Students raise concerns over student senate constitution 9

By Michelle Embree


(Logo provided)

After examining the student senate constitution, junior Steven Uhey, a pre-law major, has many concerns with the phrasing and clarity of it. Questions about the constitution were also raised by some students in the Q&A with the student body presidential candidates March 5 during the senate election.

“It’s just been a trend of apathy really with student senate which honestly in past years didn’t matter,” Uhey said. “It’s like I’m auditing student senate.”

Junior Aron Tan defeated current student body president sophomore Luke McConnell in the election. Now, he said his primary goal going into next year is to fix the current constitution.

“My hope … is that there is much more clarity in the constitution,” Tan said. “There were issues when we had our Q&A where students brought up the constitution the way they interpreted it, and it wasn’t clear.”

Students specifically raised concerns with the clause addressing who senate has the power to fund. Article 4 section 3 of the constitution states that senate has “the power to allocate funds to campus clubs and organizations.” In the past, senate has allocated funds to individuals for projects and to independent groups raising mission funds. Students questioned whether these groups were included in this clause.

“I think that some of the constitution is written with some space for some interpretation,” Ron Coffey, Ph.D., student senate adviser, said. “I think there are some areas where there is some space for senate to interpret … I imagine that for some people they are uncomfortable with that because they don’t like any ambiguity at all and for others they probably prefer it.”

Uhey said his main concern is with senate being able to provide the records showing that their current constitution was properly ratified.  The current constitution was drafted in 1998 and ratification would have required approval from 2/3 of the student union — roughly 594 students — at the time. The student union is made up of all students that pay the student activity fee and are taking at least 12 credit hours.

“Without proper documentation of the signatures, student senate does not have the authority to allocate any funds,” he said. “Without a valid constitution, student senate, in theory, should not exist.”

Coffey and senior Jason Wright, student body vice president, both said they were unaware of any records kept specifically of votes to pass amendments and to ratify the constitution.

“There is an expectation [to keep records],” Coffey said. “I can’t say that it is always done to perfection, but we do have a repository of past constitutions so we can see the progression of changes that have been made over time.”

The past constitutions for each year are kept in the student life office and student senate minutes up until December 1993 can be found in the library archives.  Minutes, which include information on when amendments were passed, from August of 2013 to the present can be found on the student portal, but they were not available until March 2013. The minutes for years between 1993 and 2013 are unaccounted for in either of these locations.

Randy Neuman, director of the United Brethren Historical Society, said he does not remember ever receiving any records from student senate.

“Student government is somewhat transient,” he said. “Without a written record retention, policy items get overlooked and sometimes destroyed.”

Neuman said keeping accurate records is a valuable asset for an organization.

“Accurate documentation of the past is a key to analyzing how an institution has arrived at this point and how it can avoid future mistakes,” he said. “Records also support decision making and the documentation of actions.”

McConnell said the constitution is still valid.

“It is my understanding that the constitution did have to have a 2/3 student body approval to make any changes to it,” he said.  “Any and all revisions and changes to the constitution have been approved by a 2/3 student body vote as to the requirements of the original constitution.”

Uhey said it is crucial that senate “needs to show us that they have a valid constitution.”

“With the current lack of documentation, we are forced to assume that student senate has illegitimately allocated roughly $500,000 since 1998,” he said. “Honestly, it’s not really their fault, the current student senate. It’s the fault of senate over the past 16 years.”

The constitution will be reviewed this spring as it is every year by a committee which consists of the student body president and four other members of student senate. The committee has yet to be determined.

“We depend on students to collectively work at having the constitution reflective as much as possible of what’s necessary for the organization to conduct business,” Coffey said. “But it is, in the end, a student document by students.”

Wright said that he thinks change is on the horizon.

“There seems to be more of a push, more of an interest in it, and we might do more than we normally do,” he said. “I think nobody has really cared about it so we’ve just kind of let it slip and now that there’s people interested in it I think we will actually see a change.”

Uhey said he is “not trying to cut down student senate.”

“But they have power to delegate quite a lot of funds, and the president is a voting member of the board of trustees,” Uhey said. “I think they should be held very strictly to their constitution.”

