Student Union, Student Control

J. Ellis #opinion #campus

The recent decision to transfer the EMU from the student controlled Incidental Fee (I-Fee) budget to the Student Union fee -managed by the administration- came as a shock to all, except for ASUO President Isaiah Boyd, VP of Student Life Kevin Marbury, and the Board of Trustees. The administration believes that consulting one individual member of the student body sufficiently represents the student perspective in a deal that would impact all students and programs within the EMU. Behind closed doors, Marbury and Boyd made a decision that would effectively alter student autonomy as we know it, without any form of democratic input from the ASUO Executive and Legislative branches, the elected EMU Board, nor students themselves.

Current and former ASUO Senators expressed dismay upon learning the implications of this newly approved budget, citing a lack of information and transparency that rendered them unable to make an informed choice when voting on the budget presented by President Boyd at the January 29th Budget Bonanza Senate meeting. They were told that the decision to switch control of the EMU from students to the administration had already been made days prior, adamantly assured this was the only solution to the inflated budget brought on by Current Service Level (CSL) expenses and the new TOSS (Tiered Organization Student Stipend*) and ASUO stipend models that were approved by Senate in Spring & Fall 2021. Both of these programs are funded by the student I-Fee, leaving little money leftover for other typical expenses associated with EMU programming. The CSL increase was long overdue, guaranteeing better working conditions and benefits for SEIU workers at the university. The new stipend models were intended to account for the rising cost of living and associated inflation for both student clubs for both student club leaders and ASUO leaders. It is worth mentioning, however, that the increase in the stipend budget promised a large payoff for senators in particular- according to a former member of the ASUO Executive Branch, the senators’ stipend allotments were increased from $200 per month to $700 per month. The President is reportedly paid $1520 a month. This is not to say that student representatives should not be justly compensated for their time and work, but it seems the new model was approved with primarily their interests in mind, with little regard towards what this would mean for the rest of ASUO’s budget moving forward.

Boyd and O’Connor sprung their plan on the newly inaugurated Senate at their first meeting in Spring 2021, with full knowledge that cuts would have to be made to accommodate their new ASUO stipend model. At this time, there were many newly elected senators that were not yet trained on the procedures for passing new policies and budgets. Their naiveté was preyed upon by senior members with their own personal, political agendas. This predatory policy implementation, which took advantage of unseasoned representatives, would remain a theme for other budget decisions deliberated in the 2021-2022 school year. According to testimonials from various ASUO affiliates, student representatives were largely left in the dark about the deal being made between Boyd and Marbury. This limited access to information is by design, taking advantage of chaos and pressure, condensed timelines, and hiding behind procedures and complex systems are strategies often used by administrations to guarantee that their preferred policies are passed.

The administration, in conversations with concerned students, have used every trick in the book to attempt to quell our concerns and render us unreasonable. On Tuesday February 15th, student organizers used the TFAB (Tuition & Fee Advisory Board) Public Forum to ask questions about exactly how this decision was made, and the consequences of it. We were joined by two representatives from the Oregon Student Association that traveled from Portland to meet with Boyd, students, and representatives. They also attended the TFAB meeting to investigate the legality of this move. After seizing the microphone, we barraged Marbury, legal counsel Kevin Reed, and President Michael Schill with questions that sought to understand the legal mechanisms that allowed the new budget to be determined without democratic input. To his credit, Marbury did not attempt to deny the clandestine character of the conversations between him and Boyd. He reasserted multiple times in his responses to our questions and comments that the decision only needed to be made between him and the ASUO President; that there are no laws or protocols that mandate decisions about the I-Fee budget must include input from the Senate or any ASUO representatives apart from those on the TFAB committee. For the administration, this legal loophole absolves them from being accused of engaging in undemocratic conduct when unilaterally crafting new budget policies.

On February 17th, the EMU Board held a fact-finding meeting over Zoom to discuss the EMU transfer with Dr. Kevin Marbury. Here, Marbury stood his ground on the stance he took at Tuesday’s TFAB meeting. Board members were given the opportunity to question Marbury about what the new budget would mean for EMU operations and programs, their roles as board members, and student autonomy over our student union. After some pressure from the board about the alarming lack of transparency, Marbury consistently defended the way the decision was made, insisting it was the only way to resolve the budget crisis that’s been on the horizon for years. He put forth a concerted effort to frame the circumstances of the budget transfer as inevitable and common-sense while asserting that the administration was doing ASUO and students a favor by taking this economic burden off I-Fee jurisdiction.

Each board member that spoke expressed distrust that the administration would act in students’ best interests now that they have control of the only student-led space on campus. With the loss of financial control and few bylaws protecting student government from administrative oversight, the board is hesitant that they will retain the same powers previously held when they were in charge of the EMU budget. In rebuttal, Marbury preached about trust. With the shallow earnestness of the best politicians, he acknowledged students’ feelings towards administrative officials, and resignedly said that the best way to build back trust was for administrators, such as himself, to show us through action that their sole objective is to provide a quality education. This answer did not seem to satisfy anyone besides the admin in attendance (Marbury and EMU Director Laurie Woodward). Marbury belittled the board’s objections, saying that as long as they continue working with Laurie then they will always have a say in the EMU budget and programming. However, several EMU Board members have expressed that their input often falls on Woodward’s deaf ears. Marbury’s insistence that ASUO representatives must merely trust the administration is meaningless. Historical precedent shows that admin has continuously steamrolled student autonomy while simultaneously seeking to profit from student fees and tuition increases to the highest legally-allowed limits.

