Apr 6th, 2018, 05:21 PM

Opening the Floor: Discussions Follow Senior Speaker Controversy

By Gabriel Green
Dean of Student Services Marc Montheard addresses a group of students about concerns raised over Student Union flyers. Image Credit: Gabriel Green
AUP students, student government members, administrators debate senior speaker elections, SGA constitution, student union.

Throughout the week, three public discussions took place concerning issues surrounding the senior speaker elections and subsequent formation of a movement to create a student union at AUP. On Tuesday evening, Vice President and Dean of Student Services Marc Montheard, Dean of Student Development Kevin Fore, and AUP President Celeste Schenck hosted a town-hall style discussion in the Amex allowing students to express their concerns regarding the elections. The primary focus of this meeting was on the disqualification of senior speaker candidate Eleanor Dickinson on Friday, March 27.

The second meeting, held by organizers of the Student Union movement, also at the Amex, took place Wednesday morning with the purpose of answering questions and concerns posed by students and administrators regarding the Student Union. The final discussion to take place addressing these issues was held during the final 30 minutes of Wednesday’s SGA Senate session.

The senior speaker discussion

Tuesday’s discussion was the first in the line of debates which opened the floor for dialogue between students, SGA members, and AUP administration. The session began with an inquiry by GSS representative and Student Union organizer Dhouha Djerbi about why the administration chose to only send email invitations to the discussion to graduating seniors and graduates. “The main concern and the main debate goes around the graduation speaker election and the graduation speaker election is for seniors and graduates and the ceremony is for them. That's why we reached out to the seniors,” said Montheard, Vice President and Dean of Student Services. 

An AUP student shares her concerns, during an open discussion in the Amex on Tuesday, April 3, regarding the university administration's decision not to disseminate information to the student body that senior speaker candidate Eleanor Dickinson had been disqualified from recent elections. The student expressed that she felt that this move by the administration did not seem to treat students as adult decision-makers. Image Credit: Gabriel Green

One student inquired why student voters were not notified of Dickinson’s disqualification as soon as it happened. The student also expressed concerns that in making the executive decision to disqualify a senior speaker candidate without notifying the student body, students were not being treated as adults by the administration. 

“It's a totally valid question and here it might have been a mistake that I made. The reason is that I wanted the vote to run its course and sending a message about the elimination in the middle without giving a lot of details would have been problematic. This is also the reason why all the results as they were cast were made public. It was not kept secret. It was just not publicized. It was definitely not in an effort to treat anybody like non-adults,” Montheard stated in response. 

Montheard continued by saying “the constitution is under my supervision because student activities are under my supervision and my role is to make sure that the rules are respected, the rules were violated, and therefore the decisions to be made.”

Former senior speaker candidate Eleanor Dickinson, whose speech was deemed unsuitable for a graduation ceremony by AUP administration for her use of inappropriate language, sits in the audience during an open discussion on Tuesday, April 3 in the Amex concerning her disqualification from recent elections. Image Credit: Gabriel Green

It was brought up by one student that within the SGA constitution the definition of what constitutes inappropriate language is not clearly outlined. “I watched that video [of Eleanor’s speech] several times. Trust me, I do not think any doubt can be left in my mind to the use of inappropriate language in that video," Montheard said. "Now… everybody can make up their own mind. But in my mind, if that doesn't fall into that definition, then what's the point of having that definition in the rules?” 

The vice president also made a point to emphasize that the decision to disqualify Dickinson was his decision alone. “This is a decision I made. This is a decision that was not requested per se by anybody in particular.  there have been some rumors, of course, with very much help from this wonderful tool called social networks,” said Montheard.

He also made sure to clarify his impartiality on the matter. “I would have made that decision no matter who the candidate was. Eleanor, this is not personal,” said Montheard. 

AUP Vice President for Security, Operations and Student Services Marc Montheard responds to students' questions during an open discussion in the Amex on Tuesday, April 3 concerning the disqualification of Eleanor Dickinson from the recent senior speaker elections. Image Credit: Gabriel Green

French department representative and an organizer of the Student Union movement Ciat Conlin addressed his concern for the decision to allow the senior speaker elections to continue normally after Dickinson’s disqualification. “By allowing [the election] to continue, anyone who voted, their vote was essentially wasted on it. So we're not just dealing with Eleanor not being allowed to speak, whether or not you think the speech should have been given. The issue is that we're not just infringing on her rights, we're infringing on every single person who voted for her,” said Conlin.

