The Rutgers University Student Assembly’s fall 2020 Elections Appeals Committee released its judgment regarding the referendum on the student activity fees. The committee upheld the referendum, permitting the Assembly to consolidate all undergraduate student activity fees.
The Daily Targum previously reported the professional school governing councils initially received 80 percent of the student activity fees from undergraduate students enrolled in that professional school, while the remaining 20 percent went to the Assembly.
Ethan Zang, president of the Engineering Governing Council (EGC) and a School of Engineering senior, and Gaurav Pathak, president of the Pharmacy Governing Council (PGC) and an Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy graduate student, filed the appeals against the referendum for constitutional violations, standing rules violations and elections code violations, according to the Targum.
Zang argued at the hearing that there was no precedent allowing the Assembly to make changes to fees affecting organizations funded by the governing councils, the Targum reported previously. He also cited the lack of involvement from the Student Fee Advisory Committee (SFAC).
The committee found that the Assembly does have the jurisdiction to consolidate the student fee, even without the SFAC. Their ability to amend their constitution with referendum and approval from the undergraduate student body includes the power to change the student fee, according to the ruling.
The Assembly President Nicholas LaBelle, a Rutgers Business School senior, said the ruling reaffirms that the Assembly is representative of all students.
Zang and Pathak both said they respect the committee’s decision, even though Zang said it was not the outcome they had hoped to see.
“We're definitely going to work with (the Assembly) and the other governing councils to, at the very least, keep the existing 80/20 student fee distribution for the next year,” he said. “I'd like to see it kept for at least two years because quite frankly, any proposed change that's made now cannot possibly take effect this year.”
LaBelle said the Assembly created a bill to extend the 80/20 split through July 1, 2021, which he hopes will be endorsed by all governing councils. The bill also calls for the creation of a sustainable governance and fee ad-hoc committee with all parties to address allocations further.
“Beyond that, my office is issuing an Executive Order tomorrow to begin crafting long-lasting solutions that benefit all students, in every school, and furnish a report before my term expires,” LaBelle said.
Zang said he hopes the Assembly will continue allocating 80 percent of professional school student fees toward organizations within that school. If this ruling results in less funding for the organizations currently funded by the EGC, he said, it will have a negative impact on students in the School of Engineering.
“Our professional organizations serve a really specific purpose on campus and that's an extension of their academic and professional development,” he said. “That entire component of the college experience is going to be jeopardized if the funding for engineering professional organizations is decreased in the future.”
In the case of fifth- and sixth-year Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy students, the committee ruled the Assembly could not take their student activity fees because they are considered graduate students. All student fees paid by graduate pharmacy students will continue to go to the PGC.
The bill regarding the constitutional amendments was unavailable during the course of the election, according to the Targum. In the question sent to student emails, a single sentence explanation of the fee change and a link to documents from the Constitutional Reform Ad-Hoc Committee meetings accompanied the copies of the original and proposed constitutions.
The committee ruled that sufficient information was available to voters and did not amount to a violation of the fairness clause in the elections code.
Zang said even though the information provided was deemed by the committee as sufficient, he believes the Assembly should still work to frame future referenda questions so that they are clearer, contain detailed background information, and can be easily understood by students.
LaBelle said the Assembly’s Internal Affairs Committee will work to find more direct methods of sharing information for future elections.
“We must learn from any potential, even if unintentional, errors that were made in this process,” he said. “Our democracy is based on an active electorate and as such steps are being made to promote turnout and knowledge in the spring via institutional mechanisms.”
The committee also found that Jason Yu, a Cook Class of 2022 representative and a Rutgers Business School junior, did violate the fairness and neutrality clauses of the elections code, but ruled that this did not invalidate the referendum.
Yu released voter count information to the Assembly’s Slack channel and encouraged its members, many of whom are Assembly members, to increase voter turnout. Zang said at the hearing that Assembly members would likely seek voters in favor of the referendum, citing Yu’s own language on Slack that suggested support of the constitution, according to the Targum.
Bilal Y. Ahmed, the Assembly Parliamentarian and a School of Arts and Sciences junior, said this ruling normally would have resulted in Yu being referred to the Internal Affairs Committee, but since the appellants were more concerned with the constitution itself, they did not wish to bring direct charges against Yu.
LaBelle said Yu is also a current member of the Internal Affairs Committee and said Yu is writing a revised Elections Code to prevent similar situations from happening in the future.
Pathak said he hopes the ruling in Yu’s case will encourage the Assembly to be more transparent in future elections.
“This year they used a Slack account which was not readily accessible to the general public,” he said. “I hope with the hearing of our third case, going forward they will use an email list server or a more transparent method of communication.”
Even though the Appeals Committee was an extension of the Assembly, Zang said it was the only channel for EGC and PGC to address their concerns regarding the constitution.
“I did have a conversation with (Ahmed) and the rest of the Appeals Committee as well as their faculty advisor, and they assured me that they would remain unbiased and only (be) evaluating this based on the governing documents themselves,” he said.
Pathak said he believes the Appeals Committee was thorough and that the hearing process was run fairly.
LaBelle said one of the committee members, Maggie Maniar, a School of Engineering senior, is the sitting president of the Douglass Governing Council and was selected based on her fair judgment.
Zang and Pathak both said their organizations are committed to working with the other governing councils and the Assembly to preserve funding for professional school organizations.
Zang said the Assembly is considering to establish a standing committee with representation from each of the governing councils that would have to approve future student fee modifications, which he said could help increase transparency within the organization.
“I appreciate (the Assembly’s) initiative in reaching out to us to work together to make sure that the issues with the current referendum and what's happened in the last month or so won't happen in the future,” Zang said.