We deserve much better
Letter to the Editor | Tuesday, February 6, 2018
A closed student senate meeting with a secret roll call. A press release from Judicial Council in the early hours of the morning.
National security? The end of parietals? No, just your average student body presidential election.
I am writing this letter in light of recent events involving Notre Dame’s student government — specifically Judicial Council, the executive cabinet and the student senate.
Late Thursday night, Judicial Council announced that sanctions had been imposed on Alex Kruszewski and Julia Dunbar’s campaign for student body president and vice president. I was the one who made the initial allegation and drew Judicial Council’s attention to the campaign’s blatant misconduct.
Prior to making the allegation, I read the whole Student Union Constitution on Wednesday night. Now, having never run for student government before, I had never bothered to read the constitution. But, I have always heard how important that particular document is to them, since all election and campaign-related rules are explicitly stated there. So, I decided to read it thoroughly, then compare what I found to the content of the platforms of the various student body president and vice president campaigns.
To be clear, the reverence with which student government holds the constitution has been the downfall of many a candidate. Last year, it was what crippled Rohit Fonseca’s campaign. This year, it was what got Gates McGavick into hot water before official campaigning had even begun. With these cases in mind, let’s take a journey through the past.
Last year, the Fonseca-Narimatsu ticket purchased campaign materials before approval from Judicial Council. Now ask yourself, how much of an impact does this have? The content of the material was benign and certainly would have been approved. Despite the questionable impact of the misconduct to begin with, and the apparent “gotcha” attitude with which the allegations were presented, his campaign eventually received harsh sanctions, a deduction of 7 percent of his vote count. After a (now all too familiar) press release and appeal which led to over three hours of student senate deliberation, he lost 5 percent of his vote count. It didn’t end up changing the election, but it could have.
Fast forward to the beginning of this year’s election cycle. Gates McGavick and Corey Gayheart were sanctioned for soliciting a single signature for their petition to run. Judicial Council claimed this single signature was solicited during a prohibited time. It was not. A quick read of the constitution makes this apparent. This “prohibited” time was actually after a class, as stated in the press release. He broke no rules. According to Section 17.1(d) in the Student Union Constitution, it is only illegal to campaign in “any venue while occupied by a class period or exam.” Gates and Corey had a petition signed after a class.
What was the impact of that one signature out of the 700 needed? Well the impact, as determined by Judicial Council, was five hours — later reduced to two — of campaign suspension. Now, two hours will not influence an election nearly as much as 5 percent of a vote will (in the case of Rohit Fonseca’s campaign), but it was a significant sanction nonetheless. If Judicial Council is going to aggressively punish any and all campaign abuses, so be it, that is its right. Unfortunately, Judicial Council has proven to be selective and biased in its enforcement of constitutional law.
As I said above, I read the candidates’ platforms. In the process, I found that Alex and Julia’s campaign clearly violated the constitution. Candidates are expressly prohibited by the constitution from communicating an endorsement from a University official.
According to Section 17.1(f)(6), “Candidates may not communicate an endorsement such that it can be construed to represent that of a Residence Hall, Student Union Organization, University department, office or official.” Alex and Julia have enthusiastically promoted their intention to reduce tuition, and I wish them luck — everyone wants lower tuition. However, their campaign specifically stated that their ability to reduce tuition hinged on the fact that only they have the support of Scott Malpass and other university officials.
The following passage was taken directly from Alex and Julia’s campaign website prior to the so-called sanctions being announced: “This is ONLY possible as we have support from administrators, collaboration from students, and pushes from alumni as well as a collaborative repertoire with decision makers.” They clearly state that they have support from University officials, and on their platform cite connections to Scott Malpass, Andrew Paluf and Mary Nucciarone. Whether they do have this support is neither here nor there, since it is explicitly forbidden by the Student Union Constitution to communicate that endorsement.
The violation is clear. Despite their obvious misconduct, Alex and Julia’s only sanction was to rewrite their platform, which they did shortly thereafter simply by making a minor edit that removed the endorsement claims on their website.
What impact does the first version of the platform have? Well, they campaigned for 36 hours before someone, myself, noticed the issue. That is 36 hours of campaigning on the explicitly-forbidden pretense of support from Scott Malpass and other officials. The illegal endorsement was available to be read on the campaign website for more than 60 hours from when it went up until when it was changed, and no public announcement of the revision was ever required or made, aside from the press release, which was made at a time when most students are sound asleep. Ask yourself, what impact did all of this have on the election? The violation certainly had some, and the “sanction” certainly had none.
Now, according to the logic of this past decision, Gates and Corey, for their campaign violation, should have had to remove that signature from their list and been told “you can’t do that,” but they were not. They were penalized two hours. Which violation had more of an impact? Rohit should have been told to take the ad down and use better judgment in the future, but instead he lost 5 percent. The precedents set by Judicial Council indicate that Alex and Julia should have received a harsher penalty. So why didn’t he? Is it because he is an active member of the existing Student Government administration?
When I appealed the decision in order to make my above concerns known and ask for a harsher penalty, the meeting was not held because quorum was not met in the student senate, which means that less than two-thirds of the senators attended the “mandatory emergency meeting.” Quorum was missed by one senator. Okay, so it was a Friday night. Not all Senators can come out because they might have prior commitments. A formal, an impromptu visit home or exhaustion after a week of class. I understood that.
However, when I inquired to vice president Sibonay Shewitt whether a roll call had been taken, I was told that attendance was not taken. According to the constitution, attendance must be taken and absences must be reported.
According to the constitution, section 3.4(m)(1-2):
“(1) Attendance at meetings of the full senate is mandatory for senate members. Permission for an absence must be obtained from the Chairperson. (2) The student union secretary is responsible for taking attendance at all senate meetings.”
No roll call was made public. Why is this information being withheld? Isn’t regular attendance at senate meetings a primary responsibility of the role? Shouldn’t students know if their senator is failing to represent their hall by attending meetings? Especially a meeting which would have an impact on the campaign of a member of the executive cabinet?
As the student body, we expect student government to faithfully represent the interests of its constituents and allow the students to choose their representatives in student government through fair elections. This is what the Student Union Constitution is for. The actions I’ve described demonstrate that the leaders we elected either forget or intentionally ignore the document that they so readily jumped to in punishing Gates and Rohit. The document they supposedly take seriously enough that minor rule violations warrant long, closed-to-the-public emergency student senate meetings. If student government cannot even follow its own constitution, how can it claim to represent anyone?
A well-written piece by the Observer Editorial Board recently asserted that “we deserve better” from student government. I agree, but we don’t just deserve better. We deserve much better.
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.