9 thoughts on “Students raise concerns over student senate constitution

  1. Reply Erin Rockey Apr 3,2014 12:51 pm

    I am thankful that students are becoming more involved in Student Senate this year. It has sparked new interests in aspects which needs improved and addressed. The concern has also challenged us as member of Senate in discovering meaningful ways we can help increase unity and transparency on our campus. Part of our mission as Senate members is to make decisions in order to help the community at HU grow spiritually, academically, and socially. Therefore, yes it can become politics to follow our constitution. Also, we have allocated funds to projects and mission funds to put our mission into action. We have the funds to help students grow spiritually, academically, and socially so we provide resources for students. Our mission should be more important than our constitution as we are a voice for students to make their time at HU the best it can possibly be. The constitution absolutely needs updated and more clear which is one of the top priorities on the list for next year’s Senate. Overall, we have supported and provided financial resources allowing our fellow peers to grow in every way possible.

  2. Reply Steven Uhey Apr 3,2014 1:38 pm

    The mission of student senate is very important. There are improvements on campus that the students have senate to thank for. However, a simple mission statement is far too vague to hold the group adequately accountable. Ultimately, the constitution serves the purpose of holding the senate accountable to a specific set of rules. In order for student senate to adequately represent the interests of students, they must have a set of rules which are approved by students. Otherwise, student senate can act however it sees fit; sometimes serving the interests of students, other times not so much. I’m quite certain that the vast majority of the student body would appreciate, and often demand, a document which clearly sets expectations for the senate in order to best serve the interests of the student body.

  3. Reply Kris Burgess Apr 3,2014 5:21 pm

    My hat goes off to both the Huntingtonian, and Steven Uhey for this great piece of journalism.

    Erin, as much as I feel the sentiment behind your post is good and wholesome, it is little more than fluff.

    A body such as the HU student senate, as Steven mentioned, has NO authority to act, allocate, follow its mission, unless its Constitution exists and was ratified by the body it governs, i.e. the students who meet the criteria.

    You say “it can become politics to follow our constitution,” and I am not exactly sure what you’re getting at. I am inferring that you think that if students want, then Senate can start abiding by its constitution. However, I would ask “what in the world was senate doing before, doing whatever it wanted?”

    Also, you state “our mission should be more important than our constitution.” Senate has no mission without a constitution, I hope you understand that.

    I am fairly liberal-minded when it comes to how the United States Supreme Court should interpret the U.S. Constitution, and I tend to fall in line with purposivists and intentionalists. But, I AT THE LEAST agree with the conservative textualist notion that a governing body has no authority to act outside of the four corners of a governing document! Not to mention “updating” and making more “clear” seem to be two of the lesser problems that lay ahead of HU’s senate. If there is no documentation of authorization, over the course of sixteen years of action, there could be some negative repercussions.

    I hope that you and the other Senators are ready to seriously tackle this problem, keeping in mind that your only mission is the mission given to you by the students of Huntington University.

    I look forward to seeing or hearing the progress of HU’s senate constitution. I hope that next year’s president, Aron Tan, can lead a productive, transparent, process of fixing the senate’s governing document.

  4. Reply James Parker Apr 3,2014 5:23 pm

    Steven Uhey….STUD

  5. Reply Brad Barber Apr 3,2014 6:24 pm

    I agree with Kris’ condemnation of Erin’s remarks. The comments may be well-intended, but it is no way to operate a respectable institution. Based on her remarks, Senate could start deciding its mission was to give only to projects that its members were apart of — the slippery slope to a very bad and corrupt organization would be realized without a doubt.

    One of the things that Dr. Coffey said, or I implied from his comments, was that the constitution is ambiguous so that it can be interpretted by Senate (which he claims some people will like, some people will not). That is no way to run an organization either. Who holds Senate accountable in their interpretation?

    I think what Coffey is getting at is that Senate’s Constitution is like the US Constitution, which is freely interpreted by Congress (with Senate being analogous to Congress in this metaphor). However, that is an improper distinction here because when Congress interprets the US Constitution, it is held in check by the Executive and Judicial branches (with the Judiciary being the absolute check).

    HU has no executive or judiciary branch to keep Senate’s interpretation in line with what Senate’s constitution says, so designing a system that relies on unilateral interpretation by the agency that is bound by the constitution (as Coffey implied) is very bad policy.

