On April 19, all students were sent an email from Student Government notifying them of the new version of the constitution that Student Government had just proposed, and encouraging them to vote. After only 40 members of the student body voted, questions were raised about the role of Student Government and their communication with the student body during a “Facebook explosion,” as Student Body President Claire Kai Xuan Yao called it. Much of the debate on the “NYUSH All Classes and Study Away” Facebook page had to do issues that students raised about the Student Government and the new constitution, although after the new constitution’s voting period was over. Since the results of the ratification have been released there has been much debate in the student body about the responsibilities and efficacy of the NYU Shanghai Student Government, which Student Government responded to by hosting a forum on April 29.
The most recent changes to the constitution mainly concerned the new joint ticket for Student Body President and Vice President, as well as changes to the election process and impeachment process. However, when the voting period for ratification closed on April 21, less than 10% of the student body had voted. Although the constitution was ratified by a 70% majority of those forty students, many students voiced complaints that such an important vote was accepted with such low participation.
In fact, there has been debate bringing up the idea of abolishing the current Student Government on the Facebook page. Junior Cameron Ballard explained the motivation behind his suggestion to On Century Avenue. “I think the framework provided by the administration for the creation and operation of student government prevents it from truly being a student-focused democratic organization. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but until we completely escape the administration’s framework, we can’t have an unbiased conversation about what student government should do, or how it should achieve that goal.”
Yet, this idea does not seem to have gained much traction, due to the important role that Student Government fills. “Student Government itself doesn’t just naturally have power,” Director of Internal Affairs, Cheryl Li 李姗, said in the forum hosted last Thursday to discuss students’ concerns. “Our power doesn’t just come from being Student Government, our power comes from students. What we can do is combine all the voices of student and combine the powers of students and that’s the power of Student Government.”
Student Government’s constitution was created by nine students of the inaugural class who were appointed by the NYU Shanghai administration their freshman year after applications were opened to the whole class. Junior Fikret Halilov was one of the students on the committee that created the constitution. “We started off slow,” Halilov said about the process of deciding the different sections of the constitution, delegating the sections and then agreeing on the sections. The entirety of the inaugural class of NYU Shanghai was encouraged to be involved in the construction of the constitution though, not just those students appointed. “We had two town hall sessions, where we called everybody in to voice their concerns and their ideas about how they thought the government should be structured,” Halilov explained. The group was appointed on September 12, 2013 and then had the constitution finalized on September 29, which would later be ratified on October 9. The constitution was ratified during a five-minute voting period at the end of the required GPS lecture that day.
However, sophomore Elizabeth Tipping, Chief Justice of the Organizations Committee, sees other problems in the way that the constitution and elections are set up. “ Most of these elections are based on how popular the individual is,” Tipping said. “Therefore, the more passionate or qualified people can sometimes be pushed to the background as assistant directors, who do not hold as much power or influence as the director, because of this they are unable to make lasting change as a representative of the student body.”
A lot of students attributed the perception of few big initiatives and the low voting participation to a lack of communication from Student Government to the student body. Nofar Hamrany, a sophomore heavily involved in school affairs on behalf of her club Green Shanghai, expressed discontent with the work that Student Government has been doing. “It’s like we did get information but not much. You think nothing is going on, or they’re not telling me. Part of their job is telling students what they are doing so then they are not doing their job,” Hamrany said in an interview with On Century Avenue.
Student Government hosted a forum open to all students this past Thursday to address these concerns and 32 students were in attendance, including three tuning in from off campus via Google Hangout, despite some Facebook posts garnishing up to 76 ‘likes’. “We originally had no forum scheduled and then we were like okay, we need to have a forum. So, we do try our very best to respond to student concerns,” freshman Savannah Billman, Assistant Director of Events Committee, said at the forum. “It’s just that when the concerns are sort of sporadically complaining and not really unified, which is what we can do with that website idea, it’s just really hard to get things done.”
