Referendum causes discord in senate
After a contentious late-night session on Wednesday that one senator walked out of in frustration, Student Senate finally approved the 12 questions for the referendum, which was sent out yesterday and includes the controversial topics of divestment and confidence in College President Nancy Dye. In a last minute move, the senate also accepted a question from former senator Curtis Ferguson addressing student confidence in Senate itself.
Tempers flared on several occasions during the meeting, which lasted almost four hours and was moved to the lounge of South after Wilder was closed at midnight. Aside from the specific questions at hand, a major issue of discussion at the meeting was the somewhat vague process by which referendum questions are adopted.
The meeting was called after Senate proceedings were stalled during a discussion on two competing divestment questions on Sunday night. One question, proposed by the organization Students for a Free Palestine, asks students if the College should divest from companies that do business with the Israeli military. The other question, proposed by Oberlin Zionists, asks if the College should divest from a list of 18 countries, including the United States.
At the Sunday night meeting senators had hoped to combine the two questions into one which would more generally address the strategy of divestment, but this proposal was found objectionable by members of SFP, who emphasized that their proposal referred specifically to the issue of the Israeli military’s human rights abuses.
“We want our original question on the referendum or one that adequately reflects this issue,” said SFP member first-year Ronnie Ginach.
After it was proposed that both of the original questions be resubmitted for consideration, OZ member senior Yael Levin objected to the fact that the discussion was being held during the Passover holiday.
“The students who proposed this question, including myself, have religious commitments tonight and can’t be here,” she said.
When Senate proceeded with discussion, Levin called for quorum. As only six out of the 13 senators were present at the meeting Senate was unable to vote on any of the proposed questions after the quorum call.
In fact, the Senate constitution stipulates that only a senator can call for quorum and only after a specific vote; however, Senate Educational Coordinator senior Rebecca Ganetzky, who is responsible for enforcing Senate rules, was among those absent from the meeting and none of the senators who were present on Sunday night were aware of this rule.
With only three full weeks left in the academic year, the quorum call made it uncertain whether the referendum could happen in time for the votes to be counted before finals.
“This is awful,” said senator Jon Argaman, a senior, who was facilitating the meeting. “I don’t know if the referendum can happen now. If this doesn’t happen it makes a mockery of Senate.”
Senior Marshall Duer-Balkind, senate communications coordinator, echoed his concern later in the meeting.
“This one question is derailing the entire referendum,” he said. “There’s something about it I don’t like.”
While unable to vote, Senate briefly continued discussion on the Nancy Dye confidence question. Sophomore senators Matthew Adler, Matthew Kaplan and Jonathan Bruno all raised concerns about the wording of the question and its background information which they felt to be biased and factually inaccurate.
“I would be absolutely ashamed to be on Student Senate if the question goes on the referendum as is,” Bruno said.
Senate then adjourned, planning to take up the question again at some point during the week.
The special Wednesday night meeting began at 10 p.m. with a long list of questions to discuss and once again not enough senators to make quorum. It was not until 10:30 that enough senators arrived for the body to vote.
Ferguson presented a question to the senate, asking, “Do you have confidence in the Oberlin College Student Senate?” Ferguson resigned from Senate in protest last spring after the results of a question proposed by the Oberlin Pro-Life Union of Students was thrown out due to what senators felt was poor wording.
While the deadline for question proposals had long passed, Senate agreed to discuss the quesiton after Ferguson claimed he had been unaware of the deadline.
However, sophomore Senator Ezra Temko first presented a list of questions for Senate approval.
The first, which read, “Should Student Senate charter a student organization if it considers that organization to be culturally appropriative?” raised objections from senators who felt it to be too vague and ineffective.
Temko wrote the question largely in response to an earlier meeting of Senate in which the group argued over whether a proposed belly-dancing club was practicing a form of cultural appropriation.
“I feel this is a stupid question because there’s nothing we can do about it,” said Ganetzky.
Senator Dani Indovino, a junior, felt that there wasn’t enough time to adequately address the question’s flaws.
“You can’t define cultural appropriation in this short amount of time,” she said. “It’s going to offend more people than it helps.”
The proposal failed.
Temko’s other proposals passed with little discussion. These included questions on non-departmental student arts, sheltered bike racks, Senate office hours and environmental sustainability.
Then, with only half an hour left until Wilder closed, Senate turned to the extremely controversial issue of divestment.
After agreeing to reinstate both questions for consideration, it was proposed that the Zionists’ question be reworded as some senators found the list of included countries objectionable.
“I find the choice of countries put in the question demeaning to the entire referendum,” remarked Argaman.
With only minutes left until midnight, a vote was called on whether to strike the list of countries.
At this point Levin attempted to voice her frustrations with the process but was told by senators that stack had closed on the questions.
“You reinstated SFP’s original question when they had strong objections,” she said. “I have a strong objection.”
“We’ve heard your objections,” replied Duer-Balkind, who was facilitating the meeting.
“No, you haven’t!” insisted Levin.
Senator Ethan Witkovsky, a junior, felt that OZ was being treated unfairly.
“I think it’s ridiculous to procedurally bully one way or another,” he said “We can’t just say we’re voting and stack is closed and we’re voting. That’s bullshit!”
All the same, when the vote was taken, OZ’s question was approved in its entirety.
Immediately after the vote was taken, a Wilder staffer arrived to inform Senate that the building was closing and the proceedings were moved to the lounge of South where Duer-Balkind is a residential assistant.
After dealing with some minor wording changes in the question regarding Oberlin’s Coca-Cola boycott, Senate turned to the Nancy Dye confidence vote proposed by sophomores Cecilia Hayford and Peter Collopy of Students for Administrative Reform.
Ombudsperson Yeworkwha Belachew, who, along with acting Dean of Students Linda Gates attended the meeting in its entirety, raised strong personal objections to the question. Belachew specifically requested that her comments at this meeting not be reprinted but in a later interview she explained her objections.
“The proposal was problematic as it lacked facts,” she said. “In addition I was disappointed that students did not do enough research when they presented their background information to Senate for approval. I was very surprised with this. Especially since I was highly involved this year with the strategic planning process and I know Nancy Dye’s commitment in terms of getting student voices. Seeing the balance between the pros and the cons made me think that they hadn’t done their homework.”
While Indovino worked on rephrasing the pros and cons section of the question, other senators debated whether the question should be included at all and what rights Senate had in terms of reworking questions which were presented to them with 100 student signatures.
At one point Witkovsky got up and left the meeting, saying, “I think the people who brought this question should think some more about this issue. We as senators and student leaders should think about whether we need to catch some things that should go out into the public.”
Duer-Balkind felt that the sponsors of the question were being unfairly punished for not advocating as emotionally as the sponsors of the divestment questions.
“I think it’s unfair to let the degree to which people are angry determine what we do,” he said.
After a failed motion to postpone discussion until this Sunday, it was eventually agreed that the pros and cons section of the question would be removed entirely and only the question itself and a brief background paragraph would be included on the referendum. The senate approved the question by a vote of six to three with one abstention.
It was after 1:30 a.m. before the senate began discussion of Ferguson’s question.
“I think it’s unfair to take a confidence vote in the administration without first finding out if people have confidence in Senate,” Ferguson said.
Duer-Balkind registered his objection to the question, which he felt was merely a response to the Dye confidence vote.
“I have a problem with questions being put on to oppose each other,” he said.
After a few more minutes of discussion, Ferguson’s question was approved with several senators remarking, “Let’s just get this over with.”
The referendum was sent out by e-mail on Friday morning.