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SGO pushes for extended Matchbox hours, loosening of alcohol policy, mending relationships

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After undergoing significant changes in the executive board this past semester, the Student Government Organization is introducing new initiatives in response to student feedback. During last Sunday’s meeting, the group focused on extending the Matchbox hours, curbing strict enforcement of the alcohol policy, and having a closer relationship with affinity groups.

The group announced Sunday that it is very plausible that the Matchbox’s weekend hours will be extended by at least an hour. SGO members proposed changes to the Matchbox hours after receiving complaints about the Matchbox’s closing time of 5 pm on Saturdays and Sundays, including a Facebook post by Navid Kiassat ’20 asking SGO to push for regular hours.

“I work out in the evenings,”  said Lily Posta ’21. “I have a schedule and that’s what I’m used to.”

Anya Slepyan ’21 mentioned that the Matchbox’s evening hours would allow for more flexibility with her workload.

“Since I don’t work out until I’ve done all my homework, the after dinner slot is crucial especially on weekends,” Slepyan said.

Assistant Director of Athletics Max Miller responded to SGO’s request by asking for  student testimonials, which SGO arranged through an online form. The group received 360 student responses. Continuing the work of Gilbert Orbea ’19, who pursued the project last year, senator at large Kat Capossela ’21 plans to meet with Matchbox manager Chris McPherson after spring break to discuss details.

According to McPherson, there is a chance the hours will be extended, but it is too early to speak with certainty. He cited the costs of extending the hours as well as the availability of employees as prohibitive factors.

“It makes no sense that the one time during the week that someone actually has time to work out, that’s when the hours are shortest,” said SGO co-president David Pipkin ’18.

In addition to extending the Matchbox hours, SGO began reaching out to Public Safety about the current enforcement of the alcohol policy. According to Class of 2020 Senator Tommy Dell ’20, enforcement of the alcohol policy has become harsher since last year. This change has caused an uproar, particularly from members of the junior and senior classes who are concerned that stricter enforcement will hurt Pub Nite.

“They came into Swarthmore with Pub Nite being a very popular and very well established tradition. [Juniors and seniors] are very upset not only with Pub Safe’s stricter enforcement of unpopular alcohol policies, but also with in general the administration making it very difficult for organizers, and for DJs and for people interested in making Pub Nite very well populated and fun,” he said.

Concerns about the alcohol policy stemmed from changes to the student handbook made in 2014, which included a ban on hard alcohol and drinking games. Dell cited the ban on drinking games as the most unpopular policy with regards to Pub Nite. There have been several recent instances where Pub Safe has cracked down on drinking games at Pub Nite. He also mentioned complaints about stricter enforcement of the rule that defines rooms containing 10 or more people as parties, making them subject to all the rules governing parties on campus.

Pipkin argued that the alcohol policy enforcement at Swarthmore is much stricter than at other similar colleges. As president, Pipkin is concerned with the alcohol policy enforcement and feels it should be less strict.

“If I were to tell my friends who go to other universities about some of the structures we have at Swarthmore they’d laugh in my face,” said Pipkin. “We are still parsing what the actual policy is, but my understanding as the case stands now is that I would like a move in a more liberal direction.”

SGO has taken steps to loosen the policy but has been unsuccessful so far. The SGO co-presidents also signed a petition along with other college students from around Pennsylvania in support of amnesty for students hospitalized for drinking. Although an underaged person who calls an ambulance for their friend receives amnesty, anyone hospitalized for drinking must face the legal consequences which poses an increased risk for foreign students, according to Pipkin.

“I have friends here who come from foreign countries, and if they are caught breaking the law they can be sent back home,” said Pipkin. “Some of those countries are conflict zones, and they can be drafted into their military if they come home from university. So will I call for my friend who’s vomiting? What’s worse? The potential health risk of letting them continue, or potentially being drafted to go fight in someone else’s war?”

While SGO attempts to foster a relationship with Pub Safe, it is also working on developing a stronger relationship with the Black Cultural Center and Intercultural Center. Traditionally, members of each of these organizations elect a non-voting SGO liaison to represent their interests during weekly Senate meetings, but those posts last year were left unfilled and remain empty this semester. According to Pipkin, affinity group members sat in on a meeting last December to discuss student publications, which pushed the groups’ concerns to the forefront of SGO’s agenda.

“They were brave enough to come to our meeting,” said Pipkin, “and if someone has the gumption, if someone takes the time to come talk to us in our space, I think it’s only appropriate to respond in kind.”

SGO is in the process of planning a dinner with affinity groups in an effort to foster mutual understanding and dialogue. Affinity groups suggested SGO hold a workshop on student journalism, which would involve hiring a professional to explore writing in a way that’s sensitive to certain audiences but also respectful of the integrity of the work, according to Pipkin. They also suggested a workshop on campus activism, so students know exactly what they can and cannot do while respecting the rules.

“Last year people were punished for how they did their activism with divestment, and people want to better understand what you can and cannot do within current structures,” Pipkin said.

As the Spring semester gets underway, SGO has made concrete progress with the Matchbox, but remains in the beginning stages of its other initiatives.

Student Budget Committee adopts policies to address budget surplus

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The Student Budget Committee has had an ongoing issue with student groups not spending the the money they apply for during the organization’s spring budgeting process, where student groups apply for the funding they need for the next year. Although student groups typically hold more events during the spring semester than the fall, it’s unlikely that they will spend the full $395,000 budget. SBC Chair Roman Shemakov said the group approved the vast majority of proposals it received during budgeting but faced difficulties getting students to plan and execute events.

