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Many unopposed candidates, low voter turnout in SGO election

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    SGO election infographic no preference

On March 21, the Student Government Organization announced the results of the Executive Board election. Several changes have been made to SGO Executive Board positions and the election process in the past few months. There was low student turnout for the election, which indicates that there are still efforts to be made by SGO to encourage more student engagement.

According to current SGO Co-President Nancy Yuan ’20 one notable thing about the recent election is that there are no longer co-presidents. Instead, candidates for president and vice president ran on the same ticket.

“We realized that because there are so many tasks that are involved with running SGO, it’s better to separate the two so that there are more defined roles for who will be taking notes and who will be setting up the agenda,” Yuan said.

Gilbert Orbea ’19 and Kat Capossela ’21 were elected president and vice president, respectively. They ran on an unopposed ticket.

Yuan also expressed that the Executive Board elections were held earlier in the semester to encourage more students to participate and to allow for a more extensive transition period for the incoming board members.

“We want to make this … open to as many students as possible to engage the student body,” Yuan said. “Since all the other positions [besides president and vice president] are open to any students on campus, we have a transition period to help the incoming chairs. While the president and vice president have prerequisites for at least one year experience in SGO or SBC [Student Budgeting Committee], the other positions depend on the time that people are willing to put in because this is a big undertaking with a lot of responsibilities.”

Akshay Srinivasan ‘21, class senator and newly elected chair of student organizations, also believes that having the election earlier was beneficial by allowing for a transition period, especially considering the quick transitions that happened after the special elections last fall, after a co-president, at-large senator, and the chair of student life resigned.

“I thought [having an earlier election] was necessary,” Srinivasan said. “Especially for exec board positions, it’s really important to transition. I know that last semester with the special elections, the co-presidents didn’t get much of a transition.”

According to Yuan, having the elections earlier in the semester allowed for the newly elected president and vice president to help with the spring budgeting that is related to what they will be in charge of when their term starts as opposed to the outgoing co-presidents.

“In the past, the outgoing co-presidents would do the spring budgeting for SGO for the incoming year which would be quite unfair because they won’t be there to run those activities,” Yuan said. “[My co-president] and I was helping the newly elected president and vice president with spring budgeting. This way, we’re able to transition them in, and they get a start on the activities that they want to run.”

According to Srinivasan, the earlier election was also potentially beneficial in that it had the potential to encourage more students to vote.

“Pushing it earlier might help because students are probably more focused because it’s not right before finals,” Srinivasan said.

However, while SGO voter records show that election turnout has been in the 500s since fall 2015, with a spike in participation in 2017 with 730 voters, only 314 students voted in the most recent election. That results in an overall turnout rate of 21 percent.  

“Voting is a voluntary thing; these votes aren’t compulsory,” Yuan said. “[Turnout] is based on students’ time and in the spring semester, many students are abroad. Getting people engaged in the voting process is something we’re trying to work on in terms of outreach to students.”

According to Srinivasan, the voter turnout being low for this election may have been because five out of nine of the positions were unopposed, including president and vice president. In the past three elections, the co-president race has been competitive.

Of the students who did vote, many selected “no preference” instead of voting for a candidate. Even for positions that were competitive, including chair of student organizations and chair of outreach, upwards of 25 percent of voters voted “no preference.”

“I think it’s important to have the ‘no preference’ option there so that we know if people are or aren’t caring about that election,” Srinivasan said. “I think the big reason voter turnout was so low, especially this year was because the president and vice president ran their race unopposed.”

With the changes made to the Executive Board and an implementation of a longer transition period for the incoming board members, SGO hopes to work towards increasing student engagement.

Sunrise pushes for new divestment referendum

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Sunrise Swarthmore collected digital signatures last week in an effort to call a Student Government Organization referendum on the school’s investment in fossil fuel companies and the 1991 ban on political considerations when investing. That petition passed with 197 signatures, 29 more than were needed. Sunrise, previously known as Mountain Justice, describes itself as an organization dedicated to stopping climate change and promoting job creation. As Mountain Justice, Sunrise activists were responsible for the student referendum on fossil fuels last academic year

“We are the representative of the student body so if a group of students want to bring up an issue and want to hold a referendum, our goal is to help in the execution of that,” said Nancy Yuan ’20, Co-President of SGO.

