11/13/19, 9:35 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from former USG senator Andrew Machkasov and statistics from Student Engagement and Activities.
Stony Brook University’s Undergraduate Student Government (USG) opened voting on a constitutional amendment at 12 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 11.
A town hall on the referendum was hosted by USG President Shaheer Khan on Wednesday, Nov. 13 in Frey 102 during Campus Life Time. The Election Board will also be available for in-person polling on Wednesday between 2:30-4 p.m. and Friday between 12-2:30 p.m. in the Student Activities Center (SAC) lobby. Voting will be open on SOLAR until Nov. 15.
A campus-wide email announcing the referendum and elections for freshman and senior class senators was sent on Saturday, Nov. 9. The email included a link to a Google Drive folder with an annotated draft with the proposed changes, a final draft of the new constitution and a document describing major changes, in addition to the current constitution.
There are more than 250 footnotes denoting proposed changes, but the most significant proposal is the removal of the judiciary, which oversees impeachments within USG, hears cases involving USG from students and helps to oversee club constitutions.
“I think one of the biggest concerns people have about USG is that we’re too bureaucratic,” Shaheer Khan, senior political science major and president of USG, said. “And we’re adding extra steps for students to kind of get their services. We’re trying to find a way that makes it more accessible, and less, you know, burdensome on students.”
Impeachment oversight under the amended constitution would require support from three-quarters of the executive council and three-quarters of the senate, as compared to two-thirds of the senate and a three-quarters of the judiciary under the current constitution. Oversight of club constitutions would move entirely to the Department of Student Engagement and Activities.
As far as student cases go, footnote 208 in the rough draft of the proposed constitution claims that USG has “historically had issues of violating University policies to … hear cases involving certain circumstances such as Title IX issues or [HIPAA] laws. These can be taken care of by the University administration, and removing USG’s role in such provides us safety from legal liability.”
Khan said that those types of cases should fall to professional staff members, such as the Title IX office or an administrator. Data from the New York State Education Department released last August showed that out of 24 reports of sexual misconduct, domestic violence and other related incidents filed with the university’s Title IX office, only two resulted in some form of sanctions for the respondent, and none resulted in expulsion or suspension.
He explained that more specific Title IX language will be added when USG writes an operation manual, which would replace the current USG Code. A copy is not available on the website.
“So every student-assembled student association, undergraduate student government is obligated by SUNY Chancellor guidelines to have an operation manual,” he said. “USG doesn’t have one, but we will draft one and within that operation manual will have a more detailed Title IX language.”
SUNY guidelines require student government associations (SGAs) to have “up-to-date comprehensive policies and procedures manual. The manual must specifically address the budget certification process, budget changes, procurement and disbursements, a system of bidding and quotes for purchases over a specified dollar amount, travel reimbursement requirements, cash receipt controls, inventory management, and governance requirements,” according to the website.
The “Campus President or designee” is required to annually review the SGA’s policies and procedures, in addition to the SUNY Guidelines, with the SGA’s executive officers to make sure there is “proper understanding of the internal control procedures and requirements enumerated in the SUNY Guidelines.”
It’s recommended that the SGA develop an employee handbook or manual for its employees on policies and procedures, according to the website.
Besides removing the judiciary branch, the proposed constitution would also significantly change election procedures. Candidates running for office within USG would need to win an “excess of votes … for the respective position over those cast for any other candidate.” Previously, candidates needed to receive 50% plus one vote in order to win. If no candidate won that minimum, a runoff election would be held.
Additionally, the number of senate positions would increase from 23 to 25 — 23 at-large senators and representatives for CSA and RHA — in order to gain “broader representation of the student body as a whole.”
The current constitution allows one representative for every “1,000 members of the undergraduate student body of the University in the following Colleges, Schools and collection of Colleges and Schools.” The document goes on to list the College of Arts and Sciences; the College of Business; the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences; the School of Health Technology and Management; the School of Nursing; the School of Social Welfare; the School of Journalism; and the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.
The proposed voting system with mostly “at-large” senators would allow for “broader representation of the student body as a whole, especially for schools which do not meet the 1,000 student mark such as the School of Journalism and the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences,” according to footnote 130 in the edited constitution. The same footnote claims that there’s no system to check the number of students enrolled in each college each year.
The Stony Brook University Fact Book publishes school enrollment for each college every semester.
“In practice, USG Senators do not make policies benefiting only their academic college or represent specific interests of the academic college, so we see little reason to restrict voting based on that category,” footnote 130 in the rough draft document reads. “At-large voting, alternatively, allows proportionate representation of the voters since everyone could vote for every candidate, rather than some positions requiring under 50 votes to win a seat while others may require several hundred.”
Khan said that the change would make “the votes of everybody on this campus equitable.” Students in larger schools and colleges at the university are able to vote for more senators; Khan pointed out, for instance, that some might be able to vote for 10 senators while others might be limited to only three.
“That’s a huge disparity right there, your voice counts three times more,” he said. “But now with everything being at-large senators, even though you’re not voting for somebody who’s in your college, this makes students or people run for senators to advocate for every single student regardless of what major they are a part of.”