Student organizations chartered by the college have only spent $70,000 so far out of the $395,000 allotted to them for the 2017-2018 school year. SBC debated putting the extra money into a capital expenditures account, which acts as a quasi-endowment, with the goal of eventually eliminating the student activities fee students pay along with tuition. To totally eliminate the fee could take 40 to 50 years.

“Last year a quarter of the funds allocated to clubs was not spent, like $120,000, and that’s mind blowing,” said Shemakov. “They approve pretty much every single proposal and very rarely say no, but the issue is that once that funding gets given to the groups they usually never spend it. That’s why we have so many capital expenditures, because every year there’s surplus and surplus and surplus.”

According to Shemakov, the problem of surplus funding is unique to Swarthmore. The budgeting director of Haverford College complained that she runs out of funding in December while SBC has enough funding to last three years, Shemakov said. The organization is looking for ways to communicate better with club treasurers so they know how to use resources to inspire their missions.

“I know that we all have work and reading and friends and the first thing on your mind usually isn’t, ‘What is my club gonna do?’ or ‘Are we going to actually do the things that we listed out during spring budgeting?’” said Shemakov. “But we want to make sure that the funds that are there for students don’t just sit in a random account in the business office.”

Olivia Robbins ’21 agreed that the the responsibility falls on student groups to make effective use of the resources provided to them. She feels that putting the unspent money into an investment account will not cause a significant decrease in future tuition cost and therefore students are responsible for spending the money so it doesn’t go to waste.

“It’s up to the students to take advantage of the money, it’s up to the clubs to take advantage of the money. Putting it into an investment account will not impact anyone in the future, so it’s just a waste of money,” Robbins said.

The group is also working on a project to provide free SEPTA tickets to student organizations who need them. This would give clubs a way to schedule trips off-campus without having to rely on the random lottery, Dean’s Office or the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility which provide tickets only for selective purposes.

SBC aims to make itself more sustainable, so that it can run smoothly from year to year despite the turnover of committee members.

“SBC should be able to survive outside of the people that are in there year to year, because we’ll just keep leaving,” said Shemakov. “It shouldn’t depend on the person that comes in, whether they’re bad or good; it should be a well-oiled machine.”

SBC will move its proposal office online this year so that students don’t have to physically deliver their proposals during spring budgeting.

Shemakov acknowledged that one of SBC’s main goals for the semester is to encourage student groups to plan events and spend more money. Until student groups plan events and make proposals, opportunities will be wasted.

Low SGO attendance bars vote, special election to go on

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Swarthmore’s Student Government Organization announced Sunday that it will hold a special election following the resignation of a co-president, at-large senator, and the chair of student life last week. The group debated passing an amendment to keep the election within the group but scrapped it after there were not enough senators present to hold a vote.

SGO did pass a key amendment on Sunday which allows the Senate to vote on impeachments and constitutional amendments. Previously, these powers were held only by the Executive Board, which includes the committee chairs and co-presidents. The co-presidents and the Executive Board have been allowing the Senate to vote on amendments for the past two semesters, despite this process being unconstitutional.

“It’s about time,” said co-president David Pipkin ’18. “They were pretending that the amendment passed last year … It put me in a bind at the beginning of this year because they amended the constitution, but they didn’t keep records of who voted, so I didn’t know what amendments actually passed and what didn’t pass.”

Members also debated whether a special election following the resignations of three representatives should be held internally, or should be school-wide. The constitutional review committee proposed an amendment that would have made the special election internal, with only current SGO candidates eligible to run and vote. However, since three-fourths of SGO members were required to hold a vote, the amendment could not be voted on.

Co-president David Pipkin said that that the group would be instituting a policy next semester making some of the weekly meetings mandatory, and some “come when you can.” He acknowledged that attendance was a problem but attributed it to the frequency of the meetings; members of SGO are theoretically only required to attend two meetings a month.

“It’s an irrational expectation for someone who signed up to do half as much work to be doing as much work as I’m doing,” said Pipkin. “I think there are ways of reforming the requirements in which we can have enough attendance to hold votes but we’re not making unreasonable demands on people’s time.”

Nagyon Kim ’20 said that that the attendance problem deals a serious blow to SGO’s credibility with the student body.

“Every member of SGO was elected for a reason. They were elected by the student body, and they signed up to become public servants,” said Kim. “It reflects poorly on SGO as a whole because if you’re not showing up to the meetings, then that’s less representation for whoever you represent in the SGO meetings.”

According to Kim, the student body perceives SGO to be ineffective.

He said, “I can definitely say that SGO, in terms of public perception, lacks legitimacy, and I think it’s our job as SGO to build on that legitimacy so that other student groups can look to us as a resource.”

Sam Wallach Hanson ’18 is one of the students running for co-president in the special election and released his platform online this past Tuesday. The platform, according to Hanson, is a satirical play on the ineffectiveness of the body. To the question, “Why do you want to be SGO co-president?” Hanson responded, “Well, I’m taking three credits next semester, so I’m mostly just looking for something to fill my spare time.”

Hanson said he thought the tone of the platform would resonate with students.

“I think the fact that the joke is funny at all says something about the way SGO has functioned on campus for the last few years and the way we perceive student government here.”

One of the reasons for this negative attitude, according to Gilbert Orbea ’19, leader of the constitutional review committee and another candidate for co-president, is that the student body doesn’t realize how much power SGO has. He emphasized that the group has affected student life in ways that many don’t even realize, and that it has followed through on ideas gathered from student surveys.

“Realize that we actually do have power. We have a big budget; we can make projects and initiatives happen. If you come to us with plans, with an idea, and you say, ‘Goddammit, I want to get this done! I’m a student here; this matters to me,’ we’ll do it.”