To call an SGO referendum, Sunrise needed to collect signatures from 10 percent of the student body. This got the referendum on the SGO ballot, after which SGO assigned a 48-hour voting period beginning Mon. April 16 at 8 p.m. and ending Wed. April 18 at 8 p.m. Students will be able to vote online during that time. There will also be a debate, per the new SGO constitution, on the referendum on April 16 from 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in Sci 101. Sunrise needs one-third of the student body to vote in favor of the referendum to pass.

“The part that is important to us is the debate that will happen, so that people who also have opposing views to this can express their concerns, so the student body can be the most informed they can be about this, because this is a campus issue,” said Yuan.

Sunrise is asking the college, but more specifically the Board of Managers, to divest from fossil fuel companies. The divestment campaign began at the college in 2010 and is the longest-running fossil fuel divestment campaign in the world, according to Aru Shiney-Ajay ’20, a student leader in Sunrise.

The group is also asking that the Board repeal the 1991 ban preventing the board from divesting for social reasons. The Board announced their decision to divest from apartheid South Africa in 1986 following over a decade of student activism. By 1990, the school had fully divested In 1991, the Board adopted a new investment strategy, specifying that the “Investment Committee manages the endowment to yield the best long-term financial results, rather than to pursue other social objectives.”

The first time that the board announced it would stick by its 1991 financial decision was in September 2013. In 2015, students staged a protest in Parrish Parlors for 32 consecutive days calling for divestment from fossil fuels. Last year, an SGO referendum passed calling the Board of Managers to divest. In response, the Board reaffirmed their 2015 commitment to the 1991 resolution.

To a portion of students on campus, that 1991 strategy appears morally incomprehensible when juxtaposed with the 1986 decision to divest.

“The precedent the school set [by instituting the 1991 ban and not listening to last year’s referendum] was that the school was wrong in divesting from apartheid which means that the school is saying they should not have done that and they should have continued to support that,” Yuan said.

But Timothy Burke, a professor specializing in modern African history and chair of the History Department, has been critical of these efforts. In an opinion piece for The Phoenix published in 2015 titled “Against Divestment,” Burke writes that divestment from oil companies is perhaps simply window dressing. He argues that many other companies that the college is likely to invest in are as responsible for human rights violations, climate change, and armaments as are oil companies.  

“If the goal is moral purity—a college without dependence upon destructive, exploitative, unethical businesses or institutions—it is hard to imagine the investment screen that could accomplish that to general satisfaction,” wrote Burke.

Nevertheless, Shiney-Ajay and Jissel Becerra Reyes ’20, another member of Sunrise, say that the Board of Managers is resisting efforts to repeal the ban and divest because they had such a negative experience in 1991.

“After the Board of Managers divested from apartheid in 1991, they [supposedly] cited the process as being too scarring for them. And I think that points to the Board of Managers being very avoidant and not being completely comfortable answering moral and social questions about investment, and I think that is very antithetical to Swarthmore’s stated purpose to take into consideration social and ethical concerns,” said Shiney-Ajay.

“It’s just a matter of time before the Board has to engage with these questions,” said Becerra Reyes.

Some pessimism about divestment

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Sunrise has had a good week. SGO recently announced that they will invest surplus funds from the student activity budget into BlackRock, an investment fund that prioritizes environmental sustainability and refuses to invest in fossil fuels. While this is not really “divestment” as Sunrise claims, since the money wasn’t invested into fossil fuels in the first place, it’s a good opportunity to talk about the larger issues of divestment that so frequently come up at Swarthmore. Taking strong action to combat climate change is important, and divestment can be a step towards greener institutions and communities, but it has serious limitations.

The first and most important point about divestment is that it has virtually no concrete effect. While institutions of higher education like Swarthmore control enormous amounts of money in their endowments, they pale in comparison to the total capitalization of the fossil fuel industry: 60 trillion dollars worldwide. For reference, the total endowments of every university in the United States make up less than 1 percent of that number — and each school has only a fraction of its endowment invested in fossil fuels. The divestment of such a miniscule amount of equity only leads to its purchase by investors who don’t care that the stocks are in fossil fuels.

