Proposed SBC Independence Ignites Debate Within SGO

On September 27, Student Budget Committee Chair Yin Xiao ’20 submitted a series of proposed amendments to the Student Government Organization’s constitution to SGO members. What started as a debate about logistical changes to SBC’s procedures evolved into a debate about whether SBC ought to be independent from SGO. This debate has occupied nearly all of SGO’s Senate-wide meetings since September and as of publication, no resolution has been reached.

These amendments would, among other things, change the way that SBC chairs are selected, raise the spending limit requiring SGO review, revoke the SGO Chair of Student Organization’s SBC voting rights, and form a Projects Advisory Committee. In a letter to SGO members, Xiao declared that SBC would now be independent from SGO; he justified this decision as a means to remove political considerations from SBC:

“The main issue regarding the relationship between SBC and SGO is that SBC is a non-political student institution while SGO is a political one. SBC can’t take a stance in campus politics, and it becomes very problematic when the parent organization SGO often does,” he wrote.

Under the current SGO constitution, SBC operates essentially as a subsidiary of SGO. Unlike other SGO committees, though, members of SBC are appointed rather than elected by the student body. They hear proposals from student groups and allocate funds pooled from the student activities fee to these groups. SBC handles upwards of $600,000 on a yearly basis.

Xiao announced to SBC on September 24th that he intended to pursue independence. The committee unanimously approved a new constitution, which would replace SBC’s old bylaws. Xiao also consulted administrators from the Office of Student Engagement about SBC’s independence.

Xiao thoroughly explained each proposed amendment to new SGO members on Sept. 30. SGO President Gilbert Orbea ’19 described the response from senators as strained.

“SGO members were blindsided by the whole thing because they had less than 48 hours to digest everything,” Orbea said. “Also many of them don’t have a perfect understanding of SBC, as most students don’t, because of the fact that SBC is a very reclusive organization.”

Soon after this first meeting, interactions between SGO executive board and Xiao disintegrated. They have not met in person in several weeks.

“I asked him [to meet] multiple times … Yin just said ‘No, we’re not going to speak. There’s nothing to speak about,’ which is not a great policy, for a leader to deny speaking about his proposals,” SGO Vice President Kat Capossela ’21 said.

However, Senator Tommy Dell ’20 feels that Xiao’s anger on behalf of SBC is valid, citing SGO’s track record of interacting with other student groups. “I think the contentious nature of this is sort of part of a broader pattern of people being very frustrated with SGO, and rightfully so … we’ve had a lot of dysfunction, we haven’t been very receptive,” he said.

Though Xiao has not attended recent SGO meetings, his proposals have still been a topic of much discussion, occupying a substantial portion of the agenda at each of the past two Senate meetings.

The biggest topic of debate has been whether SBC ought be independent from SGO. Orbea feels that separating SBC from SGO would reduce accountability. He also feels that Xiao’s argument that SGO exerts undue political influence over SBC is misleading.

“When I asked ‘give me an instance where SGO has ever influenced a decision by SBC, give me an SGO president or executive board member who has ever gone to an SBC meeting, and hovered over the decision-making process’ … There’s never been an instance, at least the four years that I’ve been here,” Orbea said.

Capossela, on the other hand, is more sympathetic to Xiao’s call for independence. She feels that the conversation has been misconstrued to represent a bigger ideological debate that extends too far beyond the scope of the actual proposals.

“I think it just boils down to an issue of semantics. I think what independence can be is two separate bodies that engage in a very tight system of checks and balances with one another,” she said.

It’s unclear whether independence would actually have any bearing on SBC’s operations. “I don’t really see how it could be a huge impact,” SBC member Jasmine Xie ’20 said. She also confessed that she did not know that SBC was affiliated with SGO until recently.

The amendments themselves, with a few major exceptions, have been fairly non-controversial. SGO members voted on responses to Xiao’s amendments at an Oct. 28 Senate meeting.

SGO members broadly supported an amendment proposed by Xiao that would change the appointment process for future SBC chairs. Currently, the SBC chair is selected by the outgoing SGO co-presidents and the previous SBC chair, while the SBC committee is selected by the appointments committee. Under the new rules, SBC chair will be selected by an ad hoc committee, consisting of the outgoing chair and all chairs emeriti, the SGO president, and two OSE officials. This new committee would, as Xiao wrote, “mitigate … any personal bias of individual students.”

“The appointment of voting members on SBC and the appointment of the chair of SBC was all directed through SGO, which gave a lot of power to someone like the appointments chair or the president, or the previous SBC chair … There is no intense vetting process and it allows for some sketchy things to happen like friends appointing friends,” Chair of Student Organizations Akshay Srinivasan ’21 said.

In 2014, the selection committee for SBC chair was accused of nepotism when they selected a student who had no previous experience in SBC and who was also in a relationship with the SGO President. Controversy also cropped up when this summer, SBC approved a record-breaking $60,000 funding request for a concert spearheaded almost entirely by former Appointments Committee Chair Henry Han ’20. In his time on SGO, Han appointed all current members of SBC.

Xiao also introduced an amendment that would change the budget threshold for SGO review, which proved to be more controversial. Under SBC’s current bylaws, any funding request above 1 percent of SBC’s budget (about $6,170) must be approved by SGO. This bylaw was invoked for the first time in recent memory for Han’s concert funding request. Xiao proposed to raise that cap to 2 percent, or about $12,340.

Capossela put forward a proposal scrapping this new limit, which Orbea also supported. This proposal passed the Senate with majority support.

“Why he wanted to bump it up to 2 percent makes no sense to me, which is why I rejected it. You’re saying you want checks and balances and yet you’re increasing the amount of money that you can decide by yourself,” Capossela said.

Still, some senators feel the current limit does not do enough to promote accountability. Murtaza Ukani ’22 proposed lowering the limit further, to 0.5 percent, or about $3,085.

“My overall understanding of the history of SBC is that there have been repeated violations of trust as a result of mishandling of funds and abuses of power,” he wrote in an email. “I feel that it is the responsibility of elected representatives to hold the SBC accountable by providing more oversight over its functions. As of now, there seems to be a remarkable disconnect between the broader student body and the doings of the SBC. I believe that if SGO is able to build its relationship with students and receive the valuable insight students have to offer, then lowering the threshold to 0.5 percent, will be for the better. The process of handling of funds will become more [transparent] and more voices will be involved in the decision-making process that was previously restricted to a few.”

Ultimately, Ukani’s proposal was tabled to a future meeting, along with remaining amendments due to time constraints. The Senate also approved a proposal to start meeting on a weekly basis, which executive board members hopes will allow SGO to move beyond this topic more quickly to focus on other matters.

Though SBC’s future is in limbo, its day-to-day operations haven’t changed much, according to Xie. The only major difference is that, under the new amendments, Srinivasan no longer has a vote on SBC; one of the amendments rescinds the vote from the SGO Chair of Student Organizations.

On the SGO side, members hope that they will reach a resolution soon.

“I don’t want anyone taking away from this that it’s a … dogfight or a shitshow,” Orbea said. “This is a serious discussion about how money is allocated and how groups interact … I’m beyond excited to resolve this. I think it’s going to be fine.”

Featured image courtesy of Emma Chiao ’22

Katie Pruitt

Katie '20 is from McLean, VA, majoring in economics and minoring in political science. In the little time she isn’t studying, going to class, or working on The Phoenix, you can find her listening to podcasts or rereading the same ten or so books for the millionth, billionth time. She doesn’t know what she wants to do after college and she wishes that people would stop asking her about it.

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