SGO has a total budget of $23,000. As of now, it has spent a total of $3,746.74. Also, SGO has allocated $4,000 to the student organizations committee and the Hackathon. That $4,000 allocated to student orgs has been technically “spent,” but no groups have applied to use that $4,000 yet. The $4,000 is used to fund student groups that pop up after the spring chartering process. The money spent on this semester’s Hackathon has not yet been accounted for by SBC.

Nancy Yuan ’19, the current class of 2019 senator and another co-president candidate, believes that the discontent with SGO is because people have asked for changes that have not been enacted.

“I think there’s a lot of discontent even within SGO itself, and that’s also probably a reflection of the general student body’s attitude as well … They see that it’s been a semester and there hasn’t been sweeping changes, so I think part of that is understandable because this year SGO started late, but at the same time there’s some certain changes that people have asked for and haven’t seen happen,” Yuan said. “So even people within SGO are trying to question [the situation], because we’re all volunteering our time to do this, and they’re wondering whether their time is worthwhile.”

Despite being unable to vote on whether to keep the election internal, the group debated the issue. One argument made during last Sunday’s meeting was that because of the short notice, there would be low turnout for the election and students wouldn’t have time to make an informed decision.

“I guarantee less than 30 percent of people are going to vote in this election,” said Orbea, “And somehow it’s going to represent who’s best among the student body to run SGO.” The constitution requires 30 percent turnout in referendums, but the policy doesn’t apply to special elections.

During last Sunday’s meeting, co-president Josie Hung argued that some members of the student body who aren’t currently affiliated with SGO may be just as qualified as current representatives, if not more, for the open positions.
“Being in SGO could be a lot of experience, but there’s also experience that comes from working in different college committees, working in different fields, doing research or being in affinity groups,” said Hung. “I don’t know if we should limit it to being in SGO this semester because frankly, we haven’t done much yet.”

Orbea argued that experience in the organization is valuable in deciding who should take the seats.

“They have been in SGO for months,” Orbea said about current senators and executive board members. “They would know among SGO’s member base who’s best and most qualified, whereas the student body may not have that information readily available.”

Yuan believes that although institutional memory is important to some positions, the election should still be open to students.

“I think that’s how it should be, and I actually voiced this during the Senate meeting … This shouldn’t be some exclusive club, it should be accessible,” Yuan said. “We’re the Student Government Organization, right? It’s all about the students, so I don’t think it should be kept within. Yes, it should be important for certain positions to have institutional memory, because you understand the organization’s structures and how it runs, but that’s not to say that someone with no SGO experience can’t provide valuable insight.”

According to Yuan, SGO could be doing more for the student body than it currently is.

“When [the] school is handling situations with affinity groups or … certain incidents flare up, and that’s adding extra stress to students, that’s something that we can help with, but SGO has actually avoided doing because they didn’t want to seem like they were taking sides or didn’t want to seem like they were going to get into something that was too tough to manage,” Yuan said. “I think this shouldn’t be something we’re avoiding, because it’s issues that have been affecting the wellbeing of students directly, then we should try to improve that.”
Senators also expressed concern about the likely situation that a member of SGO is elected co-president or chair of student life. In this case, the executive board would likely override the provision in the constitution that requires a special election when there is an open seat.

SGO’s main goals for next semester include ramping up communication with the student body as well as implementing its rewritten constitution, which has been reduced in length from sixteen pages to four.

SGO sees resignations, calls for change

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UPDATE: The previous SGO Constitution can be accessed at http://wayback.archive-it.org/230/20120413210441/http://swarthmorestuco.tumblr.com/

Co-president Josie Hung ’19, Chair of Student Life Ivan Lomeli ’19 and Senator Christian Galo ’20 resigned from Swarthmore’s Student Government Organization last week as the group debated improvements on its structure, communication, and efficiency. The body will hold elections for these open positions after winter break.

In an e-mail to SGO members announcing her resignation, Hung said she left the post for “personal and mental health reasons.”  She also described her goals for the organization, which included making structural changes and increasing its inclusivity and ability to represent all students. Hung expressed frustration at the difficulty of achieving these goals.

“There are times when I was disappointed that the effort and time dedicated to pushing for these changes did not play out to the same degree in results,” she said in the e-mail. “However, I encourage people to still engage with these complex issues, no matter how difficult they are to address.”

SGO Senator Akshay Srinivasan ’21 echoed Hung’s call for persistence.

“I respect her decision,” he said, “and I hope we can carry on and enact the plans she had set out to achieve.”

Galo was also annoyed with SGO’s structure, which was one of his reasons for leaving. He expressed a desire for the group to experiment with other forms of team organizing. As a first-year in SGO, he said, it was unclear what his committee actually did, and he spent significant time discussing that. The Academic Affairs Committee, according to Galo, doesn’t have much power other than to make suggestions to the Chair of Academic Affairs, because the Chair is the only one included in the college committee meetings where the action actually happens. Galo was more interested in committee work than debating SGO structural politics.

“I felt like I was just sitting there listening to people deliberate on what it meant for SGO to do something,” he said about Senate meetings. “I don’t understand why I’m a necessary part of this conversation because I’m not saying anything.”

Last week, senators discussed the effectiveness of the organization’s use of point teams and committees to turn initiatives into the concrete proposals it submits to the administration. SGO is structured on a system in which senators appoint members of the Senate to committees covering different policy areas. These committees then meet and draft proposals advocating for a certain policy which can be sent to members of the administration. However, these committees have vastly differing obligations. For example, the Student Life Committee has only four members, but its responsibilities are vast.

“Anything that’s not sustainability or academics could essentially fall into student life: dining, dorms, everything else,” said David Pipkin, co-president of SGO.