Seve Loudon, a graduate international relations student, offered an opposing perspective, stating “ultimately AUP has the right to say what they believe is inappropriate or appropriate and what they want representing them at the graduation speech because that's what it is. You're not representing yourselves at this graduation speech. You're representing the institution of AUP.”

It was conceded by President Schenck, however, that there were indeed mistakes made in the manner the decision was presented to the student body. “I think we can all agree and probably Marc and Kevin and I all agree that there was something in that timing here that wasn't optimal because people didn't have enough information to be able to make their final decision," said Schenck. 

Referring to posters placed around campus by Student Union organizers which stated “electoral fraud, AUP approved” President Schenck said, “I don't think there was voter fraud. This vote was not handled by the administration. I mean this isn't Trump's America.” 

AUP President Celeste Schenck provides students with her perspective of what the goals and priorities of an ideal senior speaker candidate should be during an open discussion in the Amex on Tuesday, April 3 concerning the disqualification of Eleanor Dickinson from the recent senior speaker elections. Image Credit: Gabriel Green

Former SGA senator Mario Lopez said, “if you want change, it's not done through harsh behavior, criticism or threats. If you want to fix the system, you do it from the inside. Now what Marc's decision entails, for some people, we might seem unfair or harsh. I've been at odds with Marc in some instances as well, especially as a senator, but I can tell you that he's not an unfair person.”

Schenck also addressed a claim made by Dickinson on social media that her disqualification amounted to “undemocratic censorship” by saying “I don't think this is a freedom of speech issue. I am a passionate defender of free speech, passionate defender. In 29 years at AUP, I have never censored anybody.” 

Student Union organizer Christopher Knapp at one point shifted the conversation to his view of the issue and why he thinks the Union is necessary. Chris said, “Let's not forget about the issue. The issue is that information was not revealed to students. Valuable information. This isn't an issue of vulgarity for me at least, although yes, that is an issue. If you guys want to let that happen, then we can let it happen, but that's why the Student Union is coming into existence. The Student Union is coming into existence to prevent stuff like that. To prevent the administration hiding stuff. Stuff that's rightfully ours.”

Christopher Knapp, an organizer of a movement to create a student union at AUP, speaks during an open discussion in the Amex on Tuesday, April 3 concerning the disqualification of Eleanor Dickinson from the recent senior speaker elections. Image Credit: Gabriel Green

The first, unofficial Student Union meeting

The discussion made a segue to the purpose, questions, and concerns about the creation of a Student Union during their first unofficial meeting Wednesday morning. “There seems to be confusion and ambiguity surrounding this body. I am torn to see that a lot of the students think that the Student Union will be operating as opposition to SGA. The student union is not a witch hunt directed at any student and executive positions. This is absolutely not the case,” said union organizer Dhouha Djerbi during Tuesday’s discussion. 

“[The Student Union] would like to assume the responsibility of offering an empathetic ear to students with legitimate complaints and making sure that these complaints are raised with the appropriate authorities and parties. Additionally, we would like to volunteer at election booths during student elections. This is not out of mistrust of the student government or the administration,” said Djerbi in a later statement made on during the Student Union meeting Wednesday morning. 

After placing flyers around AUP buildings containing inflammatory statements regarding SGA and the AUP administration, some of which Undergraduate Student Council President Amelia Harvey deemed as “offensive,” Student Union organizers walked back several of their claims.

“With regard to the posters that you might have seen here on campus at the time when Eleanor was disqualified. Frankly, these were organic expressions of collective outrage and frustration provoked by the recent mismanagement of elections. I do acknowledge that the posters might have been a tad, let's just say propagandist and we're very sorry about that,” said Djerbi. 

“There was a lot of fiery rhetoric being thrown around by a lot of people. I personally was not aware of how offended people were getting by what we were saying by how wrong they felt. Ultimately we don't want to be a divisive body, we want to be an additional organization that does fight for the students. So, personally, I would like to apologize for all the stress this has caused people because I was not aware of it. So, sorry. If I may retract informally, we will draft a formal retraction of some of our statements,” said union organizer Knapp.

One of the controversial flyers placed around AUP buildings by Student Union organizers last week stating "electoral fraud, AUP approved." Image Credit: Gabriel Green

The SGA senate session

During Wednesday's Senate session, the practical need for the Student Union was brought into question by Dean of Student Development Kevin Fore, USC Vice President Jasmine Paul and other SGA members. “Part of my concern and my questioning here is, are we really looking at the senator position in its full capacity? And that would be something that I would ask for you to consider when you think about the plans for the future,” said Fore. Jasmine Paul followed up by stating, “I think that the student union is a perfectly legitimate and legal formation and I applaud you for that. Also though, I'm a little bit concerned about the overlap and things and instead of the intent of making things clearer, just complicating who deals with what and who to go to for what.” 

