Associated Students of Portland State University began the winter 2018 quarter with 10 empty student leadership positions: seven senators, one associate justice for the Judicial Review Board and two Student Fee Committee members.
Seven of these—-ASPSU Sens. Felize Singleton, Kali Sullivan, Mustafa Almuzel, Yasmeen Ayoub and Sabrina Stitt; Student Life Director Maxwell Everett and Judicial Review Board member Lisa Kwon—resigned over winter break.
“Turnover is always expected,” said ASPSU President Brent Finkbeiner. “I’ve seen high turnover in many student governments. So I always kind of expect that and leave room for it.”
Finkbeiner added many leaders vacate their positions to balance their schedules and responsibilities. “Student leaders often take on many roles, especially at the beginning of the year, and find that their schedule needs some balancing after giving ASPSU a try,” he said. “Public representation is far more difficult and time consuming than it may first appear.”
By the third week of the term, five of the senate positions were filled. As of now, all but one senate position is confirmed with new student representatives. Finkbeiner expects to fill it first week of spring term.
Why so many resignations at once?
Most of the outgoing leaders declined to comment on their reasons for leaving ASPSU. Of the outgoing students, Stitt was the only leader voted in during the May 2017 ASPSU election cycle. Almuzel, Ayoub, Singleton, Sullivan, Everett and Kwon were appointed to their positions throughout the year.
Almuzel, involved in ASPSU for over two years, said he left his senate role because of ongoing schedule conflicts and new commitments outside ASPSU. He did not run for re-election during the 2017 election but ultimately returned by appointment on Sept. 25.
“During fall term I wasn’t able to make to all the senate meetings because of time conflicts with my classes,” Almuzel said. “I wasn’t very involved, except in the [International Affairs and Multicultural Affairs] committees.”
Other leaders’ departures, Almuzel added, may have been more complicated. He described hearing fellow ASPSU leaders voice concerns about a negative climate within the organization but did not experience this himself.
“I have heard about some complaints that some people didn’t feel comfortable sharing their opinions and some kind of drama in the senate meetings, but I was busy and wasn’t there for those meetings,” Almuzel said.
ASPSU struggles with engagement
Additionally, Almuzel said ASPSU suffers from an overall lack of engagement with its constituents. “In other universities’ elections, everyone is active,” he said. “You feel like there’s energy about it. They want to compete and reach to these positions.”
During the 2017 ASPSU election, most students ran for student government positions uncontested. Some elected positions had more vacancies than candidates campaigning.
“In the past, if you ran for student senate, you would just find yourself elected because there were barely enough numbers for senate,” Almuzel said. “We tried last year with the University Affairs Committee to engage students more, but I think the problem still exists. I don’t know the reasons exactly, but students aren’t interested. They don’t hear about student government even, so we can’t make very important impacts on campus.”
He said leaders from other student groups will typically engage with the SFC budgeting process, but active engagement ends there. “[Students] don’t see behind-the-scenes policy work or anything student government does with resolutions because it’s not clear. It’s politics.”
A matter of transparency
Coordinator of Student Government Relations Candace Avalos said she is troubled by the turnover rate and discussed concerns with Finkbeiner about a lack of transparency in the resignation process.
“When seven people leave at once, it should concern a constituent,” Avalos said. “Why are students resigning from elected positions? Even if they were appointed, it’s a representative position of the students, and they just get to leave without any explanation? [ASPSU leaders] should encourage students to be transparent about why they’re leaving.”
ASPSU’s current policy requires members to email statements of resignation to the student body president, but does not require outgoing students to make these statements public.
“These are elected representatives,” Avalos said. “In my opinion, they owe their constituents explanations for why they’re leaving.”
This doesn’t mean invading student privacy, Avalos clarified. “Of course, people have the choice to divulge their personal information if they choose,” Avalos continued, “but I think there should be a minimum standard of what they should be disclosing and how that word gets out.”
Public ASPSU senate meeting records do not explicitly reflect the recent leadership turnover, which Avalos said hinders accurate recordkeeping and increases the transparency concern.
She suggested a requirement that statements of resignation be made at senate meetings or that the president or vice president make a formal announcement recorded in meeting minutes.
Avalos had been hopeful for the potential the students who recently vacated their roles had. “They brought a rich diversity to the ideologies in the conversation in ASPSU, which is what it needs.”
“I think there’s something to be said about the fact that we don’t necessarily feel that much loss when a senator leaves,” she continued. “What is the purpose of these senators if they’re so easy to lose or it doesn’t really rock the organization? We’re losing what I think should be the most important position—the elected voice of students. There’s a flaw there.”
Balancing academic demands
Avalos cited several factors that might contribute to turnover in ASPSU: climate, student representatives lacking a sense of purpose and struggles to maintain academic excellence.
“Academics are definitely factors in some of [the recent resignations],” Avalos said, though she can’t offer specifics because academic information is protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
Student government representatives—like leaders in many student groups—receive compensation in the form of Educational Leadership Service Awards. ELSA’s range from $400–2,700 depending on the position and require students to meet term-to-term GPA and credit enrollment minimums. If students don’t meet these eligibility requirements, they face the potential to lose their ELSA funding and may be removed from their leadership positions.
“Last year, we talked a lot about academic excellence,” Avalos continued. “We’re going to address it on a new constitution. One of those changes is the ELSA requirement.”
Instead of checking new leaders’ cumulative GPAs when they intend to join ASPSU, the new constitution will include eligibility checks of students’ previous term before beginning leadership roles, a standard general ELSA policy does not require.
“Why would we expect a student who is struggling in a term for whatever reason…is going to do better by having this huge commitment on top of their workload?” Avalos added.
Progress despite setbacks
Despite the resignations, Finkbeiner and Avalos both highlighted progress within student government.
For the last five years, Avalos has worked with ASPSU members to move toward standardized meeting days for various committees. She said she hopes this will help members maintain active involvement in their roles and offer more consistency for students wanting to attend meetings and engage with student representatives. She added, “We’ve made really good strides in making quorum and being able to meet.”
Additionally, Avalos said, “[Finkbeiner] has done a great job in bringing people together. He’s empathetic, understanding, a good leader and a good mentor.”
Avalos and Finkbeiner said they also feel ASPSU has improved engagement with constituents. On Feb. 15, ASPSU Vice President Donald Thompson III spearheaded a “Let’s talk about diversity” event, Multicultural Affairs Director Luis Balderas-Villagrana has directed outreach to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival students and ASPSU’s respective special committees have taken on new initiatives.
“They seem little,” Avalos said, “but it’s a huge difference from what I’ve seen in the last couple of years. The organization is making great moves in modeling how we should have conversations on campus around things we disagree on.”
Avalos continued, “I have noticed [ASPSU] trying to be more of a leader in the conversation instead of just part of it. That’s what they need to be, because that’s what student government is.”
Additional reporting by Anamika Vaughan.
ASPSU is currently accepting applications for its 2018 elections cycle and will host an interest meeting for students seeking more information: 3–5 p.m., March 15 in Smith Memorial Student Union 326. Candidate applications are due March 23.