This is what necessitated the creation of point teams, which are more informal teams — not listed on the website — created to deal with specific issues, like dining for example.

Appointing point teams on a voluntary basis, according to Pipkin, “makes more sense … because frankly, you have to advocate for things over a longer period of time, and you have to do it consistently, and having only four people do that for a wide range of issues isn’t a rational expectation.”

Srinivasan argued during last Sunday’s SGO meeting that the committee and point team system, as it exists now, takes too long to turn ideas into concrete results, and the fact that many of their directives overlap adds to the confusion.

“It becomes really convoluted when we try to create all kinds of teams to address problems and we don’t have a clear directive,” said Srinivisian. “It’s not necessarily that the committees aren’t effective, it’s just that it’s really hard to find a time to meet and then review for things that I think, personally, are very simple and we can do quicker.”

The body has created a Constitutional Review Committee to fix some of the structural flaws that give SGO the impression of being inefficient. Pipkin said that the document was put together hastily and has some practical issues that need to be addressed.

“SGO as an entity has in its construction deep flaws,” said Pipkin. “The SGO constitution … as it exists now was drafted because they lost the first one, so they did it hurriedly without really thinking through everything.”

One of the major problems with the document, according to Pipkin, was that Senate elections and the executive board elections take place in different semesters. Executive Board elections happen in March, but Senate elections six weeks into the fall semester so first-years could participate. Pipkin suggested that having Senate elections in April would allow the executive board and Senate to plan their initiatives for the next year and be ready to get to work on the first day of the fall semester.

“The fact that I have an executive board for four months of half student government is hobbling,” he said. “And then you have the added problem [that] you had the school year start later than usual.”

Also, while Senators are on the committees and have the power to vote on who is on those committees, the constitution doesn’t give the Senate any power to vote on amendments. All this power is given to the executive board. The Constitutional Review Committee is working to change this.

Srinivasan believes the new constitution needs to give the Senate more of a voice and include clear goals for each committee. A voting process for passing amendments should also be present, and the document should be four pages and easily readable.

SGO has put a focus this year on listening to different student groups and bringing their concerns to Senate meetings. While it has received input, Srinivasan believes it hasn’t been able to make big policy pushes because of the long lines of communication between the Senate, point teams, and committees.  

Srinivasan said, “We try to get a lot of input, we’re hosting more events to get input, but the big thing isn’t that we’re not getting their views. It’s that we’re not actually able to act on them very quickly because if I went to visit SASA, they gave me something to do, and I brought it up in a meeting two weeks later, it would be sent to a committee and we’d do something in like March.”

SGO has also been focusing on being more transparent and communicating better with the student body, Srinivasan said. It has worked to increase the number of e-mails it sends out, and to be more transparent in its operations, especially when it comes to the charter process for new clubs. One of the reasons this is the case, according to Galo, is that many students just don’t care what SGO is doing.

Pipkin noted that part of this problem comes from the fact that Swarthmore has issues with communication in general. SGO is currently trying to use the TV screen in Pearson that displays notifications as a place to reach students.

Despite getting a late start to the semester and coming up against structural problems, SGO has lofty policy goals this year. These include striving for greater transparency, clarifying the club chartering process, and revising and simplifying SGO’s constitution.

Student government plans to increase engagement with campus

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Many students have questions about what the Student Government Organization does, and this year the organization hopes to better define their role on campus. To do so, the student group plans to invite the community into their meetings, revamp their constitution, and use their budget more efficiently.

Led by co-presidents Josie Hung ’18 and David Pipkin ’18, SGO consists of two branches according to their website: the Executive Board, which makes choices regarding student initiatives and campus policy; and Student Senate, which reviews such decisions and offers support and ideas for other SGO initiatives.  

This fall, the group has dedicated their meetings to identifying how they can be the best voice between students and administration — a mission that hasn’t always been solidified in the past. Roman Shemakov ’20, Chair of Student Budgeting Committee, believes the group has the potential to improve its efficiency.

“We are trying to figure out what SGO has been doing, is doing, and should be doing,” Shemakov said. “We imagine [taking] a more concrete and collaborative route where student government does not just exist but is genuinely a body that can hear concerns, respond to those concerns, and make an institutional impact.”

One method, according to Hung, is to make SGO more accessible to the student body. She believes that if SGO becomes a more transparent body, students will feel more comfortable voicing their thoughts and, in turn, will allow the organization to better represent them.

One idea involves opening select SGO meetings up to the public and locating them in a convenient place like Sharples. Another includes planning regular town hall style meetings to give community members a platform to voice their thoughts. In the past, SGO held numerous study breaks that several members of SGO agree weren’t as effective as they could have been.

As of now, many underclassmen are unsure of SGO’s presence on campus.

“A lot of freshman don’t even know we have a student government,” Vinay Keefe ’21 said.

Alec White ’21 knew of SGO’s existence, but not of its impact.

“I knew we had a student government but I hadn’t heard how to get involved with it or what they have been doing this year so far,” White said.

Pipkin also looks to reevalute SGO’s usage of its funds. According to him, the group used up almost half of their $18,000 to $24,000 annual budget on food during the numerous study breaks in the past years that he’s been involved with SGO.

“Money isn’t just for cupcakes,” he said. “We don’t want to buy more than what we need or just burn out our budget at the end of the year; we want to use our money to provide services and amenities that are not yet available on campus.”

To make better use of their budget, the group is discussing a variety of options ranging from funding student initiatives to donating the remaining funds to the Dean’s Discretionary Fund, Pipkin said. The goal, according to Pipkin, is to fill in the gap when things start lagging behind on campus.

