Student Senate has proposed a constitutional amendment which will appear before the Ohio University Board of Trustees for approval this Friday, January 18th. In a break with decades of history and due process observed by all five Ohio University senates, Student Senate seeks to operate independently of Board of Trustees oversight.

At Ohio University, five senates form part of a shared governance system which reports to and informs the President and Board of Trustees. These senates represent faculty (Faculty Senate), administrative staff (Administrative Senate), classified staff (Classified Senate), graduate and professional students (Graduate Student Senate), and undergraduate students (Student Senate). A panel representing all five senates presented a brief on shared governance and the role of each senate at the Board of Trustees meeting in June 2018.

In a bill passed by Student Senate on December 5, 2018 (SS BILL 1819-09), the representative body claims that Board of Trustees oversight of their constitutional amendments is a “hindrance” and “unsustainable”. The proposed constitutional amendment removes requirements that proposed amendments be presented to and approved by the Board of Trustees. The new proposed language is vague and allows broad interpretation: “This Constitution may be amended with the concurrence of a majority of students voting on the Amendment.”

The language Student Senate proposes falls short on two points: failure to define “students” and failure to specify a process for voting on amendments accessible to all of their constituents. Historically, these votes on amendments are only open to students present in person at the Student Senate meeting. On the surface, these shortcomings may appear minor and of little consequence. On the contrary, they are intended to redraw the lines in a decades-long effort to undermine the independent operation of Graduate Student Senate.

Despite the independent operation of Graduate Student Senate since the 1960s, ambiguous constitutional language and funding inequity allows Student Senate to claim that it, “represent[s] all students of Ohio University.” In the words of former Graduate Student Senate President Dominic Barbato, “for Student Senate to maintain that they represent graduate students despite all evidence to the contrary is as insulting as it is puzzling.” Ten years after Barbato expressed frustration at Student Senate the issue remains unresolved.

Student Senate’s claim of representing both undergraduate and graduate students hinges on its constitution’s ambiguous use of the word “student” and its lack of a prohibition on graduate student involvement. In theory, Student Senate could represent graduate students. In practice, it does not. Currently, one member of their entire body represents a professional program. Student Senate has no representation at all for any other graduate or professional program. In contrast, Graduate Student Senate has at least one representative for each and every graduate degree program. Graduate Student Senate has additional representatives for each college with a graduate degree program and commissioners for issues of specific concern to graduate students.

Why would Student Senate maintain its claim of representing both graduate students and undergraduate students? Greed. At present Student Senate controls a pool of student activities funding worth over $300,000. These funds are collected from the general fees of both graduate and undergraduate students. Student Senate has sole discretion in their disbursement. In its use of these funds, the primary beneficiary has historically been and continues to be undergraduate students.

Student activities fees paid by undergraduate students should enrich the experience of undergraduate students. Likewise, fees paid by graduate students should enrich the experience of graduate students. Student Senate has consistently opposed all actions by Graduate Student Senate to direct an appropriate portion of student funding toward the needs of graduate students. Given the lack of amicable cooperation in fiscal decision-making, Graduate Student Senate has advocated for the formal separation of graduate student activities funding from the pot of funding controlled by Student Senate.

Student Senate, at risk of losing unrepresentative control of funding which should be for graduate students, has dug in its heels on the one argument it can make. It maintains that it represents graduate students despite all evidence to the contrary.

The language in Student Senate’s latest bill continues its misleading ambiguous use of the word “student” to imply the representation of graduate students in addition to their true constituents. However, its effort to cast off Board of Trustees oversight is clear. It is an attempt to lay the groundwork for future constitutional changes which it fears the Board of Trustees would not approve. Student Senate’s motives are unveiled in the analysis of their argument for this constitutional amendment.

The resolution passed by Student Senate (SS Bill 1819-09) states:

“The process to include the Regional Affairs Commission in our Constitution was hindered due to the length of the current Constitutional change process…”

and

“The continuance of this process is neither timely nor sustainable…”

Neither claim is consistent with historical facts. The current Student Senate constitution calls for amendments passed by the senate to “be voted upon by eligible students in an election by the end of the following semester, excluding summer sessions.” Student Senate holds one such campus-wide vote per year, at the end of the school year. The Board of Trustees meets quarterly and can review applicable proposed amendments over the summer before the start of the next school year. The claim that Board of Trustees approval “hindered” the constitutional amendment process is clearly not rooted in expediency. Rather, Student Senate would prefer to operate without oversight.

Perhaps Student Senate wishes to shift its oversight to the President or the Vice President for Student Affairs, a move which could create a tenuous relationship if either party pushed back against a future Student Senate proposal. Would Student Senate have the power to make a constitutional change to be autonomous of the university administrators? The proposed constitutional amendment does not specify this or any new reporting structure. Would it need to answer to anyone at all?

I write this today as a 3-time Ohio University alum and former member of Graduate Student Senate. Ohio University needs its senates to represent and serve the interests of their respective constituents. Infighting and posturing do nothing to tackle real and present issues facing higher education and Ohio University students today. Moreover, Student Senate’s tactics leach energy and focus from the real issues.

It is past time for Student Senate to stand up and explain its positions. Why does it feel like it represents graduate students better than Graduate Student Senate? Why does it believe it deserves an inequitably large share of student activities funding? Why does it really want to be free from Board of Trustees oversight?

Daniel R. Williams is a graduate of Ohio University.