Billman is referencing an idea discussed by various students on the Facebook page and then discussed further in the forum by sophomore Tristan Armitage. “If you have a meeting like this, you can put the time and the location on there and even if it changes you can change it there and whoever would know I have to go to the website to find out rather than scrolling through Facebook posts or something like that, because it’s easy to update things like a website,” Armitage said. “I think it would be very nice to have some sort of central place to go for that kind of information.” The website being discussed will be loosely based off of NYU Abu Dhabi’s Ideascale platform, where students can post suggestions or concerns and their fellow students can ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ their ideas. After a certain number of ‘likes’ from students, Student Government would then take the idea or concern under serious consideration. It would also be a platform to post progress updates and outcomes of various Student Government initiatives.
Student Government retains the stance that their attempts are not being properly noted by students, citing their Facebook page, WeChat platform, biweekly newsletters, and a few forums held in the beginning of the year to discuss topics such as the Jinqiao dorms. “My first meeting with the Club Committee was them saying we are doing our best, students just aren’t responding,” Student Body President Yao said in an interview with On Century Avenue. “Both Student Government and students are so new, there’s so much to work on. We want to blink and things will be there and that’s just not possible.” It’s clear that there are a variety of issues to consider when deciding how to communicate with students, benefits of different platforms and what students those platforms will reach.
Some of these problems may have to do with segmentation of the student body and where certain groups share their concerns, from the role of Student Government to different demographics of our student body interacting with Student Government in different ways.“A lot of meaningful discussion starts on Facebook which Chinese people don’t use,” Yao said. “I think they think more creatively and passionately one-on-one, especially in English.”
President Yao also explained another way in which our student body can be segmented. “I think it’s very hard, when we are talking about ‘we’ there are actually two ‘we’s in our school, there are students thinking that students should stand against the administration,” Yao said, “ but there are also students thinking that Student Government should take the role of being the binding element here instead of instigating more anger or whatever and it puts me in the middle.”
Student Government is still exploring the power that they currently possess and their relationship with NYU Shanghai Administration. “The only time they will tell you that it is not possible,” Class of 2017 Representative Tyler Rhorick said, “is if it breaks contracts of the school or local laws, but this rarely happens. If it is in their control, it is all changeable. It might take time but it is changeable.” Billman seconded this statement in the forum. “A lot of the stuff that we do is our own initiative that we come up with and will work with the administration with and if there are certain guidelines or laws outside of our control that the administration has, of course we have to follow them.”
However, this past Thursday, Student Government and the students in attendance took one side of the divide that Yao described. A section of the forum was dedicated to drafting a statement to be submitted to higher level administration and deans (including Vice Chancellor Lehman and Provost Joanna Waley-Cohen), using the transformation of the GAF Program as an example of a lack of transparency from upper administration on the decisions they make.
After the transition of the GAF Program was announced, Student Body President Yao emailed Vice Chancellor Lehman and Provost Joanna Waley-Cohen to ask for more information and clarification. “I, on behalf of Student Government, wrote an email to Jeff Lehman and Joanna Waley-Cohen just to have them write a statement to see why they are making this decision,” Yao said. “But what I get is they replied to me a personal email saying we are making this decision for some reasons, but we are making sure that it is for your good.”
Dylan Crow, Head of the SLR Committee of Student Government, explained at the forum the motivation behind the statement. “This [statement] is meant to be in a sense a veto, a way for us to say we disagree with the way you are conducting or moving our school,” Crow said. “We are members of the school, we represent the school, we are the heart of the school, and we feel that you have misrepresented things that we hold dear to us or we believe you are doing something that doesn’t reflect what we think NYU Shanghai should be and we think that in the future you should do X, Y, Z, which is meant to be laid out in this.” However, since a statement such as this has never been submitted to administration before, Student Government is still considering what sort of response they are hoping and expecting to receive.
“We have to set a standard for everything so it’s a lot of procedures. A lot of things are working and it takes a lot of time,” President Yao said. “One of the challenges of studying away is that it’s gonna make things develop even slower. Don’t rush, have faith. Things are developing very slow, don’t lose faith.”
Student Government elections for next year’s President and Vice President have moved forward into the second round, as well as Director of External Affairs position. 413 students voted in the first round of elections, but be sure to continue voting for your favored candidate before elections close on May 6.
This article was written by Allison Chesky. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: NYU Shanghai Student Government