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Op-eds, Opinions

Ruzicka ’23 and Meirowitz ’22: Restoring accountability in student governance

By and
Op-ed Contributors
Friday, March 19, 2021

Constitutional disputes, student government power struggles and member misconduct — these are the barriers holding Brown’s undergraduate student government back from fulfilling its purpose. Brown’s student government cannot fight for students if we spend our time fighting each other. At the moment, we do not have the mechanisms in place to address student government-related issues and to restore communal relationships. This needs to change. As such, we have created a proposal for the establishment of the Student Government Ethics and Accountability Board, a shared board across the branches of Brown’s student government that would help facilitate productive dialogue and settle internal and external disputes. While nominations to the SGEAB currently would come from the combined consent of UCS and UFB, future amendments would include new branches in the nomination process. For the SGEAB to be established, it must receive an affirmative vote from the student population on this year’s election ballot.

There are a number of issues between branches of Brown’s student government and the community that make this proposal urgent and imperative. Currently, there is a lack of accountability and institutional checks to ensure diplomatic relations between the Undergraduate Council of Students, the Class Coordinating Board and the Undergraduate Finance Board. One of the most visible examples of this has been the recent tension between CCB and UCS about whether CCB is or should be a branch of student government. With no methods to solve disputes, members of both organizations wrote op-eds, negatively impacting their public reputations and their relationship with one another, inhibiting effective student governance. Unfortunate events like these call for mechanisms that facilitate productive discussions among organizations. To resolve this issue, the first major function of the SGEAB would be to provide organizations a place to resolve disputes by hosting Interbranch/Community Remediation Meetings, moderated by the SGEAB as an impartial and co-appointed group. These meetings would provide for structured, productive dialogue, allowing groups to move forward.

Another accountability issue in student government can be seen in last year’s funding policy conflicts between UFB and student organizations. For instance, service-based groups recently expressed concern about inadequate funding. Currently, UFB funding appeals are not reviewed by an external body. With the implementation of the SGEAB, student groups would have a separate body to discuss their cases when a well-documented issue concerning funding policy occurs. The SGEAB would be a more accessible and impartial forum for student groups than directly appealing to UFB. The aforementioned Interbranch/Community Remediation Meetings would also be the setting for resolving these funding conflicts.

 The SGEAB could also help solve a number of internal failures currently plaguing  student government. For instance, UCS recently had a constitutional crisis wherein UCS’ general body was simultaneously serving as both a legislation-writing and constitution-interpreting body, leading to institutional gridlock. Such bureaucratic failures have hindered UCS’ ability to amplify student voices. For example, conflicts over the legality of a specific bylaw caused UCS to delay the statue discussion brought by Decolonization at Brown for an entire week. As a result, a community conversation that should have been amplified by UCS’ platform fell into a bureaucratic lull, preventing student representatives and their constituents from engaging in productive discussions. Another issue which has recently come up is the question of what is and is not student government. With UFB and CCB’s referenda, which will ask students this election season if they support recognizing the two bodies as official branches of student government, there will be constitutional issues to settle and an impartial referee will be needed. To remedy these legislative and procedural issues, the SGEAB would have the power of judicial review, as it would be authorized to form Constitutional Judgment Panels. These panels will ensure a speedy review process which would allow the branches of student government to get back to working on initiatives for the student body. 

The final issue the SGEAB would address is election conduct. During the internal UCS treasurer and UCS/UFB liaison elections in fall 2020, UCS was forced to conduct a recount after one of the candidates violated election procedure. Once discovered, the candidate in question simply left UCS. However, this did not help UCS heal from the experience, nor was it, as a manner of addressing misconduct, conducive to individual healing. Past election misconduct cases have involved violations such as the inflation of candidates’ resumes and dishonest platforms, which have marred the election process. The SGEAB’s power to take up Election and Voting Member Hearings would help moderate these election misconduct cases. These hearings will be crucial to ensure that election integrity is maintained, while simultaneously establishing a fair and clear process for those involved.

When we began writing the proposal to create the SGEAB, we realized that justice and accountability in student government at Brown is deeply flawed. How can we, as a student government, expect to be representative when our organization’s sole accountability mechanism — an under-defined punitive trial that sees removal via impeachment as the only way to achieve justice — is based on a system which does not reflect the sentiments and values of the student population we represent? Therefore, we must write processes that reflect our community values by centering restorative justice, prioritizing victims, reintegrating those who have broken rules and uplifting our community. With this in mind, we worked to establish restorative justice practices in the SGEAB’s Code of Operations, an approach that derives from the talking circles that Indigenous communities use to settle disputes.  

The SGEAB is modeled off of restorative justice practices; instead of seeing conflict resolution as a purely punitive issue, restorative justice seeks to produce dialogue between the victims and offenders. The SGEAB will show Brown leaders, administrators and students alike, that traditional retributive justice systems are not the most effective structures to resolve community issues. We hope that modeling our policy off this alternative justice system can have better impacts and outcomes than our current status quo. We can shift from questions of “what law was broken, who broke it and what punishments are in order?” to “who was harmed, what are the needs and responsibilities of all those affected and how do the parties address needs and repair harm together?” — a shift which calls for the entire community to settle issues as a collective. By creating the SGEAB, we set the precedent for future leaders at Brown to usher in progressive reforms and use Brown’s student government’s platform as an elevation point for societal change.

UCS Chair of Campus Life Zane Ruzicka ’23 and Deborah Meirowitz ’22 can be reached at zane_ruzicka@brown.edu and deborah_meirowitz@brown.edu. The authors’ opinions are their own. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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