Despite efforts to move forward, tensions run high in SGA

By Patrick Hoff

(Christina Yacono/Daily Collegian)
(Christina Yacono/Daily Collegian)

Following contentious spring election results for Student Government Association president, vice president and student trustee, which saw the victories of Vinayak Rao, Jacob Schissel and Sarah Freudson, there have been almost half a dozen resignations in the SGA this semester, an unprecedented amount for the body.

Speaker of the Senate Sïonan Barrett, however, said election results are not a focus for the senate, as they have many other projects they’re working on.

“I don’t think the result of the election is a focus in the SGA,” she said. “I think it’s the work ethic of those who were sworn in that is the worry of the SGA.

“(But) I believe that the SGA definitely supports our current leadership entirely and we are all here for each other,” she continued, adding, “I think (the results) might be a focus of a few returning members that can’t let it go, but it’s not my problem.”

Barrett called her second year as speaker her “most productive year” in the senate, but admitted that “this has been one of the … most complicated years to work in,” both because of her senior position and because of the internal struggles.

President Vinayak Rao said his focus is on the present, not looking at what happened in the past and with the elections.

“I just continue doing the work that’s presented in front of me,” Rao said, adding, “I do my best to focus on the present and do my best to build a better future for myself and for my organization and for the entire student body.”

Despite both leaders attempting to move forward, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that the spring elections have caused tension in the senate.

Former Associate Speaker Chris Czepiel, who resigned in October, said the environment in the SGA had become stressful this year, and it took a toll on himself and others, especially those in leadership positions.

“A lot of people still can’t accept that Vinayak and Jacob (Schissel) are the executive team,” Czepiel said. “I think they’ve been doing an excellent job in trying to really get their work done so far, but there are a lot of people in the senate and in other positions who still just can’t seem to accept that they won and are trying to make it very difficult for them to continue.”

Barrett admitted that until recently, Rao and herself were unable to sit together for one-on-one meetings, a problem considering all of the projects and tasks the SGA has been faced with this semester, from the MinuteMarshals initiative to a statement on the University of Massachusetts Police’s confidential informant program.

Jennifer Raichel, chairwoman of the undergraduate experience committee, has hope, though, that the tension is beginning to pass. Barrett and Rao sat down for mediation last month, which Raichel believes will help.

“Having them being able to communicate better and more effectively will make both branches communicate more effectively,” she said. “It also makes us trust both sides a bit more.”

Raichel said the tension boiled down to a lack of communication between the executive and legislative branches, causing projects to overlap and people to feel overworked.

“I can’t speak for the executive, but I know that in my position and the legislative branch in general has been a little more overworked because we’ve taken on more projects this semester,” she said. “I think that there was a definite point where it was a low spot and I think since then we’ve gotten a lot better.

“Particularly for me, I know I’ve gotten a lot more crossover recently than I had in the beginning and middle of the semester.”

Raichel added in an email, though, that she was cautious about the executive branches commitment.

“While the executive leadership have stated that they are learning and growing within their positions, I am not quite sure how willing they are to change the way they interact with other student representatives, administrators or students themselves from my own interactions with them,” she said. “I personally have not seen changes in the work ethics nor the products of their work since this summer and will continue to question whether or not they can effectively lead the body until they significantly and demonstratively improve upon this.”

Barrett said the biggest issue she sees is the lack of professional development that executive leaders were able to do before taking on their jobs.

“These leaders have not had that time to develop professionally beforehand so they’re doing it on the job now,” she said. “They’re doing a good job, but they’ve had a steeper learning curve in this position than I think other people in their positions have had in past years. So it puts more pressure on the legislative branch and just everyone else in the organization in general.”

This added pressure, Barrett said, is what drove some people to resign. Though each member who resigned had personal reasons for leaving, both Raichel and Barrett believed overworking was a general cause.

Tyler O’Day, former chairman of the Committee on Diversity and Special Engagement before resigning in October, said his primary reason for leaving was the lack of personal growth he saw available to him.

“That’s a reason why people join clubs and join experiences, because they want to see collective growth within the group and also personal growth for themselves,” he said. “I didn’t see a real opportunity for either of those things to happen based on what occurred over the summer and in the opening weeks of senate this year.”

O’Day pointed specifically to the lack of compromise he found when he began proposing a campaign for three student trustee votes on the UMass Board of Trustees instead of the Five Vote Campaign of last year.

Currently only one student trustee per year from each of the UMass branches has a vote on the board, something the SGA pushed to change last year so every student trustee would have a vote. In place of that, O’Day and Student Trustee Sarah Freudson were in discussion to launch a campaign for three votes, which they saw as a compromise.

“It’s principles, and that’s understood, everyone has their principles,” O’Day said. “But you can’t let principles and your vision of an ideal world stand in the way of progress, and that is what I saw happening. Progress was being impeded.”

O’Day said what drove him to resign was the senate’s language in their recommendation for the confidential informant program. The language used, he said, took the SGA, and therefore student voice, out of the process.

“I thought it would’ve made much more sense to see what the task force said, demand that student approval be necessary for the reinstatement, if we thought what they brought to us was acceptable, and if it wasn’t, then the program would be over then,” he said. “But instead, we took ourselves out of the conversation basically. We said whatever you bring to us, we’re not going to like it, it needs to end.

“I thought it took away our spot at the bargaining table, which is something that in every world … you can’t do.”

However, Barrett said the resignations have not had a negative effect on senate morale, remaining hopeful for the future.

“Since whoever and anyone has resigned, the SGA has been getting more productive. I think that when the drama leaves, the real work can start,” she said, adding, “it’s sad to see leaders resign in the SGA, but it’s also really exciting to see new ones step up with the opportunity.”

The executive branch has also had resignations this semester, and Rao expressed grief at losing members in both branches.

Sen. Ryan DiZoglio (Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)
Sen. Ryan DiZoglio
(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

“Regardless of the branches we’re all still together. … We’re a team,” he said. He added, “Every resignation … affected me regardless of how each branch is separated, but at the end of the day I fully support the decisions made by those that resigned and I’m still here as a resource and as a friend to those if they still need me.”

Sen. Ryan DiZoglio, who made an impassioned speech at the beginning of November asking the senate to accept the outcomes of the elections and end the tension, told The Massachusetts Daily Collegian things are getting better since he made his speech.

“We lost a few months (of work), but every family has issues,” he said, adding that he loves and respects all of his fellow senators.

Rao emphasized that the SGA is in place to represent students and they encourage all students to come to their office to talk.

Patrick Hoff can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Hoff_Patrick16.

Correction: A previous version of this article included a picture that misidentified Kabir Thatte as Vinayak Rao. The Daily Collegian apologizes for the error.