Compiled by Emma Harris, Alek Lewis, Alex Bakirdan and Brianne Ledda
In a town hall with the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) on Wednesday, Nov. 13, President Shaheer Khan and other USG members answered questions from five Statesman reporters about the proposed changes to the constitution, implemented on Friday, Nov. 15. Two students attended, but did not participate.
The Statesman livestreamed the event, which is currently posted on Facebook. Highlights from the conversation, edited for readability and clarity, are included below. A full transcript of the event is available here.
A lot of students expressed that they couldn’t vote on individual amendments. Why wasn’t it packaged that way?
Khan: I think it would overwhelm the voting system we use right now. If we had to make 250 yes or no tabs on SOLAR, I don’t think people would vote. That’s a hassle, period. On top of that, if you look at some of the footnotes in our constitution, because we are adding and removing clauses, a lot of them just fix the clause numbers. Would students want to vote on every single individual change to the constitution? I think it was better to make it one broad based election, where students have the option to read documents. Cheat sheets were made so that students can get a more concise version of the constitution. And also, there have been promotional materials out both on Facebook and Instagram. There’s information provided and ultimately the students have the right to vote yes, and the students have equal right to vote no. So I think that it’s balanced.
Note: There were 264 proposed changes.
How long have you guys been working on implementing these changes?
Khan: We haven’t implemented any changes yet. We’ve been working on this version of the constitution since we got elected into office. So I’ve been informed about the different issues within USG, like day one after spring elections, but I made the executive council aware at the start of the summer. So we’ve been in constant communication, not just with executive council, but also our advisors and Christine Marullo, as well as our administrative director, Rayna Simon … On top of that, we provided the constitution to our legal counsel and we gave this out during the senate meeting. It was a sheet with specific recommendations as to where USG is not compliant with New York State law, and where we have to change that. So we’ve been working on this for about five, six months. It’s very deliberate, it’s very cautious and very articulate in the sense that we didn’t want to make changes that were rash.
When were students notified that they were going to be voting on this referendum?
Khan: The students were notified, I believe. I think the information was sent out Friday. We released the constitution to the senate the Thursday before.
Note: The email was sent on Saturday, Nov. 9. Voting opened on Monday, Nov. 11 and closed on Friday, Nov. 15.
If it took five to six months to work on these changes, why were students only given about a few days to review these changes before voting on them?
Khan: The changes were released during senate meetings. So any students who attended senate meetings could’ve asked for the constitution and we could have provided that information. And we do understand that the time frame is very limited, but what we were waiting for ultimately was the final word on the final draft of the constitution from the lawyers to make sure that our language was inclusive and in compliance with New York State law. So I think that the nature of bureaucracy really slowed us down. In that sense, we would have ideally liked for this information to go out to the student body a lot earlier, but we were restricted in factors that we really couldn’t control.
If that is the case, why not give a longer voting period?
Khan: The election timeline is actually voted upon by the election board, which is a separate entity outside of the USG senate and executive council. We want to make sure that there is a division between the elected members and those who control elections because if they’re combined, there might be a conflict of interest where the people who are being voted upon control how elections are actually run, which shouldn’t be the case. So I think that because the elections board already set the deadline for not just the constitutional referendum, but for the senators that were running for senior class rep, freshman class rep, we really couldn’t interfere with that. It wouldn’t be fair to the candidates that have been petitioning and then also going out and campaigning for themselves. Ideally, if we had the chance to be like, yeah, let’s push back elections two more weeks, we would have done it.
You said that you’ve known that you were going to make changes to the constitution since day one, but we had an Associate Justice tell us that he was blindsided by the changes. Why weren’t they notified?
Khan: They weren’t notified when we were actually making the changes but once the first draft was made, we actually had a sit down meeting with multiple members of the judiciary, whoever was free to come, and we were able to break down and articulate the reasons why some of these changes were being made. A common perception of the judiciary is that they always seem to remain outside the operation of both the executive council and the senate. The executive council and senate try to make it a point to be in contact with each other and to make sure that at the very least we remain accountable. But the judiciary is often not a part of senate meetings, nor are they part of executive council meetings. So the functional operation of USG is not really known by the judiciary. So it was really trying to make sure we get the entities who had been working with USG as a running organization and really think about it systematically. Not saying that judiciary was not capable of that, they just weren’t involved in that process.
Why were the guidelines for the constitutional amendment referendums relaxed? So rather than requiring approval from two-thirds majority of the executive council and senate, or petition with signatures from one-third of the undergraduate student body, the segment requiring signatures from one-third of the undergraduate student body was changed to a petition with signatures from one-tenth of USG members.
Khan: Students now have a better opportunity to canvas to their student body, to petition and then make that change directly within USG and then put that thing on the ballot. One-third of the Undergraduate Student Government is about 6,000 students. That’s insane, expecting a student to be able to get 6,000 signatures. By bringing down the number to one-tenth, students now have to get 1000 signatures.
