Colleges seek more authority over student senate

June 15, 2011 2:17:21 PM PDT
Some California community college students and advocates are concerned that a proposed policy change would allow the chancellor's office to stifle dissent from the Student Senate for California Community Colleges.

An amendment to the Board of Governors' standing orders up for review in July would give the chancellor and certain staff authority to "ensure the integrity" of the student senate, including making sure that members meet eligibility requirements and "establishing and enforcing minimum standards of student conduct."

A related draft policy would allow the chancellor's office to intervene if student senate members exhibit "willful disobedience" of college administrators at the council's monthly meetings and general assemblies.

The chancellor's office said it is responding to recent problems with student senators.

The student senate's constitution gives the group the power to discipline its own members, but the chancellor's office suggested in a report that the senate's conduct code is not explicit enough and has not been adequately enforced.

The issue has been divisive for the student senate, but the group voted at its meeting in May to support the chancellor's office position. Several motions to amend or postpone the proposal failed at the organization's June meeting.

Student Senate President Alex Pader said he's concerned that the changes would give the chancellor's office power that could be abused.

"There have been times when I have been willfully disobedient -- when they want me to do something and I don't think it's best for students," Pader said.

Reid Milburn, a former president of the student senate who now works as a higher education advocate, is concerned about how the policy will be used.

"There's just the potential for them to have undue influence over the council -- to take punitive action against individuals that are dissenting from the chancellor's office," she said.

A spokeswoman for the chancellor's office said the amendment will not be used to dictate policy positions to the student senate.

"The student senate has complete independence in deciding positions and actions that it wishes to pursue. The Chancellor's Office has never dictated policy to the student senate and the Standing Orders amendments will not have any impact on that relationship," spokeswoman Paige Marlatt Dorr said in an e-mail.

Still, she said, the student senate operates thanks to the funding and support of the administration and "has never been an independent organization."

Lee Fuller, a student senator who attends Coastline Community College and supports the change, said he did not believe the chancellor's office would stifle students' free speech. He said the senate had not been able to enforce its own conduct rules and needed outside help.

"It's really about having somebody there to really kind of take an observance role and be proactive in making sure that the students are maintaining that code of conduct," Fuller said.

A May 2011 presentation by Linda Michalowski, vice chancellor for student services and special programs, indicates that the amendment is part of a response to problems that came up last year.

In October, the council voted to remove the organization's treasurer, Rachael Richards, from her position -- accusing her of mismanaging the budget and violating the council's bylaws on conduct.

Some council members then complained the votes were violations of the Brown Act, a public meetings law, and improper parliamentary procedure. Some threatened lawsuits. Ultimately, Richards was reinstated as treasurer at the council's December meeting.

Michalowski's report also referred to problems with the senate academic eligibility process. Members must be enrolled with at least five semester units and meet academic standards. The chancellor's office conducted a review and found a few students had skirted eligibility requirements, according to the January 2011 report.

The senate has since changed the eligibility verification process to make it easier to check students' grade point averages. But Michalowski's presentation noted that staff at the chancellor's office and student senate members had butted heads over the issue and "the authority of the Chancellor's Office to conduct the eligibility verifications was challenged."

Under the proposed amendment, the chancellor's office would have the authority to enforce "minimum standards of conduct," which are not defined.

The draft conduct policy Michalowski provided to the council in early June prohibits alcohol, drugs and firearms at council meetings and general assemblies. It also bans "disruptive behavior, willful disobedience, or the open and persistent defiance or persistent verbal abuse of responsible college personnel or liaisons" and says violations could cause the chancellor's office to withhold state funds for future travel.

The Board of Governors is expected to take action on the changes at its meeting July 9-10.

The community colleges have had a statewide student senate since 1987, and the current structure was established in 2006. But the organization lacks the independent funding streams of other student associations in the state and relies much more on the administration.

Funding for the Student Senate for California Community Colleges comes primarily from the chancellor's office. The amount dwindled from $100,000 to $30,000 in 2007-08, according to a January report. The senate has no paid staff, and council members work out of a cubicle within the chancellor's office in Sacramento.

By contrast, the University of California Student Association is funded largely by student membership dues and has paid staff members working in rented offices. Membership dues brought in $450,000 in 2009-10. The California State Student Association, which advocates for California State University students, has a paid staff and receives about $189,000 from the chancellor's office under a trust agreement and about $258,000 from membership dues.

Dorr said chancellor's office staff drafted the amendment because the office funds the student senate and signs contracts with hotels where monthly meetings and assemblies are held. For that reason, she said, the office needs the policy and the authority to take action on "problematic behavior" if the council doesn't do so.

She said the amendment means that the chancellor's office will develop and enforce minimum standards of conduct for students participating in state-supported conferences and events.

Milburn worries that the language could give the chancellor's office carte blanche to take control of the student organization.

"In the interest of 'integrity,' they can do whatever they want to," she said. "There's no policy attached to that. There's nothing limiting what they can really do."

But Fuller said the idea that the new language could give the chancellor's office room to restrict freedom of expression was alarmist and unrealistic.

"I don't think anyone at the chancellor's office would risk the embarrassment... That would occur if they were to take such an action," he said. "It's not logical. Is it possible? Of course it is."

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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