There are a few opportunity costs to this course of action, the first being that by divesting, the divester loses all sway with the company in question. Instead of, for example, forming a bloc with similarly inclined investors and pushing for the company to shift away from fossil fuels, divestment leaves the green side out in the cold. Better to stay in, with access to information about the workings of the company and lines of communication with other investors who can make a boardroom push. The resources and institutional knowledge that fossil fuel grants have in research and development can and sometimes are hugely important in developing green technologies. In areas ranging from carbon capture to efficient power storage to biofuels, fossil fuel firms have the ability and — sometimes — the wherewithal to pursue new solutions. And a diversified, dynamic approach to research and development is likelier to be more successful than efforts at top-down investment (see the U.S. government’s disastrous investment in Solyndra).

It’s also needlessly reductive — there are many different types of fossil fuels and ways to produce them, and some are much better than others. Oil is cleaner and less destructive to extract and transport than coal, for example. A pipeline is a lot less likely to spill than a truck or a train is to crash, burns no fuel for transport, and is less ecologically destructive than new rail or road systems, according to a study by the Canadian Fraser Institute. And natural gas, which has led to most of the growth in American energy over the past decade (and a large part of our economic recovery in the Midwest, creating 750,000 jobs), is far cleaner than both. According to Brad Hager, the director of MIT’s Earth Resources Laboratory, it actually reduced our carbon footprint. While gas is by no means a solution to climate change, it is far preferable to other sources that would otherwise supply power green energy still cannot. Wind, solar, and geothermal energy still suffer from serious problems with location, intermittency, and storage; nuclear energy is almost impossible to get off the ground politically.

Campaigns for divestment can also sidestep the problems of consumption. The reason that firms still mine or drill or frack for fossil fuels is because there is a persistent demand for them, which divestment is incapable of addressing. And in developing countries, the problem is both more pronounced and more open to solutions. While countries like India, China, and Brazil will have to deal with population growth, greater industrialization and their accompanying emissions, they also have a more leeway to build greener infrastructure, due to having significantly less existing energy and power infrastructure in the first place. However, it’s just not feasible for fossil fuels to be taken out of the equation completely: we can’t even do that in the U.S. yet.

Governments that are in the process of trying to lift millions of people out of poverty are going to have to use fossil fuels alongside green energy. Trying to incentivize less harmful fossil fuels like shale gas, using safer modes of transport like pipelines, and encouraging companies like Shell that invest in clean energy systems and advocate for action on climate change, are the best methods for dealing with the “mixed” economy we’re stuck with for the near future.

All of this is not to say divestment has no effect. Divestment is a symbolic action. Individual decisions to consume less, to advocate for action against climate change, and work for innovative solutions may come from this smaller action. I just worry that amid all the noise of sit-ins, protest, and public statements, we’ll lose sight of how much else actually needs to be done. There is nothing wrong with a symbol, but we can’t let it get in the way of action.

Sunrise, SGO, SBC to invest surplus money into a fossil-free fund

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On Friday afternoon around 12:30 p.m., the Student Government Organization, Student Budget Committee, and Sunrise Swarthmore gathered in Parrish Parlors to announce that they would be working together to invest unused money from student clubs into a fossil-free fund. This fund will be run by BlackRock, a large investment management firm with a commitment to long-term social and environmental sustainability.

The event was attended by about 20 students and faculty members. It was moderated by Aru Shiney-Ajay ’20 and included a line up of speakers from SGO, SBC, and Sunrise Swarthmore who support this initiative. One of the speakers was Sunrise member Jissel Becerra Reyes ’20 who shared a personal story about how climate change affected her family during Hurricane Irma.

“This anger is what drives me here today,” Becerra said.

The event in Parrish was organized to coincide with a Board of Managers meeting taking place in Kohlberg Hall. September Porras Payea ’20, one of the leaders of Sunrise Swarthmore, describes the event as both a celebration and a reminder to the Board that divestment is still a priority for many students on campus.

“We felt this event was especially necessary to both celebrate the action of SGO as a representative of the student body as well as to bring divestment back as a focus of our campaign,” Porras said.

Sunrise Swarthmore leaders publicized the investment of student money from the Swarthmore Capital Expenditure account as a small victory for students advocating for divestment. In a press release, they explained how investing unused student activity fees into a fossil free fund is a win for the divestment campaign.

“In a huge victory for the divestment campaign, SGO has announced that they are divesting all $600,000 of student-controlled money from fossil fuels … SGO’s decision reiterates where we stand — and it creates a new impetus for the Board. Students have chosen to divest our funds. We call on the Board of Managers to lead with us and divest from fossil fuels.”