Didn’t the constitution say that the signatures only need to be from USG members, not the student body?
Khan: We’re all USG members. All undergraduate students at the university that pay the undergraduate student activities fee shall be members of the USG. So the Undergraduate Student Government, anybody who pays into the student activities fee, is now a member of the USG. That means you have access to all the resources that students have, USG members have, currently. I think that’s where the issue is. For some reason, we see that, you know, the people who are working in USG are separate from the actual students. Meanwhile we’re kind of on the same boat. We’re providing experiences and we’re trying to bring in as many people as we can to be part of that shared decision making. So, you know, that’s why we had the rationale to bring down the number of petitions that any Undergraduate Student Government member needs to be able to put something on the ballot. Again, it’s making student participation a lot more easier.
Could it be confusing, if you’re reading the constitution, to know whether you’re referring to the student body or to the student government when you’re calling both USG?
Khan: That’s fair. We can identify who’s an Undergraduate Student Government member because you’ve paid the activities fee. There are some students that request waivers for not to pay the student activities fee. So in that sense, you know, then we have to be cautious as to who gets into, you know, the different events that we hold, or who gets to be covered under our insurance policies. These are really the reasons why we use the language that we do. It’s to make sure that we’re compliant with who we represent.
Do you mind elaborating on the insurance policies?
Khan: So that’s separate from the constitution, but yeah, at the end of the day, we host large events, we fund clubs that have different level of activity. They go on trips too, you know, there are a lot of clubs. We have to make sure that we keep our students safe. So that’s the reason why we have insurance.
Other SUNY schools have a similar structure in their USG governments, and they all have judicial branches. So can you explain why you decided that you want to get rid of the judicial branch, even though all these other schools have elected to have it?
[Note: It’s not clear whether every single SUNY school has a judicial branch, but SUNY Buffalo, Binghamton and Albany do.]
Khan: Yes, other SUNY schools definitely have judiciary branches, but we have to see how we’re operating and whether that operation works. The old method, the old responsibilities for the judiciary was one, to conduct impeachment cases and two, to review the constitutions of clubs and organizations. In regards to clubs and organizations constitutions, we already have Student Engagement and Activities that handles that and we have an SSC committee that just focuses on the funding. So that removes one facet of what judiciary members are doing. On the second half, in regards to impeachment, the most recent one was an impeachment of judiciary. In regards to how the student body votes, they vote directly for the executive council members and senators. But there is no real check, nor is there student representation within the judiciary board itself. So how does a student make a decision on legal matters when they don’t really understand what the students’ best interests are?
[Note: Khan is referring to a judiciary case last semester. A senator sued the judiciary to overturn a senate confirmation of the chief justice, on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. The judiciary unanimously agreed that the confirmation was unconstitutional, because it was held more than a year after his judicial appointment. The previous constitution required chief justices to be confirmed within the academic year they were appointed. The chief justice was subsequently removed from his position.]
Vice President of Academic Affairs Justin Ullman: So the main difference between us and other SGAs is that we are a nonprofit corporation, a 501(c)(3) organization, which is federal tax exempt. So us as an organization, we also mentioned have a significantly larger yearly budget and we have to be accountable like a business. So, our organization is handling this amount of money. No penny should be wasted and our end goal should be to reach 100% operational efficiency and get rid of large amounts of waste.
So you’re saying that Stony Brook’s USG has a significantly larger budget than other schools?
Khan: No, we know that University of Buffalo has a larger budget. So we wouldn’t say we have the largest budget out of the SUNY system. But a $3.7 million budget is huge. Just this summer, we had the privilege of going to a national conference, in which we were able to hear the different stories of other student governments. And some governments only have the budget of you know, $20,000 for the semester.
So why can these other schools afford judiciary branches, but we can’t if we have a large budget?
Khan: It’s not that we can’t afford it. We can afford it. We can continue to spend money on the judiciary branch. But if the output is not directly impacting the students, and it’s just a hindrance for students to receive a service, then why are we paying into it? The job itself sometimes required judiciary members to sit in the judiciary office. Not really having cases come in, not really conducting impeachment, not really doing much. So that just seems like a waste of money. Because at the end of the day, even if work is not being done, if they’re in the office, we are still required to pay the staff. $10,000 can fund 20, 30 extra clubs on campus, it can be another trip for us to attend.
One of the major criticisms that we’ve heard from people, is that people are afraid this could topple the checks and balances on the student government, which some argue is more important because you guys operate such a large budget. And among those student services, wouldn’t that include a student’s ability to go to the judiciary to propose cases if they have issues or they encounter a problem?