Some of their most recent initiatives included prompting the administration to provide free SEPTA passes into Philidelphia for students; establishing the Health and Wellness Committee; and funding Free Pads for Undergrads, which provides free sanitary products in all bathrooms.

But even some of those initiatives aren’t complete yet, Pipkin said. Not all the bathrooms have sanitary napkin baskets, and there is a limit to how many SEPTA passes are distributed every semester. Part of this year’s mission will be to expand both of those initiatives by turning to the budget for help.

“We should walk before we should run,” Pipkin said. “Part of progress is ensuring what you already have is sufficient and functioning, so we will build on what is already here first.”

In addition to new projects, SGO is hoping to clear up organizational details. Both presidents and Shemakov added that many parts of the current constitution aren’t fleshed out. There are gaps in information and not enough detail, so the group is tweaking the document to be clearer and more concise.

To do so, Shemakov explained, the group plans to split the constitution into three different documents: bylaws — easily amendable policies such as how to file a motion and where and when the group convenes; rules of conduct — rules regarding budgeting, committees, and vacancies, which are amendable with two-thirds of entire SGO approval; and the constitution — more permanent rules that include how to hold an election and what it takes to pass a referendum. The constitution used to be amendable with two-thirds of Executive Board approval and soon will require the majority of the entire student body to change. The details of the new vote have yet to be decided.     

However, SGO’s capacity for change is limited by the fact that it is run by students who are only around for four years.

“It’s important to remember that we are here for a very short time, and there are a very limited amount of things we can do,” Shemakov said. “Our goal has been establishing precedents, rules, and institutional barriers that make the process of student government more efficient.”

Jason Jin ’19, chair of student outreach, is most excited to bring new features to the SGO website, such as a Facebook feed that updates the happenings of the administration and SGO, and an interactive calendar that includes upcoming SGO events.  

Hung looks forward to collaboration across different committees and hopes to address the lack of diversity in the arts department by beginning a dialogue between the chairs of the Visual and Performing Arts Committee and Diversity Committees.

Pipkin added that fostering collaboration now is going to make SGO as an organization more functional in the future.

“From time to time, the right hand [of the organization] doesn’t know what the left is doing,” he said. “By building cross-collaboration, you’re building institutional memory; being able to know not just your interest level but someone else’s can make you a better leader.”

According to Pipkin, some of these discussions will come to fruition in late October, when the new round of senators have settled into their roles.

The SGO Forum and the Failure to Listen

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The SGO forum on divestment last Friday appears to have produced more tension than dialogue. This is largely due to Mountain Justice’s curious interpretation of the event after the fact. By their account, expressed in the op-ed “Friday’s Forum: An Exercise in Futility” written by Mountain Justice member Aru Shiney-Ajay ‘20 , the organizers only allowed “one student representative when there were three from the administration… the administration repeatedly danced around questions, refusing to give concrete answers.”

The implication that the organizers of the event were trying to stifle student dissent by only allowing one student representative from Mountain Justice is simply unfounded. The forum was about divestment, not Mountain Justice, and the organizers succeeded in finding a diverse array of backgrounds and positions. There were three students: one for divestment, one against it, and one that was neutral. There were two professors: one for divestment and one who was at least skeptical of it. And there were three administrators: the President of the College, the Vice-President of Finance, and the Sustainability Director. It is hard to see how having another Mountain Justice member would have improved this lineup in any way. Regardless, the pro-divestment contingent of Shiney-Ajay and Professor Lee Smithey had by far the most speaking time, and were in no way impeded by the moderator, who gave them plenty of permission to speak on nearly every question, which they did.

Mountain Justice’s second point of contention, that the administration agreed to the forum as a show and had no intention of listening to students, is frankly hypocritical. It is highly doubtful that any member of Mountain Justice, who showed up prepared with cameras, pages of notes, and trendy finger snaps, came to the forum with the intention of listening to any doubts of divestment at all. This is a shame, because despite the awkward fishbowl format there was still a lot of valuable information that came up in the panelist’s statements and interactions. For example, Shiney-Ajay actually convinced me that the 1991 decision to forbid social causes from influencing the management of the endowment is fundamentally at odds with the decision to divest from South Africa, and by extension implies that only one of those decisions was correct in the eyes of the Board. For their part, if Mountain Justice’s delegation had done less talking and more listening, they might have had enough time to hear the answers they are now indignantly demanding. Or perhaps they would have heard Professor Timothy Burke’s warning that as a young activist he had overrated the importance of his own activism work in the context of a larger movement. It is hard, of course, to hear these criticisms over the sound of your friends snapping their fingers as you deliver a pre-written speech that takes up most of the time allotted for discussion and leaves you with no time to hear actual answers.

The real regret I have from the fallout of this forum is the way Mountain Justice has treated President Valerie Smith. Apart from her initial statement and other direct questions, President Smith sat in silence and spent the most time actually listening than any other participant in the forum. For this effort her office was soon the subject of a sit-in by the people at the forum who had listened the least. This is a serious impediment to further dialogue between the administration and students, and pro-divestment students should recognize that dialogue is as much a chance to listen as it is to speak.

Editorial: SGO and admin don’t encourage student voices

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Last week on April 2nd, the Student Government Organization held an open meeting with Dean Braun and other members of the staff to update students on the visioning process and to listen to students’ opinions and concerns. Although students did have a chance to voice their concerns and the administration and staff were present as these concerns were articulated, we at the Phoenix feel that the student concerns were far from addressed.  Instead, the SGO meeting space was ineffective for helping students feel validated or for creating any actual change on campus.

