Student government town hall: do we still need a Student Body President?

This Thursday, the Undergraduate Student Senate hosted a town hall meeting to discuss the recently proposed change to the structure of Student Government: removing the positions of Student Body President (SBP) and Student Body Vice President (SBVP).

The plan was brought forth by the Third Student Government Restructure Committee, which consisted of members of both the Student Senate and the Graduate Student Assembly (GSA). The proposed changes include dissolving the Office of SBP and SBVP, which would consist of transferring any remaining responsibilities to the “Co-presidents of Student Government'' (i.e. the Senate Chair and GSA President), and restructuring leadership roles to dissolve the Executive Branch and make the VP of Finance and VP of Organizations instead independent director positions. Such a restructuring would also include changes to Student Government executive offices, which would now consist of Co-Presidents and one member of Undergraduate Student Senate and GSA Exec each.

Other changes included in the bill include adjusting all other bylaws for compliance with the previous changes, as well as general revisions for obsolete Constitutional language that hasn’t been updated in the wake of university updates and other bylaw changes.

The reasoning presented by the Restructure Committee echoes their previous Tartan Op-Ed. This included the characterization of the role of SBP and SBVP as a largely ceremonial role that doesn’t have many individual responsibilities unique to the position, nor is the role essential to enforcement of bylaws (unlike the U.S. government, the Senate has their own enforcement powers and does not need to rely on the executive branch). They also note that such a role is perceptually intended to represent the entire student body, which is an unrealistic expectation to ask of a single person when it comes to the vastly different lived experiences of undergraduate and graduate students. They also note that the position also causes a perceptual divide between the student body and student government, as the student body looks to the SBP and SBVP as the campus leader, but the real power to make decisions and changes on behalf of the student body lies in the Senate.

This isn’t the first time changes have been made to the overall structure of Carnegie Mellon Student Government. The most recent previous changes have occurred in 2020 and 2022, in two separate initiatives that also included restructuring the executive branch positions and responsibilities, among other things like fiscal policy changes.

Following the initial presentation on the reforms, there was a period of questioning and discussion.

During this time, there were a couple of clarifications regarding the structure of Student Government should these reforms be implemented. If these reforms are passed and the role SBP and SBVP are dissolved, then the only positions that are elected by the student body will be the newly-renamed Director of Finance and Director of Organizations. The election process for the Senate Chair (which would then be titled Senate President) and GSA President would remain the same. For Senate President, this would mean that the Senate would elect a Senator to be named the Senate President in a round of internal elections — a system that mirrors the Parliamentary systems of countries like the United Kingdom.

Beyond these clarifications, many students raised discussion points in favor of reforms. Among these arguments were points not previously mentioned in the bylaw presentation about having easier transitions into the role and the fact that this is simply the next step on current trends. When it comes to transitioning into the role of Senate Chair and GSA President, proponents of these reforms note that existing senators already have the best knowledge of the process of how Student Government works, and would be the best prepared to interface with administration. To them, this is where the most efficiency gains can be seen, and the streamlined process will help with administrative discussions. The speakers who spoke to the history of changes within Student Senate noted that this was simply the next step in a process that has been a conversation for the past 10 years, with at least four years of tangible bylaw changes that have been transitioning powers towards this sort of system already. They argue that such changes have been effective thus far, and that the most impactful decision was actually whether to transition power from SBP and SBVP to the Student Senate and GSA, which already occurred — they view this current proposal as restructuring to match this current power distribution.

Many students also raised discussion points against reforms. Among these speakers, common threads included worries over rushing the process and decreasing the diversity of leadership. When it came to worries over rushing the process, those against the reforms noted that this process seems largely unfinished, with unclear guidelines for impeachment of the president in this new system, gaps in explanations on how this transition would occur and what efficiency would be gained, and questions over whether the solution to having unclear powers for the president should be to remove the position instead of just clarifying roles. Such speakers wanted a longer process that would reconsider keeping some elements of general elections, or potentially put this decision to a student referendum to decide instead of allowing it to simply be a vote by the Student Senate. The speakers who questioned the diversity of the Senate after these reforms spoke of worries that the Senate would turn into a “boys club” where power was consolidated in a group of people who are fairly unknown to the general student body. They believe that the perceptual or efficiency gains should not come at the expense of representation, and that the perceptual gains of seeing elected students in the SBP and SBVP roles that look like them, regardless of whether they are a figurehead, is a powerful thing.

Discussion lasted the entire meeting and consisted of many back-and-forth conversations between proponents and opponents of these reforms. However, no decisions were made in the past meeting — this was the discussion meeting prior to the vote.

More context on the Student Government Executive Committee’s views can be found in last week’s Tartan Op-Ed. The current timeline has the Undergraduate Student Senate voting on the plan in January following winter break.