After the initial results of last year’s spring elections were repealed and a run-off election was held, the University’s Undergraduate Council of Students continues to face challenges with internal changes and debates.
Executive board members have voiced concerns about the council’s internal management, including the elimination of the general body and the implementation of town halls, the failure to establish a Student Government Ethics and Accountability Board and a possible violation of the UCS Constitution.
Removal of general body
Christopher Vanderpool ’24, a member of the UCS Equity and Inclusion Committee and a member of the UCS general body for the past two years, received his first UCS communication of the academic year Sept. 6, along with the entire student body. In this email, UCS announced that the council would be hosting town hall meetings on Wednesdays — which was when the general body meetings were held last semester.
This transition from general body meetings to town halls — which essentially removes general body members from UCS — was first proposed by UCS President Ricky Zhong ’23 and Vice President Mina Sarmas ’24 during an executive board gathering shortly after last spring’s election results settled, said Daniel Newgarden ’25, UCS Chair of Academic Affairs.
Zhong said that the removal of the general body is also “a concerted effort (to) align ourselves and be more cooperative with the other branches of (the Student Government Association).” In order to be involved in the Undergraduate Finance Board and the Class Coordinating Board, a student also has to be an elected member, he said.
“We discussed it amongst the chairs first (at) an informal level,” Zhong said. “Then, at the start of the fall … once we had all the appointed members as well, (we had) a formal vote to … get rid of the (general body) terminology.”
But some e-board members said that they were informed of this change after the decision was made.
“It kind of happened with no discussion,” Newgarden said.
Newgarden added that e-board members met Sept. 4 to discuss the revised UCS Code of Operations — which they didn’t collectively review until then — and it passed in a unanimous vote.
“Everyone was just making small changes for their office,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of people read it very closely, myself included.”
Newgarden said that many e-board members were not aware at the time of the Code of Operations vote that its passage would result in removing the general body. He said he feels that the transition from general body meetings to town halls was “never formally approved” by the e-board because they were not explicitly told what they were voting on.
Newgarden feels like Zhong and Sarmas gave him and other e-board members the impression that removing the general body was a settled matter and “established by an implicit assumption,” he said. Zhong and Sarmas, he continued, did not communicate the specifics of its removal to the rest of the e-board.
“There was a discussion within (the executive board) about the elimination of (general body) meetings, both during the spring and during the end of summer,” Zhong wrote in an email to The Herald. He added that the e-board was informed about the elimination of general body meetings, and that “the general body exists and is essentially just the (e-board) – the language is interchangeable there.”
Zhong said that, in their decision, he and Sarmas referred to the previous version of the Code of Operations, “which essentially gives (them) power to get rid of (the general body)” with an e-board vote.
Ana Boyd ’24, UCS chair of equity and inclusion, pointed out that the new Code of Operations fails to reflect the council’s removal of the general body. There is no explicit statement establishing town halls, and as of Sept. 29, the term “general body” is still mentioned 14 times in the document, she said.
“On one hand, (Zhong) was basically operating and saying that because we’ve changed the Code of Operations, there is no general body,” Boyd said. “But the Code of Operations that we voted on doesn’t reflect that.”
Zhong wrote that the constitution does not need language explicitly removing a body. “General body just refers to the (e-board) members now,” he added. “We no longer stipulate how people become general body members or even what exactly a general body member is.”
He added that they would “be happy to make further clarifying changes to the Code of Operations if that’s the issue.”
With the removal of the general body, Vanderpool has found it difficult to position himself within UCS, he said.
“I don’t want to say I’m a former general body member when I’m still trying to stay involved in UCS,” he added. “But it doesn’t really make a lot of sense if I say I’m a member of the UCS Equity and Inclusion Committee, because then folks are like, ‘well, what does that mean?’”
History of general body, coming of a “new” UCS
In previous years, general body members would participate in general body meeting discussions, propose pieces of legislation, ask questions to e-board members and guest speakers, provide feedback and vote on legislation and internal elections, Vanderpool explained.
Rights like “voting, having a voice, being able to talk about (legislation) — those really aren't options for us anymore,” Vanderpool said.
He added that since UCS serves as a bridge between students and University administration, the general body helps provide “suggestions for the conversations that occur between elected student leaders and administrative leaders of the University.” Vanderpool also said that the general body serves as a check on the e-board.
Towards the end of last year, Zhong noticed that there were barely any general body members attending the Wednesday meetings, noting that it spoke to the “barrier to entry and participation within UCS.”
Zhong said that student feedback showed that general body meetings were too focused on “resolution and bureaucracy” and attendees felt they “weren’t directly involved in a conversation” with the council.
“UCS should not be an institution that is drowning in its own bureaucracy,” Zhong said. “The purest form of representation of the student body is through the spring elections.”
The council’s voting member logs, which were reviewed by The Herald, show that UCS had 41 general body members last year and 27 the year before. Vanderpool said that in 2020, the Wednesday general body meetings had a “very consistent group of about 40 people” and last year’s “came to about 15 to 20 people.”
“It seems like the appetite to come to a Wednesday meeting has really died,” said Joon Nam ’23, UCS elections co-director who has served on UCS for the past three years.
Nam added that in 2019, one of UCS’s “biggest concerns” was increasing the number of general body members and generating interest in UCS among the student body. “When everything became remote (in 2020), I think interest even within (the) e-board died a lot just because of … the difficulties (of) having to have virtual rules.”