Under the proposed constitution, students would also vote for class senators based on their year, rather than their current academic credit standing, as they do now. Currently, class senators are determined based on academic credit standing.
“That’s not representative of who you are. So, by eliminating that structure as well voting for a class, you’re able to vote directly for who you want. It’s a more successful method of voting,” Khan said.
Former College of Arts and Sciences senator Andrew Machkasov, who graduated in May, wrote over Facebook Messenger that “the goal behind the current system isn’t to “limit which students a college-specific Senator advocates for, but rather to set a baseline of what they should be doing at a minimum.”
So for instance, a CAS senator should make an effort to be involved in “CAS shared governance, such as the Arts and Sciences Senate, the CAS Dean’s Advisory Council, the CAS curriculum committee, and more, while communicating between those bodies and students in the college,” he said.
The president would also have the power to appoint a person to fill vacated senate seats within two weeks of the original senator’s departure. The appointed replacement would need to be approved by a three-fourths majority of the executive council, and win a two-thirds majority vote in the senate. In the current constitution, a special election would be held to fill senate positions vacated before Oct. 31.
The Elections Board, an independent agency within USG that oversees elections, would have the added responsibility to ensure that “elections for all clubs, organizations, and entities funded by the USG whose line budgets exceed a minimum of $10,000 function properly and fairly, in accordance with the [USG] Constitution and the respective organization’s constitution.”
According to footnote 229, this is maintained in practice because it’s in the USG Code, but it’s not currently in the constitution. This responsibility is also laid out under the Elections Board’s jurisdiction in the Spring 2019 Elections bylaws, obtained by The Statesman.
Additionally, the new constitution would eliminate the minimum number of office hours that executive council voting members are required to hold per week. In the current version, they are required to hold a minimum of 15 office hours per week, for which they were paid. Now, the stipulation simply reads that they are required to hold office hours. So long as they’re fulfilling “their respective duties and responsibilities,” voting members of the executive council would receive a flat stipend for “duties completed,” rather than hours. Khan said that this would lower the cost of payroll.
“This is to make us legally compliant with New York State labor laws and compensation purposes, since many students work over the constitutionally obligated number of hours, despite extra hours of work being unpaid,” an endnote read.
Senator terms would begin immediately after the end of the spring academic semester, rather than the summer. Terms end with the spring semester in both constitutions.
Khan said that money would be allocated to clubs and initiatives before it is allocated to payroll.
“We don’t have the numbers yet, because we don’t know how many people we’re going to hire next year. But once we have a running list, we’ll be able to provide a more accurate stipend,” he said.
Constitutional amendment positions would be relaxed as well. In the current constitution, an amendment referendum requires either a two-thirds majority from the executive council and senate or a petition with signatures from one-third of the undergraduate student body. The proposed constitution changes the second condition to a petition with signatures from one-tenth of USG members, which Khan said is now defined as any student who pays student activity fees.
Language throughout the proposed constitution is changed to clarify that, although USG provides funding to clubs, it “does not acknowledge organizations.” Under the proposed constitution, it would automatically recognize clubs and organizations with constitutions recognized by the Department of Student Engagement & Activities.
Despite social media posts from USG members this week and the email sent out Saturday, the proposed changes are not well publicized among students.
Statistics from Student Engagement and Activities show that out of the 17,583 emails sent, 9,040 were opened. Twenty out of 21 students randomly interviewed by The Statesman around the Frank Melville Jr. Memorial Library and the SAC did not know about the referendum. One student said they saw the email.
Rhea Manjrekar, a junior computer engineering major, said she didn’t know about the referendum and she doesn’t plan to vote.
“I don’t want to vote for a policy or someone that I don’t necessarily believe is going to happen,” Manjerkar said.
Thor Hawrey, a Stony Brook graduate and former USG associate justice, called the referendum “sad.” He criticized lumping all the amendments together as a package.
“Students are forced into sacrificing a whole branch of the student government which is designed to serve them and keep the rest of USG accountable (and so far has been the only branch which has done so effectively – see last semester’s Supreme Court decision) for other incredibly important changes such as improved language furthering equal opportunity,” he wrote via email.
He added that students should be given at least a semester to review the changes.
“In order for students to fully review and pass judgment on the changes, USG is currently requiring them to put classes, classwork, personal health, and sleep on hold,” he said. “Simply not enough time or notice was given to the students to make this a fair referendum.”
Hawrey acknowledged that USG “badly” needed to amend its constitution, but criticized the student government for packaging “good and useful amendments” with “absolutely terrible and corrupt amendments such as the abolition of the Supreme Court.”
“\What’s worse is that students cannot individually vote for amendments,” he said. “They have to vote on all of them as a package. I find this to be incredibly concerning.”
Maya Brown, Samantha Robinson, Sara Ruberg and Taylor Beglane contributed reporting.
Clarification, 11/13/19 9:35 p.m.: A previous version of the article did not mention that the Elections Board currently oversees elections for clubs and organizations with USG funding exceeding $10,000, as dictated in the USG Code and the Spring 2019 Elections bylaws.
A previous version of the article also quoted a footnote that said the current impeachment process requires approval from two-thirds of the senate and a majority of the judiciary. The article was updated to reflect that it requires approval from three-quarters of the judiciary.