The scandal continues. This second article addresses the long-term future of AUSG as an institution, and what the student body can do to improve its government now that the election controversy is over.
This is the second of a two-part series. Read Part I here.
In the first part of this series, the events immediately surrounding the decertification scandal were examined. This final article will address the future of student government and what can be done to improve AUSG.
The (Non) Future of AUSG
I mentioned before that this election would have lasting consequences for the student government. These effects are both institutional and political. CSI’s involvement in this matter exposed the weaknesses of AUSG as an institution. CSI staff were able to waltz into the Senate, violate their procedure, and tell the Senate that its vote was irrelevant. They successfully threatened the Senate into doing what the CSI office wanted, and they revealed they had the power to unilaterally override anything AUSG did—exposing AUSG as institutionally insignificant. This interference is a massive blow to the relevance of AUSG. The student government is, supposedly, an organization that exerts authority and gives demands and recommendations to the administration. This theory has now been disproven. By overruling AUSG, CSI exposed that our student government has no power.
What CSI did is completely inappropriate, and it was wrong of CSI to interfere with the internal matters of AUSG. Student government should not be beholden to what the university wants—quite the opposite; they should be independent. Unless they could show that the Senate violated university policy, there was no cause for intervention. Unfortunately, the way AUSG is organized gives CSI overwhelming power. Down to its foundations, AUSG is a project not of the student body, but of the administration. Their entire budget is subject to the Board of Trustees and administration: demonstrated clearly when the university unilaterally cut the AUSG budget last fall. The university seems to regularly interfere with AUSG’s operations and spending, as detailed in their numerous interventions around the Founder’s Day Ball: a now-defunct Founder’s Week event that was supposed to be wholly student-run. One of the most important functions of student government is to oppose the university in favor of student interests. Unfortunately, AUSG is unable to stand up to administrators. On the contrary, it seems to draw its authority from being attached to the university—not from representing the student body.
SPA Undergraduate Council staffer Jackson Dietz (who also holds an administrative position in the Agora) and others told me that CSI is now stepping in to remake AUSG completely. This summer, they will be working with some students to rewrite the constitution and bylaws. This reformation could completely change the structure of our student government. While I agree that there should be serious structural changes, the fact that this is coming from the administration is highly inappropriate. It shows both that AU has no respect for students’ voices and that AUSG is a paper tiger in the face of university pressure. Per the same sources, it seems like CSI had been contemplating something like this reform for a while, but the decertification scandal prompted them to act. As soon as next year, AUSG could look very different. This intervention may be the death of the existing student government.
More importantly, this scandal also exposed the lack of credibility AUSG has with students. The fact that the student government couldn’t even run a simple election without entering a constitutional crisis is laughable. While, in this case, it seems Brodie is most at fault for flagrantly violating AUSG rules and allegedly antagonizing various government members, it should never have gotten to this point. Many students accuse AUSG of being full of LARP-ers and “House of Cards” wannabes. After this debacle, I find that claim hard to argue with. The toxic culture that corrupts AUSG is nothing new. Story after story after story has come out over the years detailing how the behavior of AUSG members is petty, abusive, and annoying. Big “scandals” over rule violations are commonplace in the organization. Additionally, the student government is often criticized for using the activity fee money they receive for useless, self-enriching purposes—buying themselves matching sweaters, throwing lavish parties, and more. Now, AUSG cannot even maintain its own institutions properly, which is just one more nail in the coffin for students' belief in the power of AUSG. The current situation is untenable.
What Is To Be Done?
In my mind, there are two major problems with AUSG: its structure and its culture. The student government is set up to mirror the federal one, and it has three branches plus an elections commission. This organizational structure inherently leads to problems. Having a separate legislative and executive branch inspires competition and acrimony between the two sides. The framers of the US constitution planned this opposition as a feature, but in student government it is more of a bug. AUSG should represent student interests before the administration as one voice—not a fragmented mess. The divided structure also means that there is constant AUSG infighting, which means nothing gets done. This inaction is a deliberate part of the federal government, but it makes no sense when applied to college students. It’s not like AUSG is going to start passing draconian legislation to lock students up or abuse our freedoms. The matters that AUSG deals with—student advocacy, oversight of the university, advising student organizations—don’t need lengthy, intergovernmental debate. On the contrary, fast action is beneficial for these missions. The three-branch structure also creates staffing issues. There’s too many positions to fill, which is why there are always vacancies. Currently there are 16 empty seats in the Senate. The judicial branch has struggled for months to fill its rosters of positions—and as of April 2nd, it was staffed entirely by freshmen.
