The Student Government Board election that drew the fewest number of candidates has triggered the highest number of resignations in recent history.
Board members Ellie Tsatsos, a junior studying biology and chemistry who was appointed president pro-tempore, and Brandon Benjamin, a junior studying linguistics, announced their resignations at Tuesday’s public meeting in Nordy’s Place, marking the second and third Board members who have stepped down within the first three months of the 2014 term.
Nites said Tsatsos and Benjamin had both “briefly discussed” their intentions to resign during individual meetings with Nites on Monday.
“I wasn’t necessarily surprised,” Nites said. “We had talked a little bit about their future on the Board.”
Nites said he remains optimistic for the future of the Board, adding that the three Board member resignations that have occurred in the last month signal that the remaining Board members must make internal changes.
“It shows that we need to improve ourselves as a Student Government Board,” Nites said. “I don’t think student groups should be worried.”
A series of splits
Jake Radziwon, a junior marketing major, resigned last month to focus on personal affairs and positions on SGB’s Recreation Committee and the University Senate Athletics Committee.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Benjamin resigned first.
He said he resigned from the Board because the time he spent on the politics — namely the Allocations process — behind SGB silenced his ability to stand up for student organizations.
Benjamin said Board members focused more on maintaining SGB’s public front, which distracted him from his efforts to support student groups.
“If I don’t have the ability to dissent publicly, it takes away my ability to advocate for student leaders,” Benjamin said.
He said his original vision for his tenure as a Board member included creating a culture of representing student needs and setting aside the politics of the SGB Allocations Manual.
Benjamin said that in the past few weeks, other Board members noted his absence from various SGB events and approached him about his commitment to the Board. He said it was not a problem of commitment that led to his resignation, but rather the limitations SGB set on his goals.
“My issues aren’t workable through the system as it is in place,” he said.
In a statement of resignation to Nites and the rest of SGB, Benjamin challenged the Board to examine the loss of three members this year and “reflect on what could be driving such dedicated leaders away.”
Benjamin said the three resignations this year reflect the Board’s heavy involvement in politics instead of working to restructure itself and detract from cyclical problems, such as non-transparency and incomplete projects.
Though the Board is currently revising the Allocations Manual, Benjamin said he felt the Allocations Committee members and Board members involved did not make enough effort to include other voices from campus.
He said the Board too often got caught up in “Allocations nonsense,” and spent the majority of its time talking about money during planning sessions.
“We forget there are bigger issues to tackle on campus,” Benjamin said in the statement.
Benjamin said there was an “overwhelming presence” of Board members in the Allocations process.
“We have an Allocations Committee for a reason,” Benjamin said. “We take all too much power on to ourselves to overturn their decisions and take too many liberties with what they spend so much time on.”
In the statement, Benjamin urged the Board to shift its focus toward representing students instead of involving itself too much in the Allocations process. He said talking to student groups requesting money solely about allocations only served to intimidate and discourage.
“Remember that every decision you make based on a flawed manual without putting yourselves in their shoes says to these students that you’re a politician or a businessman, not a representative,” Benjamin said in the statement. “When they ask for money, ask what else, in addition, you can be doing to represent them.”
Benjamin said he and Tsatsos decided to resign together so the Board could start its interview process right away. He said he made the formal decision to resign Monday night after presenting his issues with SGB to Nites. Prior to his decision, Benjamin said his reservations toward the Board’s involvement in the Allocations process came up “sporadically” in meetings.
Benjamin ran for Board on the Forward slate with Nites and Board member Sara Klein during the 2014 Board election. He said Nites was both concerned and understanding about his decision to resign from the Board.
Benjamin said that, as president, Nites was “very fair,” but tended to be disorganized. He said such disorganization — an inherent aspect of SGB — influenced his decision to resign.
“We ran and we knew it was going to be difficult,” Benjamin said. “At some point you just run out of steam.”
While Nites said he might not personally be the most organized person, some of the feelings of general disorganization also stem from “the quick nature of being on Board,” and the toll that multiple meetings and responsibilities take on members.
Tsatsos said there were multiple reasons behind her resignation, which primarily resulted from a conflict in her fall semester class schedule.
Tsatsos said she must take a Tuesday night chemistry lab next semester to graduate next spring. Tsatsos could have taken the class and remained on the Board if she used her maximum number of absences, but said she did not want to enter the semester with that mentality. She said she has known about her scheduling problem for two weeks, but only decided to resign Monday night.
Tsatsos said she would not have resigned if not for the scheduling conflict, but added that she was “disenchanted” with SGB.
Expectations go awry
In her statement to the Board, Tsatsos said that she thought SGB was an organization that would help her positively affect the student body. But after joining, she “realized the amount of politics that come with the job.”
“Incompatibilities between opinions, work ethic and communication between the Board members have left me feeling unsatisfied,” Tsatsos said.
The Board selected Nick Hufnagel, a junior majoring in French and urban studies, to replace Radziwon at its public meeting on March 4. Hufnagel competed against a pool of 24 applicants who underwent public interviews for the position. The Board opened the application to students the night of Radziwon’s resignation on Feb. 27.
A declining fervor for this year’s SGB has been evident since campaign season, which had 11 candidates for Board as compared to the 18 candidates drawn by the previous campaign.
Three slates, or groups of three candidates who run together, and two independent candidates contended for seats on the 2014 Board. Only two candidates who ran didn’t win positions. Nites said people become “disenchanted by the inner workings of the student government,” every year, but the disenchantment can be found on multiple campuses.
