“Guilty by association” is a concept that may fly for some when it comes to things like enforcing the liquor ban in the dorms, but rarely does it translate fairly to other areas of campus life. Student government is not one of them.
Last week, ASCSU was found by the Office of Equal Opportunity to have violated the university’s policy on discrimination and sexual harassment. The judgement came after complaints from multiple student representatives, many of whom resigned over the issue, that the administration had created a hostile work environment and allowed sexist and disrespectful behavior to persist in the workplace.
While these violations are truly nasty stuff, it is important to remember that the behavior and actions that prompted them occurred last year under the previous administration headed by Jason Sydoriak, especially when ASCSU’s response to these violations is considered.
Since the violations were reported by the Collegian last week, ASCSU responded by releasing a statement acknowledging their awareness of the violations that occurred during the Sydoriak administration- nothing more, nothing less. This has prompted outrage from some among the student community who see it as a refusal to take responsibility for what happened.
In a sense, this view is right: the current administration will not take responsibility for the sexual harassment violations. However, they absolutely shouldn’t have to.
This year’s leaders of ASCSU should not be held responsible for the actions and poor decisions of last year’s leaders. The Sydoriak administration certainly made plenty of mistakes and, unintentionally or not, let unhealthy relationship dynamics and boorish behavior infect its working culture. The leaders of that administration are ultimately the ones that should be held responsible, but since they’ve served their terms and moved on, there’s nothing that can really be done in the way of sanctions or reparations.
Unfortunately, that’s left the current administration, led by new president Daniela Pineda-Soraca, to fix the mess and bear the brunt of the backlash for something they didn’t do. While such injustice is the nature of the beast of politics, the Pineda-Soraca administration is only a week into its fall term, which isn’t enough time to really make any mistakes of their own, even if they wanted to. They’ve been deemed guilty in the court of public opinion when the only crime they’ve committed is bearing the same name as those responsible.
This transferal of guilt to the current administration is an easy mistake to make- after all, when less than five percent of students vote in campus elections until it’s absolutely necessary, how many of them can we really expect to care about ASCSU long enough to learn about them? Does it even matter if students erroneously blame this year’s leadership for the failures of last year’s?
It actually matters quite a lot because public opinion is insanely important to ASCSU’s bottom line as an institution.
Like any large student group, ASCSU is entirely dependent on the campus community for its strength: it need students to vote, it needs students to volunteer, it needs students to lead it, organize it and serve its primary functions. Student government is only as strong as the amount of people who care enough to legitimize and power it, so it is imperative that they maintain and foster a positive relationship with students on campus so as to strengthen their power to advocate for the issues that matter to their peers.
We should absolutely hold our student leaders accountable for their actions and decisions, but when we let them take the heat publicly for something they didn’t do, it unjustly impacts their legitimacy as an organization and their ability to recruit students to participate. That’s not right. We shouldn’t expect our new leaders to take responsibility for what’s happened in the past, but we can, and should, expect them to take responsibility in addressing the longstanding issues in student government and shaping their institution to create a more welcoming and equitable environment for students to work in. And there’s good evidence that that can happen.
President Pineda- Soraca ran on a platform specifically centered on improving diversity in student representation. She was elected over individuals who had far more experience than her in student government because enough people have confidence in her ability to best address this issue and effectively shape the culture within ASCSU to be more inclusive of all kinds of people. She appears to have a deep understanding of what’s wrong within culture in student government and seems well-equipped to deal with it.
Furthermore, as a woman, Pineda-Soraca has far more natural motivation to challenge the status quo within student government because it devalues her gender. That’s not to say that the Sydoriak administration didn’t or shouldn’t have had any reason to address discrimination and sexual harassment within its workplace, bur rather that an administration run by a woman has infinitely more to gain in doing so because the status quo does not serve her.
The construction of her cabinet also seems to reflect the desire for a change in culture. While there will inevitably be representatives in student government this year that served under the previous administration, only two of the 21 members of Pineda-Soraca’s cabinet served in Sydoriak’s ASCSU cabinet last year, according to ASCSU records.
This is all the more reason why it is necessary her administration be given a fresh slate. The violations committed during the Sydoriak administration are serious and reflect fundamental problems within ASCSU’s working foundation, problems which anger many in and outside the organization. We cannot translate our frustration over these longstanding issues onto people that just arrived on the scene.
The Pineda-Soraca administration may not be responsible for the messes of past administrations,but they are responsible for how they choose to respond to them,and we can hold them accountable to do so- but it begins with a fresh start. Our new representatives want to transform ASCSU to assure that everyone’s voice is both heard and respected, and we can help them- by offering them the same privilege.