SGO Executive Board & Senate Meeting 12.3.17: Special Election and SGO’s Direction

by Catriona Anderson

Josie Hung ‘19, one of the co-Presidents of SGO, began the meeting by mentioning that her resignation letter to SGO was sent to the Swarthmore Phoenix by a few people, either in the Executive Board or the Senate. The Phoenix had not asked permission for the letter to be published and she had not wanted to make the letter public.

Hung shifted the focus to attendance, which had not been taken since October. She and Pipkin emphasized the importance of showing up, and proposed a Doodle poll for changing the meeting time in case they could get a higher turnout at a different time. Calla Bush ‘19 said that there should be a process for changing meeting time, because she "had to move around her schedule to come to this meeting."

The meeting progressed to presentations by each of the SGO committees.

Ibrahim Tamale ‘20, Chair of Academic Affairs, said that his committee had drafted a proposal to have professors create their syllabi during registration so that students could see syllabi before they register for a class. In addition, he explained that a proposal to modify the pass-fail option (discussed in detail in a previous SGO meeting) is going to a faculty vote either December 8 or December 14.

Umi Keezing ‘19, Chair of Visual and Performing Arts, said that her committee was working on an arts newsletter, connecting various art organizations on campus, and considering adding representatives from student arts groups. An initiative to bring student art to the tunnel to the Matchbox had come to fruition. The committee was also creating a process for approving student proposals for public art and considering holding an event before the end of the semester.

Gilbert Orbea ‘19, reporting for the Constitutional Committee, said that amendments approved by the committee would be discussed during the Senate meeting.

Ivan Lomeli ‘19, the Chair of Student Life, mentioned that his committee had an "interesting opinion" on the special election to replace Hung, Senator Christian Galo ‘20, and himself, who were all resigning at the end of the semester. Lomeli said, "they believed elections should come from within SGO" to improve the image and perception of SGO's turnover rate. However, keeping the election private raised other concerns, such as who would have permission to run. Lomeli himself thought the proposal "a little iffy" and like "editing tax rates while taxes are due." The committee ultimately decided to “table it and turn it over to SGO.” In Lomeli’s opinion, it was "worth mentioning," but should be a low priority on the agenda for the Senate meeting.

Student Life also reported working on a self-care event during reading week and considering combining it with the SGO Winterfest or with the Art committee's event that Keezing had discussed. SGO Winterfest would take over Sci Commons with a table for each committee and activities or food at each. The point team for this event, spearheaded by Hung and Keezing, had offered to do all the work of organizing the event, but they needed one person from each committee to commit to showing up.

The Student Life committee had also discussed their role in SGO, given that most of their responsibilities, such as dining and dorms, were now covered by specific point teams. It was therefore necessary to “clarify the difference between committees and point teams,” in Lomeli’s words.

One area that did not get a point team was mental health. In the previous academic year, a Committee of Mental Health had been proposed. According to Hung, it "didn't make it into constitution; they said they would and they didn't.” Concerns about implementing this committee were raised by Orbea, who pointed out that it would be “logistically difficult” and require “shuffling SGO members around.” Pipkin said, “they didn't even make a plan,” and pointed out that, if the chair of the committee was to be elected with the replacements for the Executive Board members who resigned, SGO would only have 16 hours to envision the role of the chair. Lomeli pointed out that mental health is a “big issue on campus,” and suggested adding it to the responsibilities of his own position, Chair of Student Life.

The Executive Meeting concluded and the Senate meeting was called to order.

The Executive Board members who resigned, Hung and Lomeli, reiterated their resignation and talked briefly about their motivations to do so.

The Constitutional Committee's constitutional amendments were next on the agenda. Orbea explained the amendment to allow senators to vote on amendments. According to Lomeli, this change was current practice, although Pipkin emphasized that under his leadership SGO always followed the letter of the constitution with regard to this matter. The amendment passed by a unanimous vote of the executive board.

Orbea then addressed the Constitutional Committee’s more controversial amendment, which addressed the question of how to fill vacant seats due to resignation. SGO’s current constitution requires a two-thirds vote of SGO members to prevent a student body-wide special election. The Student Life Committee’s proposal was to limit candidates to those who had run for the position in the prior election, past holders of the office, and current SGO members. Only SGO members would be allowed to vote.

Orbea said that the rationale for keeping elections within SGO was that SGO members have already been elected, and that many governments transmit power to the person next down in the chain of command. The challenge for SGO was that no one could be forced to take position, and there was no clear chain of command. In addition, a public election could reinforce SGO's reputation for disorganization and inefficiency.

Only twenty-seven SGO members were present, due to more than half of the Senators being absent, so there was no quorum for a vote. Instead, Orbea announced that there would be a brief discussion. The timeline of the student body-wide election, which would proceed regardless, was an announcement tonight, platforms due Tuesday, and to close voting on Friday.

Tamale said that choosing new Executive board members from within SGO would leave their own positions vacant. Orbea clarified that there would likely be multiple runoff elections to fill all positions, regardless of whether the amendment was ratified.

