Author: Rachel Cohn
A proposed draft for a new Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) constitution was disseminated to students via email Nov. 6. The student body has the opportunity to weigh in on the proposal before it goes to a campus-wide vote.
The current proposal, which corrects for ambiguities in the previous constitution and formalizes several new procedures, is the result of a roughly two-month long period of editing based on the feedback provided by members of all four branches of ASOC government and student service managers.
Tamara Himmelstein, assistant dean of students and director of student life, held three town hall meetings and created an online suggestion form for students to provide input on the constitution and ask questions about the proposed changes. Although all three town hall meetings were sparsely attended, students raised many concerns ranging from a need to refine wording within the constitution to the creation of an entirely new student government committee.
Some concerns, like the need to redefine the role of faculty members who oversee the branches of ASOC government from adviser to consultant, resulted in a consensus. Other issues, like whether funding for the Diversity and Equity Board (DEB) or defined grounds for the impeachment of an officer should be included in the constitution, were unresolved. Similarly, no conclusion came about from a discussion as to whether the GPA requirement of officers should be lowered from 2.75 to 2.5.
Himmelstein said that the bulk of concerns generally fell under three categories: jurisdiction in the event that bylaws of different branches conflict, the role of Honor Board and Senate’s budget.
In regard to bylaws, students raised questions about the process for establishing new bylaws and the means for resolving disputes about bylaws. In the discussion, students referenced tension between Honor Board and Senate last spring when debate arose over whether Honor Board had the power to review Senate’s bylaws — and decide whether Senate’s actions were constitutional — following the appeal of the impeachment of former ASOC president Chris Weeks.
When asked who would adjudicate were the event of a similar conflict between bylaws to arise again, Himmelstein suggested it would be Honor Board’s duty based on their role as the judicial branch of student government. She clarified that there is also an appeals mechanism in the current proposal of the constitution that allows students to challenge the decision on the grounds of bias, new information or procedural error, which would be reviewed by the faculty advisors of the branches.
A student pushed back against this, arguing that an appeals mechanism should be led by students rather than faculty advisers or administrators. Tim Lewis (junior) suggested a group be designated to adjudicate such concerns.
“I think having [individuals who serve in a bureaucratic role for each of the branches] as a separate constitutional consultant committee that is inherent to their position would be an effective way to … create an organization of students who actually know how the constitution works, who can serve as an advisory committee,” Lewis said at the Nov. 11 town hall.
Most of the few students in attendance agreed that this “constitutional committee,” made up of a single representative from each branch of student government, should be written into the constitution. This would allow the committee to rule on the interpretation of bylaws and other potentially controversial appeals or reviews and enable students to resolve conflicts themselves rather than deferring to administrators.
Students at the town hall meetings, including Amanda Wagner (senior), also raised concerns about both the role of Honor Board and the definition of the honor code. The proposal states the honor code as, “no student shall take unfair advantage of another student or member of the Occidental Community,” but does not explicitly define “honor.”
Students in attendance did not arrive at a decision about how honor should be defined, but did encourage Himmelstein to make that more clear in the constitution, which Himmelstein took note of.
The third theme of concern to students was the budget.
Students raised questions as to who decides the percentages of the budget that are reserved for student clubs, student services and scholarships; how much should be allocated to particular initiatives like Access Fund; whether funding for DEB should be secured in the constitution; and what branches ought be included in debates over allocation of the budget.
In an interview following the first two town hall meetings, Himmelstein acknowledged concerns she believes some students have about Senate’s budget.
“On the surface, students do struggle with this concept of how come 12 people can decide how $600,000 is spent,” Himmelstein said. “I get that, I get that people are going to be like, ‘That’s a lot of power.’ But I think we need to have faith that we are going to elect students who take that role seriously.”
In addition to increasing transparency with the budget, students also voiced concerns about the transparency of the process for making revisions to the constitution. Specifically, students wanted to know how Himmelstein intended to incorporate in feedback from students.
“Full disclosure: I have been the primary editor,” Himmelstein said. “But it has not been without feedback from all the branches.”
Her plan is to incorporate the comments from students into another revision of the proposal before sending it back to all the ASOC branches of government for a final revision. The current constitution stipulates that any changes to the constitution have to go directly to Senate before a student vote, so a final review by Senate will be the last step before opening up the vote to all students on campus.
Himmelstein encouraged the possibility of greater scrutiny by students.
“Take that moment to read it and give feedback,” she said. “Otherwise you can’t complain if you don’t like what you see. This is part of your duty — care about the community that you are a member of and the rules that you ultimately will have to abide by.”
After this student comment period closes, Himmelstein expects to open polls to students either Nov. 23 or Nov. 30.
Under the binding agreement of the existing constitution, any changes must be voted on by at least 20 percent of the student body, with two-thirds of those students voting in favor of the new proposed changes.
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