Sunrise Swarthmore, previously Mountain Justice, has been pressuring the board to divest the endowment from fossil fuels since the group was founded seven years ago. In 2015, after a student sit-in organized by MJ, the Board announced their firm decision not to divest. This decision was based a policy created in 1991 that the Board would not take social issues into consideration when discussing the budget. The Board made clear their 2015 decision not to divest by creating the sustainability and investment policy, which asserts the Board’s decision “not to divest from fossil fuels, either on a full or partial basis.”

Sunrise Swarthmore’s most recent attempt to get the board to divest from fossil fuels occurred last spring, when they launched an SGO referendum for students to vote on a plan for partial divestment. The referendum demonstrated that, of the 880 students who voted, 80.5 percent of students supported divesting from fossil fuels. The Board of Managers and President Valerie Smith responded to the referendum by re-affirming the Board’s 2015 decision not to divest, citing the sustainability and investment policy.

Nevertheless, Porras expressed Sunrise’s excitement for their collaboration with SGO and what the partnership means for the divestment movement on campus.

“We are inspired by the passion of the student body when organizing events like these. The initiative taken by SGO to keep student funds fossil-free was exciting for us, and it has been amazing to create a strong partnership through both of our forces. Furthermore, discussions on campus, from classrooms to friends in Sharples, around divestment has been growing, and to be able to bring the fight back to campus has been an exciting moment for us,” she said.

For SGO, the referendum is one reason why they are collaborating with Sunrise Swarthmore to invest student funds into a fossil-free account, as the referendum is seen as a representation of the student voice. They explained that this partnership with Sunrise Swarthmore aligns with one of their many new objectives for this spring. For example, SGO co-president Nancy Yuan ’19 cited how SGO also sees the investment into a divested fund as a method of eliminating the activities fee in the future. She asserted SGO’s role in advocating for students while also establishing a lasting impact on campus.

“As SGO, we are here to support students and amplify voices for students. We really want to be the student voices,” Yuan said, “and lower tuition is something all students can support. In terms of institutional change, this is something we can really change.”

Yuan explained how this fund works and why SGO supports the fund as a more fiscally responsible option.

“At the end of the year, if clubs don’t use all the money, it goes into the Swarthmore Capital Expenditure account. Right now, the money is just sitting in a bank account losing value because of inflation. The smarter thing to do is invest this money.” Yuan said. “We support investing it because it is a smarter use of student money, and over 30 to 40 years-time, it should eliminate the need for the student activities fee.”

While the Board will not divest the endowment from fossil fuels, SGO and Sunrise are asserting a student approach to divestment; they are advocating for investing surplus student activity funds from the Swarthmore Capital Expenditure account into a fossil-free fund that three members of the Board of Managers established in 2015 with BlackRock, a socially-conscious investment fund.

SGO hopes to use the returns from the fund to eliminate the activities fee for future students, which currently costs each student $398 per academic year. By investing in a fossil-free fund, SGO and Sunrise feel they are upholding both economic sensibility and social justice.

Grant Brown ’21, another student from Sunrise Swarthmore, explained why investing the surplus student money in fossil free funds is necessary for upholding environmental justice.

“Divestment represents a true commitment to the core values that found and sustain Swarthmore,” he said. “It shows that we are still committed to equity, selflessness, and acting on ethical principles no matter the pressures from external influences.”

Yuan also mentioned the need to affirm social justice in our actions, explaining how investing in a fossil-free fund is one way of modeling this value.

“Since BlackRock is one of the largest socially-conscious investment funds, it makes a lot of economic sense,” Yuan said.

Ethan Chapman ’19 views the investment of student activity funds into a fossil-free account as a positive action taken by student organizations that demonstrates the interests of students to the Board.

“I am happy to see school organizations acting responsibly for a change. All that really matters is convincing the Board to address its conflicting interests,” he said.

As the semester continues, Swarthmore Sunrise and SGO plan to continue to collaborate on the BlackRock investment of student funds. Yet, both groups will also continue to further their individual missions as well. For Swarthmore Sunrise, this means further pressuring institutions and policy makers to reinvest in just solutions to the climate crisis. They hope to continue to organize around divestment while also engaging in political action off-campus to elect officials who are dedicated to fighting climate change.  For SGO, this means carrying out the wishes of students, including strengthening their relationship with affinity groups and encouraging groups to use more of the activities budget through a SEPTA ticket program.

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.

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