Catrìona Anderson '20 said, as a student who was not in SGO, that trying to keep the election within SGO to avoid publicizing it to the student body would seem to undermine SGO's stated goal of increasing transparency. Pipkin agreed.

Bush said that keeping the elections private would unfairly “save face” for the SGO members who had resigned. She was concerned that there would be “no incentive for [SGO members] to stay in their positions” and prioritize their work in SGO. In her opinion, “SGO members should face public repercussions” if they choose to resign.

Pipkin was “vehemently against” an internal election but added that he “knows for a fact that no one who is leaving is in support” of internal elections. However, he said that if a runoff election happened, it should be internal. In Pipkin’s view, there should not be a "false dichotomy" between internal elections "like the CCP" (he did not specify what he meant by this acronym) and innumerable public special elections.

Keezing wondered, with regard to allowing past candidates to run, why past interest in SGO without experience would give candidates a greater qualification that those who had recently developed interest.

Ganesh Setty ‘19, reporting for the Phoenix, asked about the rushed timing of the elections at the end of the semester and why they weren’t being put off until the next semester. Hung explained that it would allow the winter break and SGO retreat in January to be used in the transition process.

Thomas Dell ‘20 said, “I see this being a temporary issue” and the only viable “permanent solution” was having a clear chain of command to “save on bureaucratic stuff.” He recommended that the student body vote be a referendum on a chain of command process for filling unexpectedly vacant SGO positions.

Henry Han ‘20, Chair of Internal Affairs, recommended getting “the most qualified applicant whether internal or external,” but “that person is probably from SGO,” so the election shouldn’t be limited to “external people.”

Katherine Capossela ‘21 pointed out that relying on a chain of command to fill vacant Executive Board positions would create a perverse incentive for lower-ranking SGO members to impeach those above. She was in favor of the amendment because it would limit the selection to "qualified" candidates. Jason Jin ‘20 agreed, pointing out that onboarding a new co-chair would take a "very long time." He asserted that SGO was only just finishing the onboarding process and beginning to get stuff done.

Hung pointed out that there are other relevant qualifications besides past membership in SGO. Students who had served on college committees or were involved in affinity groups also had expertise that would be at least as useful to SGO. Maya Henry ‘20 agreed, emphasizing how important it was to “give people on campus a chance,” as well as the broad qualifications that could be helpful to SGO.

The result was no vote, and the student body-wide election plan proceeded.

Hung brought up the next item on the agenda, a check-in regarding SGO and structures within SGO.

Han complained about a low commitment in his point team, of whom only two members out of six emailed him back about a meeting time. “People don't want to get anything done,” he said. “Things don't happen until we take the initiative and start drafting stuff... Point teams are unnecessary,” he added, encouraging SGO members to draft proposals individually.

Pipkin said that one of the big accomplishments of SGO this semester was the creation of flowcharts for campus resources, which would be posted on the Dash.

Hung asked the group, “How come people don't see SGO as a valuable resource and instead as corrupt or useless?”

Pipkin said that “when the administration wants to get something done with student input, they set up their own committee outside of SGO” which undermines SGO’s authority. He thought that the solution was to get admin to go through SGO and to make SGO the default student contact for the administration.

Dell said that SGO does not usually receive credit for the things that it gets done. Orbea mentioned an article from the previous year where he and another 2019 Senator had published in the Daily Gazette chronicling their accomplishments, including holding a study break every other week and working on Pads for Undergrads. He suggested that SGO members be more proactive about using campus newspapers and Facebook to promote themselves and SGO.

Keezing pointed out that seeking credit “goes against the spirit of SGO… We signed up to be public servants.”

Hung said that expansive thinking was needed because SGO often discarded issues because they were “too complicated” or didn’t fit within the narrow agendas of its members. She advised SGO members to “do outreach... don't be like admin and make students come to you.”

Bush said that when she had approached students about how she could serve them as part of SGO, she had heard that  "it's not SGO's job to fix these things." Other students were willing to talk to her “as a person... but not as part of SGO” because they didn’t believe SGO could tackle important issue such as the systemic racism behind environmental justice issues such as selecting sites for incinerators. She thought that publicizing SGO’s accomplishments might bring positive attention to SGO programs.

Henry pointed out that many student groups have been working on the issues previously mentioned and that SGO should reach out to student groups to combine their efforts. Another issue she thought should get more attention from SGO was the freshman roommate survey, which was highly problematic in the opinion of several student groups. She implied that SGO’s support might make the administration take the issue more seriously.

Pipkin emphasized the importance of maintaining a “division of labor between SGO and student groups... we can't set expectations too high and then disappoint.”

Roman Shemakov, the Chair of Student Budget Committee (SBC), emphasized that the role of SGO, as envisioned upon the organization’s 2013 restructuring, was to pressure the administration into providing what the student body had paid for. "All of us, or some of us, pay the $70,000 [total annual cost of attending Swarthmore to a student who received no financial aid]," which to Shemakov meant that “stuff like pads and toilet paper” should be paid for by the school rather than coming from student funding.

The meeting was convened.