We at the Phoenix believe that the current structure of SGO meetings, even those with administration present, is not conducive to an actual space where students are truly heard and treated as agents of change on campus. Instead, much of the topics that are brought up do not allow for a diversity of thought and when students do express actual concerns, these concerns are lost in the administrative process. There is a real problem with the structure in that the SGO process does not seem conducive to a collaborative community since the process seems disconnected from the actual process of enacting changing and student voices disappear instead of actually being seen as real issues that need to be addressed on campus.

It’s important to note that many staff members care for the student body and that they truly want to do what’s best for their students. A facilities member at the SGO meeting discussed how they attempted to redesign one of the lounges in PPR with a minimal budget, and how they played a role in redesigning Essie’s to meet student needs. Dean Braun discussed how Mephisto’s was designed with the needs of the students in mind and how the administration was happy when students were proud to use the space. We at the Phoenix appreciate all the effort the school puts into making Swarthmore a comfortable community.

However, we at the Phoenix also feel the need to stress that the current system of hearing student voices through the SGO meetings is not effective. The administration at the meeting is too prepared to defend themselves than to actually listen to the advice and desires of the students. When one student brought up the strong desire for an outdoor study space, they were quickly shrugged off with a comment about how studying outdoors may not be the best option for wellness or how studying outdoors is not a part of the current project to make Danawell a more desirable space. First, if the administration were to listen to students main concerns on campus, they would know that Danawell is hardly the biggest priority for change on Swarthmore’s campus. Students would much rather have their concerns addressed for a student union, a renovated McCabe Library, or a bigger dining hall and smaller coffee bar lines before fixing one of the newest spaces on campus. Second, if the administration and SGO listened to student concerns, they would be willing to shift their priorities and initiatives to honor the voices of students rather than firmly abiding to their own preordained vision.

The SGO environment also fails to provide a space for active change. If students do bring up concerns and the administration at the meeting responds, they respond by directing students to other administrations in an endless circle of people to contact. At the meeting, at student brought up concerns about creating more party spaces that are not strictly wet or dry, and admin responded simply by stating that this was a good conversation, but more appropriate to address in front of Josh Ellow, the alcohol and other drugs coordinator. While we at the Phoenix support the inclusion of multiple staff members confronting an issue and recognize that jobs are delegated throughout campus, it is almost impossible for any real change to occur through SGO if students are always being directed elsewhere instead of hearing real solutions to their concerns.

After SGO referendum, board still votes “no”

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Mountain Justice spearheads vote on partial divestment, with less than ideal response

A majority of students who participated in a referendum this week voted in favor of taking steps to divest the college’s endowment from coal, oil, and natural gas companies within five years. In response to the Student Government Organization-sponsored referendum on Monday Feb. 20th and Tuesday the 21st, President Valerie Smith and Chair of the Board of Managers Thomas E. Spock ’78 sent a statement to the student body via email on Wednesday afternoon stating that the Board’s decision not to divest from fossil fuels on a full or partial basis would stand. The move to initiate a referendum was spearheaded by Swarthmore Mountain Justice, a student group on campus committed to fossil fuel divestment. While the referendum was ultimately unsuccessful in changing the decision of the Board of Managers, the renewed push initiated new conversations on the topic of divestment across campus through various channels.

Initial Discussions

MJ Coordinator Aru Shiney-Ajay ’20 said that the idea for an SGO-sponsored referendum was first discussed at an MJ meeting roughly three weeks ago. After the meeting, members of MJ began reaching out to members of the student body to collect the required 10 percent of signatures required for any SGO referendum to be formally initiated, as outlined in the text of the SGO Constitution. MJ Coordinator Stephen O’Hanlon ’17 said that MJ also reached out to SGO to learn more about the process because there were uncertainties regarding the initiation of a referendum.

Shiney-Ajay said that MJ submitted the referendum proposal to SGO a week later, but encountered some delays upon submission.

“It took a really long time for us to confirm with them that they had received it and confirm the dates with them about when the referendum would be held. So that was a little bit of a setback,” she said.

MJ has historically been a group that relies on activist-style tactics, including walkouts, sit-ins, and teach-ins to further its cause. However, O’Hanlon stated that the group wanted to create a tangible way for the student body to have the opportunity to give the Board of Managers a clear mandate for action through established channels.

“Our hope is that the Board takes this seriously if it passes and addresses it at their Board meeting this weekend,” O’Hanlon said.

Shiney-Ajay emphasized that the Board’s March 1989 decision to divest from South African funds in light of apartheid came after many years of sustained action, and felt that a longer time frame for action on divestment was not a cause for concern. MJ formed in mid-October of 2010, pursuing action for divestment for almost seven years.

The referendum itself was a one-question Google Forms poll that asked students to vote “in favor,” “against,” or “abstain” on a series of steps for the Board to divest from coal, oil, and natural gas companies within five years. The steps included “screening out” holdings in the Carbon Underground 200, which, according to Fossil Free Indexes LLC, is a list of the top 100 public coal companies globally and the top 100 public oil and gas companies globally ranked by their potential carbon emissions. The referendum also included a demand for the Board to switch college accounts to fossil fuel-free funds. The SGO Constitution states that if a referendum passes, SGO shall comply with the terms of the referendum within the limits of its authority. It is unclear to what extent SGO can comply with the terms of a referendum calling on the Board to divest from fossil fuels.  

