Opinion: Student Government’s toxic environment: The organization’s failings stem from the top
The newly re-elected Student Government President inherits the issues of her last term
American University’s Student Government has been a broken institution for a long time. Often, students begin at the Senate and Executive branch with initial high hopes for student body advocacy but leave disillusioned at the inefficacy of the organization. Under the current administration, these sentiments have only grown stronger.
Students may find the organization’s lack of efficacy and complacency unremarkable considering student body communication is practically nonexistent. On the outside and apparently on the inside, the Senate is where students go to posture into the void. Through speeches and resolutions, Senators fight tooth and nail for their proposals to be sent nowhere to do nothing.
This implicit flaw of SG is worsened by the toxic and faction-filled work environment set forth by the SG President, Chyna Brodie. In an interview with Senator-at-Large Ryan Hale, who is widely known for advocating to get the Subway footlong meal swipe reinstated, explained, “We've had conflict before…whether it be the executive board and senate or whether it be within the Senate, but it always works out. And I've never seen it become so personal.”
There are no ill intentions with the creation of this article towards the President personally and only relate to occupational concerns. This article is meant to highlight issues that are most likely unknown to the general student body and ought to be addressed due to a lack of transparency towards the student body.
The job of an SG Senator and their ability to legislate becomes easier as their proximity to the executive gets closer. Bills and resolutions not accepted by Brodie’s faction—meaning Senators who vote only in line with the President’s approval — are certain to fail. If a senator is not a friend or faction member, their voice is not likely to be heard. This undermines the democratic process supposedly essential to the institution and maintains the sluggishly unimpactful status quo.
This can be seen when a seating chart was enforced in the Senate, effectively separating the executive from her Senators. Hale explained that this seating chart was used to ensure “there was no influence and that people were trying to make decisions on their own.” This influence Hale references refers to the alleged pressuring of Senators by the Executive into certain patterns of voting and general factions formed on the Senate floor that contributed to ineffective working environments. These claims are substantiated in the recent HR Report which calls on the President to make numerous apologies to specific SG members for various instances of harassment and pressuring.
After the seating chart was introduced, a bill requiring mandatory town halls passed unanimously. Brodie later vetoed it. The Senate failed to overturn the veto even though it initially passed unanimously. Why would these Senators change their minds if they originally maintained full support for the bill? Because the President did not offer her seal of approval, they were no longer allowed to endorse a bill they previously supported.
Brodie has faced a slew of backlash for her actions during her re-election campaign. First, the President faced a Judicial Board case regarding her campaign staff’s use of the official AU yearbook Instagram to repost a campaign video. As sitting President, using the powers of her office is blatantly against the rules. She received an Order of Contempt for lying about the staff member’s class standing in her testimony and was required to release a public apology. The Undergraduate Senate recently voted to decertify the Presidential election for the 2022-2023 school year until Center for Student Involvement intervention, where they officially certified it. The reasoning for this is the now settled Judicial Board case, AUSG Elections Commission v. Brodie Campaign (2), which alleges that Brodie further violated the Elections Commission by illegally campaigning in Mary Graydon Center even after being asked to cease campaigning in restricted areas. According to the consensus of the Senators, there was significant doubt that this alleged activity would taint the results of the election.
In terms of SG, the disconnect between school councils and the greater SG Executive and Senate branches, allows for significant disparities in programming and advocacy abilities. As a specific example, the yearly budget for the School of Public Affairs Undergraduate Council is less than 1/6th of the President’s salary of $2,500. On the other hand, the School of International Service Undergraduate Council receives $2,000 in funding from SG. Each school has roughly 1,600 students yet receives a very different budget. The disparity in funding points towards further issues of de facto clientelism with SG, where these budgets are created by the SG Finance Committee and carried out by the comptroller. This general culture of quid-pro-quos and needing connections to make a difference carries into budgeting where actual finances are being abused with little to no oversight or validated reasoning.
The SPA Undergraduate Council receives the same amount of funding as school councils that are currently non-operational, like the Kogod Undergraduate Council. These issues, which are a combination of clientelism and lack of oversight, leave students of certain schools at a clear disadvantage in the ability of their councils to advocate for their needs and host engaging programs.
The office of SG President is important. Regardless of individual opinions on the efficacy of SG in general, having a leader who is accessible and actively advocates for the student body is necessary. In her time as President, Brodie has opened doors for a diverse representation within the SG and supported BIPOC organizations campus wide, however, these positive actions do not outbalance the other negative actions within her office and as a candidate. For these numerous reasons, the current administration has missed the mark in providing a safe environment for those within SG and advocating effectively for the rest of the student body.
Jelinda Montes is an incoming sophomore in the School of Public Affairs and a columnist for The Eagle.