“That is the nature of being a student and wanting to make change on campus and being a part of something larger than yourself and larger than student government,” he said. “We are part of Pitt, and it’s a business. It’s a university and there are politics involved with that. That’s just a fact of life.”
Nites said that “just like anything,” there are always things that the Board can approve, and he acknowledged allocations disagreements and disorganization in terms of meeting times and scheduling among members.
Tsatsos added that the amount of disorganization within SGB hinders its potential to be a productive organization.
“Rather than aiding me in getting my initiatives done, it has hindered me,” she said.
Tsatsos said it is impossible to accomplish each of the Board member’s three campaign initiatives, regardless of overlap between their ideas. Tsatsos blamed the process of going through loopholes and administration.
“You just can’t do it, but not because you don’t care,” Tsatsos said.
Tsatsos said she felt the Board needs to not focus on small issues like the Board members’ weekly reports.
“It’s okay to say no report,” Tsatsos said. “We need to focus on big picture, not who did I meet with this week. The students don’t care about big administrative names.”
Tsatsos said she still plans to complete her campaign initiatives and that her resignation will allow her to pursue plans more actively without worrying about SGB’s image.
Tsatsos said she does not think her resignation should reflect on others, “but I hope it drives [Nites] to make a change.”
“I hope that the Board and student government as a whole will reflect on losing three student leaders and will look internally to see how the organization can be made more functional,” Tsatsos said.
Filling empty seats
Kenyon Bonner, Student Government Board adviser and director of Student Life, said he was not aware of the resignations before Tuesday night’s public meeting. While Bonner acknowledged that the resignations are “something that is important” to the Board, he declined to comment further on the resignations, feeling that it would be unfair because “at this point, [he hasn’t] spoken to the members who resigned or the Board,” and he was not fully informed to speak on the issue.
Bonner said he will speak with Nites and the Board regarding the process of filling the vacant seats, but the ultimate decision will be theirs.
“I know they have learned a lot [about the process] and I will discuss it with them, but I want to leave that up to them on how to proceed from this point,” he said.
Nites said he will meet with Bonner this Thursday to discuss the resignations and plans for replacing the Board members. Nites said he plans for the Board to hold interviews similar to those conducted while replacing Radziwon.
Nites said that he plans to make a more organized process for filling the positions, which will be completed in the next few weeks. The Board will accept online applications for at least a week, and then the Board will make an appointment as soon as possible. Nites said he will post the application forms to the SGB website as soon as possible.
“It’s actually never been taken off the SGB website,” he said, referencing the application that was available following Radziwon’s resignation.
The Board will then most likely interview the applicants in two public rounds and deliberations will be held in private as they were upon the last selection process, according to Nites.
“We need to be better prepared, more open to compromising, more aware of the situation we are in and hopefully that will help to unite us,” Nites said.
The position of president pro-tempore, however, will be selected through an appointment and approval process. Nites said that there is “not much guidance” on a second appointment process, but that he will most likely appoint Board member Andrew Abboud, who received the second highest number of Board member votes in the 2014 Board election, to succeed Tsatsos.
Typically, the president chooses to appoint the Board member candidate who received the most votes in the election as president pro-tempore, as the highest-vote receiver assumes the presidential role should the president not be able or willing to fulfill the responsibilities of the position.
Abboud said that he would accept the position, if appointed, and work to support Nites as president.
“The most important thing is for me to give my support to Mike as he needs it, because I do think he’s done a wonderful job with leading the Board so far,” he said.
The remaining Board members said they are still optimistic about the remainder of their terms despite the recent string of resignations.
Board member Mona Kazour said she and the other members needed to continue to faithfully represent on-campus student organizations.
“Don’t have any fear about this because it’s not going to hinder us in any way,” she said.
Board member Andrew Abboud similarly dismissed any ideas that the Board is dysfunctional, and instead said it was an opportunity for improvement.
“I take it with a grain of salt and also a grain of encouragement to be the student group that you guys want us to be,” Abboud said.
After speaking on behalf of the club baseball team in regard to its allocation request, Mark Cunliffe addressed the Board, saying that “disorganization is apparent” among SGB. He continued, saying that two Board members resigning does not sit well with him as a student requesting assistance and funding from the Board.
“When you try to reassure us that you will still do your job, it’s a little unsettling,” he said.
Cunliffe declined to comment any further on the issue outside of his public meeting statement.
Abboud said that while the Board members’ resignations came “as a shock to everyone,” he plans to continue pursuing his own projects and to determine whether Tsatsos and Benjamin will carry out their projects in some capacity.
“If they think the Board isn’t the best way for them to serve the students, I fully respect that,” he said.
Abboud added that Hufnagel’s quick transition to his Board position makes him optimistic about the impending transitions.
“This too shall pass,” he said.
Nites agreed, saying that he believes that “internally, [the Board] will function okay,” but that they will need to approach public meeting discussions with a willingness to work together and compromise.
Compromises may be necessary in passing Allocation requests that are brought before the Board for approval or denial. A majority must be reached by the Board to approve an Allocations request, meaning on a full eight-person board, five votes are necessary to approve allocations of the Student Activities Fund to student groups.
This rule still holds with a decreased number of Board members.
Five of the six Board members will have to vote unanimously on Allocation requests in order for the requests to pass.
Nites said “overall, [the Board is] on track to accomplishing as much as last year’s Board,” and that they are continuing to move forward. Ultimately, Nites attributed the lower interest in running for student government and the high Board member turnover rate to a natural cycle of student involvement in the organization.
Despite the resignations, Nites said that student groups should not be worried.
“Does it look bad that three people have quit? Sure,” he said. “But I think that’s just the nature of having nine people run for eight spots [on the Board].”