With the start of the new CUSG term comes the return of the magic word “transparency”. Yet it appears that executive session will once again be the elephant in the CUSG Senate chamber that no one wishes to address.
When asked, Senate President Christian Jones described executive session as a “seldom used procedural mechanism” only used in the “hiring and firing” of senate members. This sentiment was also expressed to the large class of rookie senators at their senate practice run last Monday, and is likely held by both committed members of CUSG and casual observers alike. Yet it’s worth noting that, for a policy that is indeed rarely used, it can have devastating effects on the student body.
The transparency issues that dogged the senate for the duration of this academic year stemmed from executive session restrictions. For ten hours and 55 minutes, senators saw evidence, heard witness testimony, and debated whether or not Vice President Jaren Stewart should be impeached. Only 20 minutes of the trial were open to the public, the casting of the votes and the verdict. The rest of the information was (and still is) barred to anyone who wasn’t in the chamber.
The result of this withholding of info drove a chasm between members of the student body. One side saw a racist, politically motivated smear on a vocal minority leader on campus. The other saw a man exploiting his position of power to harass and intimidate women while CUSG brushed it under the carpet and gave him a slap on the wrist. Neither side will ever get answers as to what actually happened, or why 65% of senators voted to remove Stewart from office, or why six senators apparently didn’t have enough evidence to vote either way after receiving nearly eleven consecutive hours-worth of information.
Neither side felt seen, heard, or fought for. In fact, both sides felt they were actively ignored, marginalized, and fought against by their own elected representatives.
As senators reached out to media outlets to voice their disappointment with the trial, a culture of silence began brewing. One senator deemed the media contact to be illegal, despite the fact that senators were not divulging information from the trial (which would be an impeachable offense itself due to executive session, and was barred by a non-disclosure agreement the University forced on senators, which wouldn’t have been possible without executive session). Senators were told that before they talk to media outlets they should have their content effectively screened by their superiors in the senate, a clear attempt to discourage senators from reaching out in the first place. Not only did executive session divide the student body, but it fostered a hostile attitude to the media, which by extension drove a divide between the student body and CUSG.
In most cases, executive session could be completely abolished. It’s used every year during the selection of senate executives, including senate president, for no reason that is immediately apparent. There was also an attempt to hold the question-and-answer and pro-con debate periods of the Article of Impeachment in executive session as well. Neither of these situations warrant shutting off the student body for some added convenience.
Impeachment trials themselves likely should still be held in closed sessions, both to protect witnesses and victims from harassment and prevent senators from grandstanding for the cameras. However, it isn’t too much to ask that the senate keep minutes like any normal meeting and make those publicly available, redacting any information that would identify witnesses and victims. This solution would protect privacy and also allow CUSG to be transparent to the student body.
Bad policy is bad policy, no matter how infrequently it’s used. As destructive as executive session is, it should shift from a seldom-used procedure to an unused one.