembly to collectively try and pursue the goals that students have,” in order to better demand “accountability from the administration.”

Some efforts that Menon and Cohron have started this summer include the launch of a student government newsletter, actions to make “CMU PD more transparent,” as well as “working with students to raise money for Black Lives Matter” and getting “administration to match that crowdfunded total.” They’ve also begun talks with student governments across the country to “form a national coalition for the exchange of resources,” and in the future, pursue a “lobbying arm in Congress to actually bring about some sort of meaningful change at a national level,” Menon said.

Another major effort, Gyory added, has been the pursuit of a university-wide book club, with a focus on “racism on campus, which is a really sensitive and critical topic right now.” They’re currently working with the Provost’s office to try to get the program funded. The book club’s first text will be Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, from Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson.

O’Connell stated that the Undergraduate Senate’s “first and largest priority right now is really just making sure that the undergraduate body has the resources they need for this semester.” To try and ensure that all Carnegie Mellon undergraduates are on “equal footing in terms of access to resources,” O’Connell said, Senate is “using some of our funding to provide funding for undergraduate students who have to pay [for things like] software or art supplies.”

The executive committee also stuck to their decisions to approve a reduction to the student activities fee after The Tartan published an op-ed from Peter Tschofen alleging that Gina Casalegno pressured them to act without approval from their legislative bodies. “I wouldn't say she pressured us,” Gyory said, “there was a tight deadline, so I guess that's where the ‘pressure’ came from.” After the Board of Trustees had approved a ceiling for the student activities fee, Casalegno went to the executive committee and recommended a reduction in the fees to address “the uncertainties of the semester and potentially help students feeling any financial burden,” according to Gyory. He stands by the decision to reduce the fee, adding that the GSA reevaluated their budget over the summer, slashing “large budget items” such as events that were no longer possible due to the ongoing pandemic. The reduced fee, which results in a smaller pool of funding for student organizations, still maintains “pretty high flexibility for student organizations and departments to utilize funds this semester,” Gyory said. “I think it's still gonna be tricky, but we did keep that in mind when we lowered [the fee].”

O’Connell agreed, saying “I don’t think this was a situation of pressure.” He explained that the Undergraduate Senate had “heard from students that it would only be fair to have a student activities fee that was more reflective of the level of activity that would really be able to take place on campus.” No vote was held on the fee reduction in either body, but as Gyory said, there was a “large discussion” at a summer GSA general body meeting before they got back to Casalegno with their decision. O’Connell noted that the Undergraduate Student Senate doesn’t have “any kind of functioning going on over the summer,” so for this decision, the seven-member executive committee of the Undergraduate Student Senate met to gather feedback. The decision was decidedly “not unilateral,” O’Connell said.

“This year is going to be really important for us,” O’Connell stated, adding that student government has “real challenges that have to be faced.”

“All of our collective priority going forward is making sure that people have or are on equal footing this semester, even though we're all remote, and also providing some urgency to the school's efforts into our own efforts relating to diversity, equity and inclusion,” O’Connell said. “Our job should be to really, you know, push very hard towards those both.”