SGO Implementation

As reported in a Feb. 14 Daily Gazette news article, a discussion of the referendum occurred at a SGO meeting on Feb. 12. The article states that SGO had an “intense deliberation” on whether they should co-host a study break session with MJ. The guidelines of the SGO constitution state that SGO shall notify the student body of the pending election and that the referendum shall be held within two academic weeks of SGO receiving a referendum petition. Therefore, it is self-evident that MJ’s referendum received the necessary signatures before SGO Chair of Internal Affairs Won Chung ’18 sent an email to all students on Jan. 19 announcing the voting date on the referendum.  Co-President of SGO Mosea Esaias ’17 said that there was roughly a week between the last SGO meeting and the time slated to administer the referendum.

“No matter the result of the referendum, I urge you to find out more about divestment,” Chung concluded the message. Despite Chung’s neutral signoff, the Feb. 12 Daily Gazette article also states that several SGO members were concerned about SGO’s political stance on divestment as it administered the referendum.

“There’s been much debate about the language of this [referendum] specifically. Usually SGO meetings are an hour long, [but] this one took about two hours because we had to deliberate on what this [referendum] meant and what it meant for SGO to deliver this referendum,” said SGO Senator Christian Galo ’20.

Galo stressed that administering the referendum did not mean that SGO was taking a stand on the issue of divestment. He was also uncertain if the passing of the referendum meant that SGO would be required to adopt a pro-divestment stance.

The referendum was released to the student body on Jan. 20, and several events were held to publicize and promote discussion of the terms in the referendum. On Jan. 20, Chung sent another email to all students publicizing an event titled “Coffee, Cupcakes, and Climate Chat,” in Shane Lounge at 9 p.m. Posters for the event encourage students to “stop by for food, learn more about the divestment referendum, and get [their] questions answered.” The poster is co-signed by SGO and MJ.

Shiney-Ajay confirmed that Mountain Justice did receive funding from SGO for the Jan. 20 event. However, it is unclear what the funds being used to support the “Coffee, Cupcakes and Climate Chat” event should be called. Esaias said that SGO used a “minimal” part of its budget to support the same Jan. 20 event, but stressed that the event was sponsored as a partnership between the two groups.

“Our intent in hosting an information session was to provide the community with more information about the referendum, the referendum process, and to create a forum for questions.  This is not quite the same as publicizing the referendum, which we interpreted as partisan campaigning in support of or against it,” he said.

“We [did not give money] to Mountain Justice. We partnered with Mountain Justice, who petitioned for the referendum in order to let the student body know more about [the referendum,]” Esaias continued.

He confirmed that there was no other organization that gathered an opposing referendum.

“We partnered with the organization that actually petitioned for the referendum, as we would do in any case,” he continued.

Furthermore, Esaias said that he did not feel that partnering with Mountain Justice would influence the results of the referendum.

“We’re giving them a platform. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we are endorsing their specific demands. It just means that we’re giving them a space to express their concerns … the funding is not for the group. The funding is for the referendum,” he said.

According to the SGO Constitution, SGO is responsible for paying for all costs of a student-initiated referendum, excluding the costs of publicizing specific resolutions. However, Shiney-Ajay explicitly stated that the Jan. 20 event was to publicize the referendum and let people ask questions about it. But, at the Feb. 12 SGO meeting during the discussion of the information session, SGO Senators insisted that the event be labeled an “information session” without an explicit mandate to “publicize” the event or to take a position on divestment before the results of the referendum. Esaias confirmed that this was the result of a miscommunication between MJ and representatives of SGO about the intent of the event. Thus, it is also unclear if SGO’s sponsorship of  the “Coffee, Cupcakes and Climate Chat” event is in violation of the provisions of the SGO Constitution.

When asked about the situation, Joseph DeBrine ’18 expressed concerns that there weren’t enough chances for students to get comprehensive information about the referendum before they were asked to vote.

“It would be so much more powerful if we had more stuff like [the “Coffee, Cupcakes, and Climate Chat.] What if they had done this a few times? [What if they had] big information sessions that were geared towards everyone, not just MJ?” DeBrine said.

He also questioned why the Board of Managers’ position would change as a result of the referendum, when it had already voted against divestment multiple times in previous years.

In addition to the Jan. 20 event, Mountain Justice also held a “Dogs for Divestment” event from 3-5pm on Parrish Beach on Jan. 21 to answer questions about the referendum and to “play with all the dogs who support divestment,” as stated on a Facebook event page titled “Vote YES to Divest.” Shiney-Ajay confirmed that MJ did not receive any SGO financial support for this event.

Opposition to the referendum

Other discussions about the referendum also took place around campus earlier this week. Swarthmore Conservative Society held a roundtable discussion with members of Mountain Justice in Sharples on Feb. 21 to discuss the provisions of the referendum. At the roundtable, students expressed a number of concerns about the impacts of divestment. Patrick Holland ’17 pointed out that the current referendum advocates for partial divestment, which he called “very complicated.” Holland specifically mentioned the second point in the referendum, which calls for the college to “switch … account[s] to the fossil fuel free fund,” as a cause for concern.

“None of us know… how large the fees are going to be from switching from one of these funds to another. They could be pretty substantial,” he said.

Shiney-Ajay, who was at the roundtable, agreed that MJ would also be interested in having an open discussion about the costs associated with switching from one fund to another, which is not currently public knowledge.

In individual conversations, students share a wide range of opinions on the subject of divestment. Nikki Miller ’17 voted “In favor” of the referendum because of her background learning about environmentalism.

“We should be divesting. [Not divesting] is not really a sustainable way to get energy and I think there are … better ways to spend our money,” Miller said.

She also believed that Mountain Justice handled the administration of the referendum well.

Other students felt that the time frame for the referendum was not an ideal one. President of the Swarthmore Conservative Society Gilbert Guerra ’19 heard about the referendum on Jan. 17.

“To be quite frank, I don’t know a lot about the specifics of divestment, which is why I think you need more than four days to really make an educated vote on divestment,” he said.