Khan: I’m glad you bring that up. So yeah, there were times where people would come to the judiciary to talk about conduct issues, whether it be you know, matters that should not be handled within USG and something that has to do with discrimination, hate speech, anything that is not directly related to USG’s funding. There’s no reason that USG should be operating cases in that regards. That authority should be given to administration, it should be given to the Title IX office, because they are trained professionals that know how to deal with these types of topics. Would you be comfortable with students being able to make judgments based on issues as serious as discrimination? I think that’s really the rationale.
Let’s say it’s something not as major as that, something smaller, like students feel that a club is abusing its power, or they feel that a club is not following its constitution. Who would they bring that to, if not the judiciary?
USG Treasurer Adrian Ortega: So Christine is the Director of Student Engagement and Activities, and they do deal with constitutional issues, if a student does have an issue with a club abusing against the constitution.
Announcements posted by USG, such as the one on Facebook, encouraged students to vote yes for the referendum. Do you think that’s appropriate? And do you believe that USG should try to remain unbiased, since it’s hosting the election?
Khan: Understood, and that’s a good point. That is a really ethical question. And we can open discussion to that if, in general, it seems that it’s more ethical for USG to remove language that says vote yes for the Constitution, then as USG’s primary account holder, yeah, as the USG’s official Instagram page, we can remove any language that says vote yes. However, what we what we would continue to do is put up the flyers that says that the current constitutional referendum is coming up. Now, one thing I see is that there are elected members of USG that function as USG members, but are also individual students with their own voices. So then this also brings up that question that if a student is, you know, is an elected member saying vote yes for the Constitution, is that okay? Or would you see that also bring up an ethical question? Maybe we didn’t consciously think about the language of including yes and, you know, showing some bias might affect how students perceive us. So I think that might that that’s something that we can correct, because that is valid.
In the section about freedom of speech on page five, several segments were deleted. What does this mean and why were they deleted?
Ullman: Because media isn’t specified, our legal counsel just said get rid of that. If you look at nine it says, “to engage in the free exercise of religion or politics,” we removed politics as well. All of those changes were recommended by our legal counsel because we’re a 501(c)(3) organization and we’re not allowed to promote any political activity or endorse any legislation at all. And if any of our funding goes directly towards promoting a political activity, then in that case, we can get sued, or well, we would lose the lawsuit.
Could you expand a little bit about what you meant by unspecified media?
Ullman: Yeah, because it’s unclear whether media here is being like… Okay does B make it clear because it’s “Media published and distributed electronically or in-print,” but C, it’s not clear whether media are the organizations or the material, so it doesn’t really make sense to keep that when the organization, if it was a matter of protecting the rights of the organization, they’re already protected in clause nine, so that clause would also be redundant.
Khan: So at the end of the day media is still protected under the USG constitution, it’s just the amount of times it’s been mentioned has been reduced.
Some people are seeing the removal of the judiciary branch as a power grab. How does USG respond to that?
Ullman: Overall we don’t feel comfortable with having an entire branch having essentially virtually no checks except for impeachment between appointment and end of tenure, when the entire branch can make a decision based on, at best, four people, out of seven, which is a majority, and when they’re not even elected. On the other hand, when you have accountability lying in the hands of student elected officials, then you have accountability of those officials to the student body because they are more reflective of the [inaudible] of the students.
So then why not amend how the judicial branch functions, and possibly make it into an elected position?
Khan: So that’s a great point. And one thing is that when the constitution was first being drafted, it was drafted to make sure that reflects the United States Constitution. And we look at the judiciary system right now, the Supreme Court judicial numbers are appointed by the president and then confirmed by the Senate and House, right. But at the end of the day, we see that those who are appointed in the judicial branch usually reflect the views of the President. So there’s always a skewed perception as to a skewed, you know, way that they do this is based on you know, what their appointer really believes. For us? Yeah that’s a valid point like yes, judiciary members could have been made elected members. But at the end of the day, what again, what will be the role of the judiciary, it’s like, sure, we changed the fact that now, judicial members are more responsive to the student body, but there still is work that’s in the middle that is not being done. And adding extra responsibilities just for a branch to remain seems fruitless. It’s like opening a job position for, you know, [a] position that has no work and then just giving it tasks to make sure that it exists. But there is no functional reason for that entity to exist.
Can you clarify what you mean by “more power”? Isn’t the impeachment process the only power that the judiciary has over other branches of the USG?
Khan: So it’s impeachment process, but it’s also like the impeachment process is based on the interpretation of the constitution. So you know, based on a couple of judiciary members, they can really decide what the constitution is saying.
Statesman editors Samantha Robinson, Alex Bakirdan, Brianne Ledda, Maya Brown and Sara Ruberg asked questions. Editors Sara Ruberg and Emma Harris livestreamed the event on The Statesman’s Instagram story. Editor-in-chief Gary Ghayrat livestreamed the event on The Statesman’s Facebook page.