By Anat Peled
The Graduate Student Council (GSC) started off its weekly meeting Wednesday with routine updates. But when co-chair Yiqing Ding, a second-year M.S. student in aeronautics and astronautics, announced that it was time to move into a closed session, newly elected council member Caleb Smith ’17 M.A. ’18 objected on student government constitutional grounds.
While the closed session and the reason for its closure — ”scheduled discussion on proprietary knowledge about SSE operations” — was publicly announced more than 72 hours in advance as required by the ASSU constitution, Smith thought the session violated the first clause of the constitution’s freedom of information section.
According to the constitution, “all records of any Association entity must be available for scrutiny by the public,” the only exceptions being “proprietary business information of Association businesses, financial records for non-funded accounts of organizations banking with the Association, Legal Counseling records, and personnel records of employees.”
According to Smith, who is also a Daily staffer, none of these applied to the closed session held by the GSC.
Smith asked Jelani Munroe ’16, ASSU financial manager, why the session had to be closed.
“Typically, we do budget discussions in closed session,” Munroe said. “The reason we do that really is based on the range of questions that may come up. There’s always ultimately reporting that happens publicly … particularly because the biggest thing that comes out of our fee discussion is the student fee, which you can’t have because it goes on student bills … So yeah, it’s closed by nature.”
Munroe added that he was happy to talk and meet with any students who had budget related questions. He declined to comment on the closed session.
Smith remained unconvinced and motioned that the GSC open the budget discussion to the public as an open session. However, no other council member seconded his motion, and the session remained closed.
After the session, Smith told The Daily that he did not think that anything discussed in the closed session qualified as proprietary information that should not be disclosed to the student body. According to Smith, the session included information on what the ASSU proposes to spend money on next year, such as annual grants, stipends for GSC members and administration costs. He said the discussion was mostly a presentation of summary statistics.
Smith’s objection follows other recent closed meetings held by student government that The Daily has reported on as potential violations of the ASSU constitution. A secret morning meeting earlier this month was not disclosed beforehand, while Tuesday’s Senate meeting included a private session on the budget that senators defended as traditionally closed. These closed meetings worry Smith.
“I think that this just goes to underline the need for clearer freedom of information provisions in the ASSU constitution,” he said. “I think that everyone is acting with good intentions; however, when we have such vague constitutional language I think that it can lead to those good intentions conflicting on occasion.”
This “can sometimes undermine transparency for the student body,” Smith added.
Smith hopes to reform the ASSU constitution. However, disagreements about how to revise the document arose during the open session. When Smith’s reform bill was brought up for discussion, Melanie Malinas, a fourth-year graduate student in biophysics, said that although Smith identified some problems with funding, she did not understand how he proposed to improve the current system.
Smith said that he aims to decrease the large number of undergraduate student groups on the ballot for special fees, arguing that an abundance of organizations makes scrutinizing individual groups harder and increases the difficulties some deserving groups face in winning funding. He explained that, in his opinion, some groups that seek special fees for budgets of more than $6,000 may not always be beneficial to the entire student body and instead provide value to a certain portion of the student body.
Smith is the general manager of campus radio station KZSU, which almost lost some of its requested special fees after failing to receive enough graduate student votes this spring.
Malina called Smith’s suggestions “anti-democratic,” explaining that groups are not entitled to funding without campaigning.
This was the first meeting for newly elected co-chairs Ding and Amy Tarangelo, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in cancer biology. The two would not comment on the closed session. However, Tarangelo said that she was still learning the ropes and would comment after had further looked into the matter.
Contact Anat Peled at anatpel ‘at’ stanford.edu.