The result was a “pretty new group of UCS (members),” Nam said.
He pointed out that UCS has gone through many internal structural changes in the past few years and that COVID-19 marked a shift in which old members became less involved, which resulted in a loss of institutional knowledge.
“We have a situation where there’s a lot of internal inefficiencies going on because everyone’s new to their position in UCS,” Nam said.
Over the past few years, the council has moved away from submitting legislation and having students voting on referendums toward turning to the University administration for assistance when student issues arise, Boyd said. Such a shift “inhibits the ability of the general body to function in the way that it did once before.”
“We’ve built a stronger relationship with admin, but it’s hurting our relationship with students,” she said. “We’re not directly responding to student concerns; (instead, we are) turning to admin to offer solutions, which oftentimes are not in line with what students might want.”
Boyd added that in the past few weeks, she has received “general concerns about the direction that UCS is going in” from fellow students.
New town hall format
Zhong explained that the idea of a town hall is “that it’s open to the community, and anybody can come in (and) voice their opinions.”
He added that even though general body meetings were open to the public, a divide existed between students who were general body members and those who were not. The new format, Zhong said, “makes things more comfortable.”
He pointed out that the council’s first town hall had “significantly higher attendance” than most of their general body meetings last year.
The second town hall, which was focused on academic affairs, had a smaller turnout. “The sentiment was that a town hall would somehow be more accessible to people, but the only people at (the second meeting) were just UCS people,” Newgarden said.
Newgarden added that the town halls establish a “barrier” that diminishes the importance of the participants. In town halls, attendees see themselves as outsiders, whereas for general body members, “when you’re there, you’re part of UCS,” he said.
Boyd said that the town halls are “ineffective in responding to student concerns,” as the meeting agendas are controlled by UCS as opposed to the former process during general body meetings where students were able to sign up to present to the council.
Zhong said he believes that the town hall format is a way for UCS to gather student feedback. “The channels through which we solicit feedback (are) our electoral process (and) our town halls.”
Ethics and Accountability Board
The Student Government Ethics and Accountability Board was proposed in winter 2021 and passed as a referendum with 90.18% of the vote in the spring 2021 elections, The Herald previously reported.
The board “is rooted in transformative justice, and (is) a way of mediating conflict inside student government organizations, between student government organizations and others,” said Vanderpool, who helped compose the board’s official document in 2021.
But it was not implemented last year, Boyd said. She added that students on her committee have been told by Zhong that it is not a top priority this year.
“I mentioned it would likely not be a top priority in the immediate context of what SGA was already working on, which included elections, establishing some kind of document for SGA and trying to bridge the gap between the different branches and administration,” Zhong wrote.
He said that the implementation of the board will be led by Vanderpool this year, even though he does not have an official position on the UCS e-board, and that “the goal is to make a lot of progress by spring semester.”
According to Vanderpool, for the runoff elections that occured last spring, “where there was a lot of ambiguity between what rules apply to the election,” the board would have been in charge of reviewing and ensuring that the elections were in line with the constitution.
Structural changes and the constitution
A referendum that called to add a transparency amendment to the UCS constitution passed with 97.3% of the vote in the spring 2021 elections, The Herald previously reported.
This amendment is currently in the UCS constitution and requires the council to “publicize all appropriate meetings (including) times, locations, agendas, votes, notes, recordings and minutes, except when explicitly barred by organizational bylaws or closed session,” according to its text.
Zhong said that the e-board “agreed very early on that all (e-board meetings) would be closed sessions this year.” Boyd said that, to her knowledge, there has not been a vote by the e-board to declare their meetings closed sessions.
Publicizing executive board meetings “is something we simply haven’t done … for three to four years (as far as I am aware), … so we’ll either try to get rid of this old language (in the constitution) as soon as possible or — depending on what (the executive board) thinks — maybe just vote once for the entire year,” Zhong wrote.
According to Boyd, UCS has also gotten rid of the cabinet — positions appointed by the president and vice president — and made every cabinet member an officer of the e-board.
“The problem (with) the cabinet system was that it was just horrible labor management … in the sense that (the cabinet members) would feel exploited,” Zhong said.
Boyd pointed out that the UCS constitution states under Article XII that “all undergraduates have the right to vote in all elections for the council,” meaning that cabinet positions should be elected by the student body, not appointed. As such, she continued, the newly elected chair of campus life should not have been elected internally.
“This is just another instance in which we need the Student Government Ethics and Accountability Board to facilitate … now that (we) would have to create reversal legislation to reverse things that were unanimously voted on,” she said.
“Filling a vacancy does not have to be done through an election; neither does an appointment,” Zhong wrote. “If the constitution said all undergraduates have the right to vote upon every position within the executive board, then that would be an issue, but this language only stipulates that general elections, when we do host them, are open to the entire undergraduate population.”
Zhong added that the internal election for the chair of campus life does not violate the constitution because it is not an election for the council.
Zhong said students would be overwhelmed by candidates to vote on if all UCS positions were elected in school-wide elections.
“No one ever brought these up earlier as issues they wanted to address and I’m disappointed they weren’t discussed internally first,” Zhong wrote. “We’re also very much looking forward to working with the commenters … to figure out a collaborative, communicative framework that makes them comfortable bringing things up in person in the future.”
Kathy Wang is a University News editor who oversees the student government and international student life beats. She is a sophomore from Beijing, China studying Nonfiction Writing and Comparative Literature.