Recent rash of College Council fiascoes demands policy reform

In a series of debates regarding the funding of publications on campus, College Council has taken actions that are contrary to its own bylaws. It has acted in an arbitrary and uninformed manner. CC is not bound by anything in its laws or constitution to act according to the expectations of the community. But CC is not justified in acting simply because it can interpret its own bylaws in a way that gives it the power to do so. To be responsible, CC must act in accordance with the expectations created by its bylaws and past applications of those bylaws.

Until it publicly rethinks its bylaws and policies, College Council must acknowledge these expectations: that organizations in subgroups will remain in subgroups and be funded for the whole year; that funding will not be subject to policies that do not yet exist; that CC will make a good-faith effort to fund each group to the extent of its ability; and that no group should be expected to prove or establish its popularity when other groups, due to the preferences of CC members, are simply accepted as valid and beneficial to the community.

Discrepancies expose problems

An important problem with CC funding practices has been revealed by the funding difficulties of both the Literary Review and the Mad Cow. The basic problem is that various CC members have taken it upon themselves to ignore their published mission statement and act under the fallacious assumption that they were elected to make decisions based on their own personal likes, dislikes and habits.

CC’s own “Principles of Allocation” (Section V A 6) states that “The College Council seeks, by its allocation process to encourage the active expression and exchange of the widest range of ideas, beliefs, and perspectives.” More specifically, CC’s mission with regard to funding through the Finance Committee is put forth as follows in Section IA: “The mission of the Finance Committee is the active promotion of group and personal creativity, social interaction, and political and cultural awareness through the allocation of the Student Activities Tax to student organizations.”

These statements define the Council’s mission as one of support and encouragement, without discrimination, to student organizations who seek to enrich campus life. Nowhere in any mission statement does it say that College Council’s goal is to create a campus with an ideal array of organizations who are deemed to be equally valuable by the CC members in any given year. CC’s implied goal is to give as much support as it can to each organization that students care enough about to work hard for every year.

Personal tastes irrelevant

Nelson Hioe’s comment that he doesn’t find the Mad Cow to be funny is totally out of place in College Council meetings – while a certain organization might not be personally important to a given CC member, chances are that that member is involved in a group that is not important to many others. CC members need to put personal feelings aside and look for ways to provide as much support to each group as much as they can.

According to Carrie Ryan ’00, at the last CC meeting “we decided it would be wise to begin [funding] magazines on a per semester basis. This would give us greater accuracy [in assessing] their popularity and would not force us into any funding situations.” She is supporting CC’s decision to remove the Lit Review from its subgroup (a completely unprecedented action which has yet to be explained) and fund both it and the Mad Cow on a per-semester basis.

All college groups that enter the subgroup funding process assume that their existence will be respected by CC and that they will be funded for the whole year. If CC can’t give them as much money as they ask for, that’s understandable. But to be told that their second semester existence depends on the ill-defined concept of popularity? That is ridiculous, discriminatory and irresponsible. How does a group prove its popularity? Does a group have to prove that it is at least as popular as other groups to continue to exist? Why does a group’s popularity with the campus at large matter?

It is a long recognized principle that groups who serve a small portion of the community (for example, any team sport, which exists only to serve the interests of its members and whose members constitute only a tiny percentage of the student body) should be supported by the community. Students understand that having a large variety of groups adds interest and diversity to campus, and that while each student might not participate in every group, each student benefits from the principle that a wide array of groups should exist. By taking a recognized campus group, such as the Literary Review or the Mad Cow, and implicitly threatening that it will be unfunded and forced out of existence if it cannot prove an undefined “popularity” in an undefined way, CC sets a frightening precedent.

Decision process becomes arbitrary

It must of course be acknowledged that CC does have limited resources and does need to prioritize them. But CC has a system to help it do this in a fair manner that does not pit organizations against each other in popularity contests; that is, the Finance Committee subgroup system. The debate over funding for the Lit Review highlights a crucial shortcoming in the CC funding procedure: the bylaws are not sufficiently clear about whose opinion on funding should be more binding, the opinion of College Council as a whole or the opinion of the Finance Committee and subgroups.

The relevant bylaw (Section IV B 5) reads as follows: “The College Council will approve all subcommittee budgets. The Council may recommend changes to portions of the subcommittee budgets. These changes will then return to subcommittee to be approved before returning to the Council for final approval.” (Emphasis added). The words “to be approved” are problematic because they imply that the subcommittee will always, without question, approve the changes that CC recommends.

But what if, as in the case of the Lit Review, the subcommittee does not approve Council’s recommendation? CC has decided that since it has ultimate jurisdiction over the funding process, it can simply vote to make its decision binding without consulting anyone again. Frankly, this makes the whole process of seeking subcommittee approval a farce. If the subcommittees are nothing but a rubber-stamp, why ask for their approval? The bylaw creates the expectation that subcommittee approval matters. CC has acted as if it does not. Again, CC has created the impression that it is an arbitrary body by acting counter to common expectations.

Policies lack formal backing

One last problem with CC’s funding decisions this semester has been it has used them to implement unwritten policies that, as a body, it has never agreed upon and thus never formally ratified. An example: tabling club sports’ funding until they came to CC to talk about hazing. CC has no policy that says that it can withhold funds to make members of a group talk about their social practices. Another example: originally, arts subgroup funding and Lit Review funding in particular were tabled because CC felt that it might want to ban the distribution of student publications to S.U. boxes (a policy proposal which has come up for the past two years, but which proved to be too divisive for CC to ever make into a formal regulation).

CC simply cannot toy with a group’s funding as a result of its own inability to make policy quickly; it must realize that until it enacts changes in regulations, it must fund groups as if those regulations do not exist.

College Council generally functions as a responsible governing body. But the irresponsibility it has displayed by introducing an element of arbitrariness into its fun
ding process is inexcusable and dangerous. CC must take steps to correct its irresponsible actions and continue to fund groups in accordance with the expectations set out in its bylaws until it can rewrite or publicly clarify these bylaws as necessary.

Reform proves necessary

A good start to this process would for CC to be more precise. For instance, the Secretary should record the exact wording of motions and read them back to members before they are voted on (the question “Wait, what did I just agree to?” is too common at Council meetings), and should put the motions as they were passed, instead of summaries of the motions, in the minutes. This will make it easier for members of the community at large to respond to College Council when it seems that CC has done something arbitrary or inexplicable, and will give CC a better starting point for explaining its actions.

However, precision in reporting its actions is not enough. In every disputed case this semester Council members have managed to explain the legality of their actions. But the very fact that CC has appeared to be arbitrary highlights the fact that CC members have forgotten the key to this form of student government: acting in accordance with the expectations its own bylaws produce. CC writes the bylaws and also interprets them.

To act responsibly, CC must interpret its bylaws in the way the community has come to expect; otherwise, it should write new bylaws that make new interpretations explicit. Often, students are content to let CC operate in a vague and undefined manner, and do not hold CC accountable for its actions. This year’s funding fiascoes have shown that College Council needs to be held accountable for its actions now, because it has ceased to act in accordance with the expectations it has created with regards to funding.

It is time for students to attack a difficult problem and examine the shortfalls of CC bylaws and practices in order to ensure that CC acts responsibly. Let CC know that this matters to you – one e-mail to opinions@wso from each student is all it takes. Finally, to the College Council: please decide on a plan of revision, even if it’s just forming a committee. Announce your plan publicly, and seek student input on revisions in a consistent manner on the issue.

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