Senators blast Union in mass emails, deepening rift over piano proposal
Class of 2022 Senator Alex Chang and Senator for International Students Linfei Yang ’20 sent out successive emails last Tuesday to the first-year class criticizing Vice President Benedikt Reynolds ’19 and the Executive Board of the Student Union.
In one email, Yang called the E-Board “brisk, opaque, inconsistent, and at times, downright hostile” for their “refusal” to accept his and Chang’s proposal to purchase two electric pianos for the first-year residence halls. In a different email, Chang claimed that only $80 of the Senate’s $20,000 discretionary budget remained for the rest of the academic year, which would not be enough to cover the estimated cost of the pianos. At Sunday's Senate meeting that figure was established to be about $240.
The emails sparked a week of conflict within the Senate over funding, E-Board transparency and last Tuesday’s emails. On Sunday, however, the Senate passed a $773.78 Senate Money Resolution to purchase the two pianos, drawing from money that had been designated for the two upcoming Midnight Buffets.
In an interview with the Justice on Friday, Chang and Yang said that they proposed the piano resolution because “the freshman lounges are [falling] apart.” Chang and Yang both said they had overwhelming support from other senators and the student body, and that only one senator voted against the piano proposal. Class of 2019 Senator Kent Dinlenc clarified that the Senate’s vote on the proposal was a “hypothetical vote” that asked, “If [the Senate] resolved the current A-Board issue, would you approve of the proposal?” Dinlenc and Ridgewood Senator Leigh Salomon ’19 also added that many voted “indifferent” to the proposal.
Salomon also called the emails “inappropriate and disrespectful,” while Dinlenc described the piano proposal as “ludicrous” in an interview on Friday. When asked for an interview, Reynolds said he would prefer to “sit this one out.”
Dinlenc and Salomon said that Chang and Yang have overstated the demand for pianos, both from senators and the student body. “Alex keeps insisting there is a demand, but we are yet to actually hear about it,” said Dinlenc. When Dinlenc expressed this sentiment at Sunday’s Senate meeting, Class of 2022 Senator Topaz Fernandez Fragoso said a number of her constituents had approached her earlier in the week to express their support for the resolution.
In a separate interview with the Justice on Friday, Chang and Yang said they believed their proposal had not yet been passed due to the Union’s tight budget. According to the Student Union’s Constitution, the Union Government Fund has a “benchmark” of $50,000. The Allocations Board designated only $38,000 to the fund for fiscal year 2019, which started on May 1, 2018 and will end on June 30, 2019. In October, Senate Chief of Staff Emma Russell ’19 filed an emergency request to A-Board asking for the remaining $12,000, citing the initial amount as insufficient.
Student Union President Hannah Brown ’19 told the Justice that Russell asked A-Board Chair Aseem Kumar ’20 to reach out to her “if [they] needed more information, specifics, or details” about the request. But the A-Board rejected this request, which Brown then vetoed because “in the rejection letter, [A-Board] said that [Russell] didn’t provide enough specifics or details, without reaching out to her. I felt this process was not fair.” A-Board then overturned the veto in a unanimous vote, leaving the Union budget at $38,000.
Of the $38,000, $20,000 was allocated to the Senate Discretionary Fund — of this amount, $3,220 was spent on subsidies for Turkey Shuttles and $700 was spent on Social Justice and Diversity Committee events, according to Brown. Considering the cost of the fall and spring semester Midnight Buffets — about $16,000 total — around $240 of discretionary funding remains for other proposals until June 2019. On Sunday, Brown clarified that the Senate was able to pass a SMR for the pianos because “nothing has been spent on Midnight Buffet yet.”
The remaining $18,000 went to other parts of the Student Union, such as promotional, E-Board, projects, office supplies and A-Board budgets, a breakdown of which is available in A-Board’s public documents.
In his email, Chang said he was in the process of drafting an amendment to the Constitution that “would change the Senate’s funding from a ‘benchmark’ of $50,000 to a ‘requirement’ of $50,000.” According to Chang, the “benchmark” is simply a recommended amount of funding the Union should receive. “With this increase in funding, the Senate would be able to provide for the student body far more effectively than it does today,” he wrote. After Sunday’s Senate meeting, Yang said that he and Chang have “decided to put [these] plans on hold for the moment.”
During the Senate meeting, Junior Representative to the Board of Trustees Zosia Busé ’20 said, “Hannah and Emma have been working for weeks now dealing with this issue behind the scenes with the A-Board to come to a peaceful resolution. For the sake of delicacy and diplomacy, [they] didn’t want to plaster information around. Just today did they have a conversation with A-Board.”