Housing the Kennedy Political Union, Student Union Board, Women’s Initiative, and Founder’s Week Team as departments of the executive branch is also problematic. It muddles the mission of AUSG. Our student government should primarily pursue student advocacy and political organizing. Having AUSG also run all types of student events is outside that mission. It also introduces some financial concerns. Because AUSG runs all of these organizations, it gets the university funding for them, too. This cash makes AUSG more dependent on the university administration—something the student government should always try to avoid. It also means that the AUSG budget is extremely large: over a quarter-million dollars this year and even more in the past. Having all this money lying around makes our student government a 24/7 drama over the control of a giant slush fund. Financial concerns should not muddle AUSG.
The three-branch structure of AUSG also leads to a cultural issue: people treat it as a mock government club instead of an actual governing organization. As previously mentioned, AUSG has a reputation for LARP-ing. After attending one of the senate hearings, I wholeheartedly agree. When one senator says the institution is a “kangaroo court,” and another accuses a different senator of running a “communistic” committee, it is hard to argue with this assessment. However, this cultural issue is nothing compared to the constant pettiness and toxicity present throughout AUSG. For whatever reason, the government seems to attract the worst types of people. Brodie is the most visible example because she holds the most power and has (allegedly) perpetrated the worst acts. However, she is only reflective of the toxicity present in the whole organization.
I have a few suggestions for structurally reforming AUSG. Essentially, the student government should become a perfect mirror of the Faculty Senate. The executive and judicial branches should be removed. This change would remove the incentives for inter-branch infighting and excessive rule violation hearings. The new Student Senate should be small; only around 21 members, with some seats reserved, so every class and school gets at least one senator. The chief executive would be the Speaker of the Senate. The smaller size will ensure full staffing, and it will be easier to debate and decide policies with a smaller set of legislators. KPU, the Student Union Board, and the rest should be spun off into separate institutions whose leadership will be elected independently of the Student Senate. This reorganization will focus the Senate on advocacy and policy rather than programming, and it will drastically reduce the budget—removing the toxic influence of money. The Student Senate will still have a budget from the activity fee, but it will be much smaller and in line with regular clubs. The Senate can do some Welcome Week activities and put on some events throughout the year, but they will not be given the means to become lavish and wasteful. This change makes the student government much less dependent on the university. There should be no stipends for any member of the student government; members should only serve to represent student interests, not achieve financial gain.
This hypothetical Student Senate would go a long way towards building credibility in our student government and making it more effective at advocating our interests before the university. AUSG will no longer have a bloated budget and generous stipends, which will make the student body more trustful of the senators’ motives. Additionally, with the restructuring of the organization, hopefully, the attitude problems chronically plaguing AUSG will improve, improving the student body’s stereotypic views of its members. There will be no distractions of programming, and the smaller organization will move faster and less bureaucratically. Very importantly, the Senate distances itself from university control. CSI and its student allies may pursue reforms like my proposal; however, I want these changes to come from the student body. I have significant doubts that an administration-decided student government will ever break free of university influence, and if CSI pursues this overhaul, it would be vastly inappropriate.
I admit I am very cynical about our current student government, but my cold, senior heart still has hope for campus democracy. These proposals could genuinely improve the organization. Unfortunately, the institutional culture, more than anything else, will decide the direction of AUSG. All the structural changes in the world cannot fix bad actors acting badly. Commissioner Sarah Gordon may have said it best when she said that AUSG was a case of “all the wrong people in all the wrong places.”
Chyna Brodie did not respond to a request for an interview.
Kevin Sciackitano is a third-year Economics major in the College of Arts and Sciences. He is the Acting Editor-In-Chief for the Agora.
Photo taken by the American Agora.