According to Senators, Boyd repeatedly reassured them that he advocated for an element of reversibility to be built into the new policy, otherwise he would not have agreed to the deal. However, in the Board meeting, Marbury entirely contradicted this notion, saying he would not have agreed to the deal if certain programs could opt to return to the I-Fee budget, asserting that such a policy would land us back in the same financial fiasco the new plan is designed to resolve. When asked about the possibility of baking a sunset clause into the new policy, Marbury scoffed, saying the decision had to be made and he has no intention of permitting a possible reversal- certain they made the right decision. Not only did the entire student body have no say prior to the decision being made, the administration is set to ensure we have no power to appeal the policy if our worst fears come to be confirmed in the coming years.

One of the most glaring red flags throughout this ordeal is that the term “gaslighting,” has been thrown around many, many times- from multiple testimonials. Our sources report intimidation, coercion, and manipulation meant to undermine their political power and efficacy. Power differentials seem to be the driving force of the democratic dysfunction that’s been unveiled in recent weeks. At the TFAB forum, Marbury blamed the student body for the lack of transparency surrounding this decision, saying there have been nine TFAB meetings so far this school year that we did not attend to share our concerns, and now it is too late. The Board of Trustees and other administrators fail to recognize that students should not have to take hours out of our invaluable time and busy schedules to attend bureaucratic functions to simply be in the loop on the administration’s latest schemes. The information discussed in these meetings should be easily accessible and transparent to the public, the University’s aloofness on these matters is entirely intentional. In order to participate in what little democracy there is in these processes, students with limited time and other resources are expected to jump over hurdles to gain access to the information that the administration gatekeeps. It is not just students that are kept in the dark, but our elected representatives as well. Senators and Executive branch officials have reported that ASUO President Isaiah Boyd and those in his inner circle use the same manipulative tactics as the suits in charge, blaming Senate for not being informed or speaking up enough to challenge his authority over the I-Fee budget before it was too late. This top-down political pressure incapacitated the Senate from feeling emboldened enough to challenge the budget proposal before it was officially signed by Boyd, Marbury, and the Board of Trustees. Where there is power, there are problems— this political folly demonstrates that our governments do not work for the people, they work for profits under the sole influence of market logic.

In an emergency Senate meeting held on February 18th at 10:30 am, a resolution authored by former Vice President Odalis Aguilar and former Senator Ella Meloy (and also endorsed by several sitting senators and student groups) was presented to ASUO, demanding that the budget allocation be reconsidered. In a stunning victory, the resolution passed with 18 votes in favor while Senator O’Connor abstained. After the resolution passed came time for the most important vote the Senate would make all year— with 17 votes in favor, the motion passed to veto the budget presented by Boyd and draft an entirely new budget that would reallocate the Erb Memorial Union back under ASUO’s purview. This redemption arc in the eleventh hour reinstated some of our confidence in our elected representatives, demonstrating that they can be responsive to student concerns and they too value student autonomy. Now it is up to these representatives to draft a budget by the end of the term that will satisfy both the Board of Trustees and the student body, which is no easy task.

This dizzying political melodrama is a diorama of a larger political narrative where neoiberal business practices systematically dismantle democratic institutions. The dysfunction we have observed within ASUO and the administration reflects the exact same dynamics that influence politics on a national scale. Power in the hands of the few, influenced by corporate stakeholders, are the earmark of neoliberal systems. The University of Oregon has proven time and time again that profits are a higher priority than students or the education they pay for. As an extension of this neoliberal institution, ASUO manages one of the largest budgets of any university in the country; thus it is paramount that we continue to watch for corruption and hold our representatives accountable given the many corporate interests prowling about on our campus. The ASUO makes decisions that impact every single University of Oregon student, whether we all realize it or not.

While the meeting on February 18th marked a small victory, we must focus on the larger fight that lies ahead. We must remember that it is our right as students to have a voice in how the university we pay to attend distributes our tuition dollars and the programs we care about. The events of recent weeks have shown the influence of student power and initiative, and proven to us that even despite the prevalence of disempowering bureaucracy in this decision, there are people that will defend student interests. We demand President Isaiah Boyd and the Board of Trustees to make the choice that aligns with the best interests of student autonomy. We condemn the startling lack of democracy and intimidation by which this decision was greenlit. We advocate for and stand in solidarity with every student, organization, or representative dedicated enough to demand accountability from those that seem to believe they owe us none. Moving forward: you’re either with us, or against us.

*Note: TOSS, Tiered Organization Student Stipend, is for student organization leader stipends: a plan drafted by ASUO president Isaiah Boyd, executive secretary of program administration Luda Isakharov, senate vice-president Ella Meloy and senator Maxwell Ely. The ASUO Leader stipend was designed by Isaiah Boyd and Senate President Claire O’Connor.