The Senate session covered a summary of the previous two discussions and created a dialogue about how SGA and AUP administration will proceed in the near future. ASM Student Media Managing Editor Talia Lliteras was also in attendance during the meeting requested clarification into the statements which had been made by the Student Union organizers regarding the independence of ASM. 

Ciat Conlin explained that the organizers had not looked into the existing ethics guidelines of ASM or contacted any representatives from ASM before making said statements about the student media organization. “All this happened really quickly from the initial decision of the elections, with all this happening I think there is definitely some hastiness in that. The ASM thing was an error and we've retracted these things in the meeting earlier,” said Conlin.

“Part of the frustration, I think on ASM's part here is that [the Student Union’s claims] confuses the idea of what ASM is. If they're bringing up a concern about the independence of a student media from the institution, what that says to me is that they don't necessarily have an idea of how ASM actually operates,” said Lliteras in a later interview. 

Some of the statements retracted by the Student Union remain published on their Facebook page and an official retraction has not yet been made by union organizers. 

The initial flyer announcing the movement to create a student union, listing demands which drew criticism from SGA members, the ASM board, students and AUP administrators. Some of the demands have since been informally retracted. Image Credit: Gabriel Green

Concerning how the administration will proceed with the matter of the senior speaker election, Montheard stated during the Senate meeting “I'd like to propose is that by the end of the day, Kevin, and I are going meet to see what's the next step. I think that for the moment everything is potentially on the table, nothing is decided, nothing is disregarded. There's no certainty whatsoever. And to be fair, I don't know at the end of the day who's going to make that decision and how it's going to be made.”

He continued by saying “I will not let one decision be made potentially to solve a problem without setting a precedent for the future. We're not making a decision on one person, one speech, we're making a decision on a real constitutional question, which is not defined precisely in the constitution.” 

On Thursday afternoon, Montheard sent an email to all SGA members proposing the formation of a legislative body which will tackle the challenge of amending the SGA constitution. “Following the meeting that took place last Tuesday and after reflection with Kevin Fore, I would like to suggest the following structure to look into the issue of re-election and to propose an amendment to the constitution to set up a clearer process in case of a need to disqualify a candidate. A special committee made of the Election Taskforce (Judiciary Chair, the USC, and GSC Vice Presidents) along with three representatives nominated and elected by the Senate (at its next meeting – April 11), the Dean for Student Development and the Vice President for Student Services,” Montheard wrote. 

An email sent by Vice President for Security, Operations and Student Services Marc Montheard to SGA members, suggesting the formation of a committee with the goal of amending the SGA constitution regarding the protocol for disqualifying a candidate from student elections. Image Credit: Gabriel Green

Although some topics debated throughout the week were fiercely polarized and created some contention, moments of light-heartedness and messages of unity did emerge, momentarily cutting tensions. Laughter swept the crowd during Tuesday’s discussion when one student observed “things like using sexual language in a speech might not seem like such a huge deal to someone like Eleanor. Like, she's from Cleveland.” 

Many students lost their composure after an unintentionally comical statement was made by AUP President Schenck during the same discussion when she said, “I appreciate what you said and I also appreciate in this instance you felt that some important information was kept from you. We make mistakes sometimes, just like you do and we make them because we're tired. Bill Clinton said the worst mistakes he made during his presidency were when he was tired.”

Alfio Lococo, an AUP freshman, sings a verse of the song "why can't we be friends" while giving a statement during an open discussion in the Amex on Tuesday, April 3. Image Credit: Gabriel Green

One student, Alfio Lococo, a freshman, drew a round of cheers, laughter, and applause on Thursday after singing a verse of the hit song “why can’t we be friends,” following a motivational statement about forming a new family at AUP.  “I don't represent anybody. I'm just me. The thing that brought me here today was the fact that I am in my freshman year in college, this is my second semester away from home. This is my new home, this is where I live. And as cliché as it is, as often as you hear it, in your first year, you leave your family and you come to a new family, you build a new family. Whether that family is SGA or ASM or something else, some other clubs, some other groups, you find unity in school. And the fact that an issue, as important as it may be, can tear apart in such a fundamental way was so disheartening for me. In a world where everything seems to fall apart on a daily basis… It's nice to come to school and realize that, hey, there is an SGA that's united. And hey, there is an ASM that's united. And I think what I'm trying to say is, "why can't we be friends, why can't we be friends,” said Lococo.