A-Board and E-Board are working “together to address the vague language surrounding secured clubs, secured funding, benchmarks, and the Student Union,” Brown and Russell explained in an email sent out to the student body yesterday.
Another point of conflict between Chang, Yang and the E-Board was the process of gaining approval from the Department of Community Living to place the pianos in the residence hall lounges. Once Brown learned about the idea for the piano proposal, she informed Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Timothy Touchette of the proposal and encouraged Chang to meet with him.
Two weeks later, Brown met again with Touchette, after hearing from Chang and Yang that DCL had rejected the piano proposal. Touchette “expressed concern,” in Brown’s words, because he still hadn’t heard from Chang and Yang. She explained that after that meeting, she told Reynolds to ask Chang and Yang to meet with Touchette.
According to Chang, Reynolds did mention that Touchette had “expressed concern” about the proposal, although they took it to mean that Touchette had taken issue with the content of the proposal. When Chang and Yang met with Touchette, he asked them, “How can I be concerned about a proposal I’ve never read?”
Chang and Yang subsequently concluded that Reynolds’ remark that Touchette was concerned that the proposal was intended to discourage their endeavor. They told the Justice that they thought Reynolds was obstructing the flow of information between the Senate and the E-Board. Chang and Yang also accused Reynolds of “intimidating” them, and said that they felt “uncomfortable” when he told them the small budget might not be able to accommodate the piano proposal.
In his email, Chang claimed that “[Reynolds] delayed telling the Senate about our dwindling funds for several weeks.” He added that he met with Reynolds before the Nov. 4 Senate meeting to discuss the Senate’s finances, but claimed that Reynolds told him not to inform his constituents of the financial situation.
Brown said that she thinks the e-mail “portrays Benedikt in a bad light.” Reynolds “has really worked with [Yang and Chang] a lot on this project, giving them a lot of advice and connecting them to a lot of resources,” she said.
Reynolds “is not the confrontational type,” Dinlenc said. Salomon added, “Benedikt and Hannah have been nothing but professional, courteous and kind. … This is the best E-Board I have ever seen.”
In her interview, Brown said she was surprised to see criticism of E-Board over the piano resolution because “a lot of people [within the E-Board] thought it was a good idea,” and “the Executive Board has no say in what the Senate does. The Senate is the ultimate decider.”
Brown added that neither Yang nor Chang met with the E-Board before sending out the email, even though each E-Board member holds office hours every week. Yang and Chang said they assumed it was Benedikt’s responsibility to communicate this information between the E-Board and the Senate, not their own.
In an email to the student body on Monday, Brown and Russell emphasized that “concerned parties can consult the leaders of their branch and members of the Executive Board for help — all of which hold two to five office hours. The Chief of Staff of the Union serves as a resource for issues concerning Union members while the Student Union Judiciary can mediate any type of dispute and provide clarification on policies.”
At Sunday’s Senate meeting, Chang verbally expressed his “full and sincere apologies” to Reynolds in front of the Senate. “I forgot to show courtesy … I don’t have an excuse for [sending the email]. I wasn’t in a correct state of mind. I made mistakes,” he said.
However, Chang also criticized Brown and Reynolds at the same meeting for not immediately broadcasting the veto of the A-Board rejection of the emergency request, for which Brown apologized. “It was my mistake that I had forgotten to put the [veto] on my weekly report. There weren’t more details to give because the conversation hadn’t yet happened. The only updates were made this morning,” she said. Brown had previously explained in the Nov. 9 interview that she saw a suggestion on Facebook to publish the Union’s budget more often and said she was open to doing that.
Brown said that the E-Board has made great strides in increasing transparency. “I remember when I was a first-year senator, I was the person who said, ‘The E-Board needs to be more transparent.’” She referenced the addition of weekly reports from the E-Board this year.
“I make sure, every time the Union gets together to say, ‘If you need anything, I will answer your question,’” Brown said. “That’s my policy. I will be honest with you, and I hold the rest of the E-Board to that policy as well. Maybe [Chang and Yang] are right, maybe there are ways we can be more transparent, but I’m open to those.”
Another change Brown mentioned is that the executive senator (currently Andrea Deng ’21) — a member of the Senate elected by fellow senators — will soon return to sit in on E-Board meetings. Brown explained that this tradition stopped because the vice president fulfills that role anyway, creating an overlap.
—Editors Note: Nakul Srinivas ’21 is a member of the Union’s Social Justice Committee. Kent Dinlenc ’19 and Leigh Salomon ’19 are Justice staff writers.