Guerra also expressed concerns that students would not know the difference between the provisions of this referendum and previous divestment-related campaigns.

“I don’t think anyone expects that a majority of Swarthmore students aren’t for divestment. But I do think they should know more about what they’re voting on. I also think that’s beneficial for Mountain Justice in the long run because they have a bit of a PR problem,” Guerra continued.

Guerra believes that some might think Mountain Justice to be a “sketchy group” with a negative image in some circles.

Noah Landay ’19, a self-identified moderate, shared Guerra’s sentiment that the referendum was sprung on the student body pretty suddenly.

“I would have really liked to have seen a town hall discussion. I think that it may have been advantageous to the Mountain Justice camp to have this held so quickly because the only vocal voices in this debate have been pro-divestment,” Landay said.

He also thought that SGO’s partnership with MJ on the referendum did not necessarily imply that SGO had a stake in the referendum. Rather, Landay said he was skeptical of allegations of collusion between SGO and MJ given the absence of evidence.

“It’s really hard on a small campus to not have any conflicts of interests at all, but I think a public forum would have been really good,” he continued.

When asked about the results of the referendum, Landay was not sure what direct policy outcomes would result.

“It just doesn’t make sense … there’s really no way of enforcing [the referendum.] If the administration decided not to comply, they have no accountability mechanism,” he said.

He felt that the referendum itself was more of a political statement.

“[The Board has] obviously made up its mind already,” Landay continued.

Internal SGO Concerns

Even within SGO, there have been concerns about the implementation and intentions behind implementing this referendum. In a series of emails sent on Monday to the entire SGO Student Senate obtained by the Phoenix, Senator Gilbert Orbea ’19 expressed serious concerns regarding the referendum.

“I am gravely disappointed that we followed through without more deliberation and a truly thought-out process,” he said.

Orbea argued that there are serious concerns about who has access to the confidential listing of votes and email addresses associated with those votes. Second, Orbea felt that there was not enough time for proper debate on the merits of the referendum.

“The Daily Gazette has something like seven articles coming out today. Who has time to read those and get an informed opinion?” Orbea wrote.  He claimed that the Jan. 20 information session was an information session “in name only” and believed the event had a “decidedly biased twinge.” He concluded by calling the referendum “rushed, thought out poorly, and lopsided,” and called for a redo of the referendum in the following week. SGO Senators Margaret Cohen ’19 and Yin Xiao ’20 supported Orbea’s concerns and also called on the referendum to be redone at a later date in the email chain.
Chung also contributed to the email chain, agreeing that the referendum was rushed, but did not feel that the referendum should be cancelled.

“Cancelling the referendum now would de-legitimize SGO and the entire referendum process,” he said.

In response to the concerns outline above, Esaias responded to the Senate in an email by reiterating that SGO was administering the referendum in accordance with constitutional standards surrounding referenda. He said that SGO was obligated to hear the concerns of the student body when a significant share of the student body presents SGO with a referendum.

“As to whether we would administer the referendum was never up for discussion. What then, did we fail to deliberate?” he asked.

Esaias agreed that it would have been more ideal if SGO had additional time between reception of a petition and the administration of a referendum, but dismissed that concern as a separate issue. Addressing Orbea directly, Esaias said he was “disappointed to hear” the concern that the process was rushed and lopsided, and encouraged Orbea “as a student senator and representative of SGO … [to] would work to assuage.” He dispelled the notion that it was possible to be unbiased as an individual with training in Peace and Conflict Studies.

“Every action that we take … carries political meaning and implications. Given this, it is not impartiality after which SGO is in pursuit because to claim to be impartial would be to overlook and ignore the very real political consequences and contexts surrounding our actions,” he continued. However, Esaias rejected the notion that SGO was endorsing an individual group’s specific demands.

“Mountain Justice has a right to communicate their platform to this community,” he said. He also stressed that canceling the referendum was out of the question.


After the two days of voting concluded on Feb. 21, Chung released an email early Wednesday morning to the student body detailing the results of the referendum. There was a turnout of 55 percent of the student body, with 708 voting for the referendum, 149 against, with 23 abstaining. 80.5 percent of those that voted were in favor of the referendum, meaning that SGO must comply with the terms of the referendum within the limits of its authority.

However, on Wednesday afternoon, Smith and Spock released a statement to the entire student body stating that the previous decision of the Board of Managers not to divest would still stand in light of the referendum. Smith and Spock said they appreciated the time and effort that went into developing the referendum, but that the Board’s decision was made following three years of thoughtful and detailed study and analysis from 2013 to 2015.

“That decision stands, but the subject of climate change is of ultimate and deep concern to us. As we have said before, we believe that the magnitude of this issue underscores the need for Swarthmore to champion meaningful and sustained efforts that will model best practices to reduce carbon consumption, educate our students on the causes and consequences of climate change, and demonstrate national and global leadership in sustainability initiatives,” they said. The email also outlined several ongoing initiatives related to reducing carbon consumption and innovative sustainability education.

In response to the statement by Spock and Smith, members of Mountain Justice were disappointed, but were confident that through more pressure from the campus community, they will stand on the right side of history once more by divesting from the fossil fuel industry.

“Given the landslide victory of the referendum, and given the urgency of climate action, we are very disappointed the Board has chosen to ignore this student mandate. The Board has often spoken of their commitment to a just and sustainable future; we had hoped to be able to open a conversation with them on partial divestment based on our shared goals,” members of Mountain Justice wrote in a statement.

At the present moment, Mountain Justice has not outlined their next course of action to continue the conversation.

News Editor Ganesh Setty contributed reporting to this article.

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