    On one final note, while I support Steven and the others in their endeavor to get an official, correctly approved Senate constitution, he is mstaken in claiming that without Senate proving its constitution’s legitimacy, then it is illegitimate. As Steven will come to find out in law school, in most cases it is the person that is claiming the wrongdoing or illegitimacy of actions that has the responsibility to prove this claim. This is true in most cases, and especially when the defendant in a claim is a government authority (or quasi-government like Senate is). Senate does not need to respond with proof of its constitution’s legitimacy, although the fact that it has none does make it suspect and will not win it any support.

  6. Reply Kris Burgess Apr 3,2014 7:19 pm

    Although I understand what you’re getting at Brad, I believe that a lack of ratification would be a basic showing of the case that senate has no authority to even exist.

    Brad, as you are well aware, we could talk things like promissory estoppel, and whether or not an actual binding contract between the students and the senate is evident from the practice and carryings on of the senate over the years, but it would be between us and whatever other legal-minded folks choose to jump in.

    In general, I would guess that showing a lack of authority by not having any ratified constitution would place the burden on the senate to show that it has legitimacy. Burden shifting is all over the law, so why wouldn’t it apply to this case.

    Either way on that issue, I completely agree with your analysis. The HU student senate constitution is not anywhere close to the U.S. Constitution, or does it on the surface seem to have any parallel with the U.S. system of government. Therefore, I would agree with you, that any sort of interpretation doctrine falls short of applying unless maybe there is some record or clause in the actual document stating how it should be interpreted. Absent that, I would have to say that there would have to be very minimal interpretation.

  7. Reply Erin Rockey Apr 3,2014 7:27 pm

    You all know much more about history and law than I do and I respect your input. I want you all to know that Senate does have the students’ and university at the heart of what it does. There are many aspects which need changed as well. The constitution needs to be addressed by next year. You have all brought up strong points which need to be considered this coming year. I have noticed our Senate could use someone whose passion is rooted in law and who specializes in that area to increase the effectiveness of our Constitution. I know the Senate members for next year would be more than willing to work with a knowledgeable group to fix its constitution. In case you could be on Senate next year, Steven, I think it is something you should consider!

  8. Reply Kris Burgess Apr 17,2014 9:31 am

    Erin I appreciate your response.

    However, as a side to any current students, it concerns me that as many alums as current students responded to this article. I feel that it reflects a trend that has likely continued on campus – lack of student involvement in issues that DIRECTLY affect the students.

    Nothing will change unless students take initiative and stir up discussion. I hope that the conversation becomes more extensive as the process moves on.

  9. Reply Willis Barber Apr 18,2014 4:37 pm

    I just want to say that it excites me that there are non-Senate students on campus who care about what Student Senate is doing. When I attended HU it seemed like students on campus only cared about what Senate was doing if they thought Senate was doing something wrong….oh, wait – seems nothing has changed.

    I don’t know the full story on why all of a sudden there are students demanding that Senate has “proof it exists” and are questioning what authority they have to do the things they do. And honestly, I don’t care. It seems to me that the majority of campus only cares about what Senate is doing when they think Senate is doing something wrong. When I was a student Senate did many great things for the campus – we changed the dance policy, we got new televisions for Baker hall, we worked with the DC to get healthier options, we worked with the DC on what they accepted for meal exchange, we funded small maintenance projects, etc. But no one seemed to care about those items. The Huntingtonian didn’t even report on many of these. But as soon as we put a TV in the dinning commons everyone had a response to it. Senate never hid anything we did from the students. Every meeting was public, and all of our minutes were published online (not sure how some minutes seem to be missing – I may have some old minutes on my computer somewhere for anyone who’s interested.)

    I think the case is similar here. Senate was going about their regular business and all of a sudden something happened that got a few students fired up. The same students who a week earlier could care less about what Senate was doing.

    Also, if the constitution is so bad, then why was it ever approved by the student body in the first place? What has changed since 1998 that makes this constitution invalid? I guess I have a hard time understanding that.

    I don’t plan on reading any posts after mine, so if you write a comment back to me and don’t get a response don’t be shocked. I’m not trying to start any arguments, just voicing my opinion.

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