Senate Storm Results in Resignation
College senior Colin Koffel, formerly one of Oberlin’s most experienced and outspoken student senators, resigned on Sunday, Nov. 18 after a heated debate over the constitutionality of a two-year-old senate wages amendment.
Koffel’s resignation, which comes as Senate prepares to hold the bi-yearly student referendum, resulted from his dissatisfaction with the Senate’s handling of a constitutional amendment erroneously enacted in Spring 2006.
Discussion in Senate regarding wages for Student Finance Committee employees led to probing the fall ’05 referendum, specifically Question 16, which reaffirmed financial compensation for senators and amended the constitution to change a fixed weekly stipend to an hourly wage. New scrutiny of the referendum data indicated that the quorum required to enable a change to the constitution was not reached.
Former Student Senator Marshall Duer-Balkind, OC ’06, revealed by email that “at the end of 2005…the referendum was closed because 1,508 votes had been cast. Validation was done weeks later, after Winter Term.” 108 of those ballots turned out to be duplicates, which meant that only 1,404 people voted. The referendum was 28 votes short of the 1,432 needed to reach quorum.
For reasons that are still unclear, Student Senate of spring 2005 was unaware of this discrepancy and accepted the referendum results as valid. The amendment was mistakenly approved, compensation was reaffirmed, and Senate switched to a wage-per-hour ystem.
Speaking to the reasons for this error, Duer-Balkind stated, “In the turnover of all the people on Senate this detail was missed, and it was assumed the question had passed. Senate didn’t ‘decide’ to ignore the student body — it was an honest mistake.”
The faulty quorum remained unknown to Koffel until he received a call from fellow Senator and College senior Louis Grube on Friday, Nov. 9. The issue was brought up at Senate meeting the following Sunday, but was tabled because of necessary work to be completed on next week’s referendum.
When Senate convened on November 18, a passionate debate ensued. According to student senator and College senior Colin Jones, “It was a big deal — there was serious anxiety about not adhering to the constitution. This had to be balanced with concern about basic things like rent and food for senators who depend on the income.”
Over the course of the meeting, several solutions were proposed, including one by Koffel and another by College junior Ben Klebanoff and College senior Marc Shinn-Krantz. Koffel suggested that wages be suspended immediately and that all current senators reimburse the school for having received wages unconstitutionally. Koffel, who is not otherwise opposed to senators receiving wages, supported placing the issue of compensation on the upcoming referendum. The student body could then decide the issue under more constitutional terms than in 2005.
Koffel’s proposal was “overly strict given the situation,” said Senate Recording Secretary and College senior Nick Ferrara. As senators were elected assuming that wages had been reaffirmed, and given the fact that many senators had already spent their wages or need them for rent or tuition, Ferrara felt Koffel’s proposal was not the most practical. “This error is by no means the fault of the current Senate,” said Ferrara.
The proposal made by Klebanoff and Shinn-Krantz also demanded the immediate suspension of wages, though it also proposed that if the wage issue was reaffirmed in the upcoming referendum, then the senators would be retroactively paid for work completed after the date of immediate suspension.
“Running a referendum is more work than could be expected…without pay,” said Grube. “The Senate does the work that we would otherwise have to pay professionals to do.”
Koffel did not agree. He argued that being paid at all for this semester, even if it was expected, was unconstitutional because Senate would be paying itself wages that were not reaffirmed by the students in the 2005 vote. He argued that the upcoming referendum’s unclear wording would mislead students into approving retroactive pay while affirming wages.
“That seemed a little too sneaky to me. Senate only exists because students trust in it,” Koffel said. “Honesty was the best policy.”
“I’m not sure if my proposal was the most practical one...but this was a case where approval [of wages] was not granted and senators can’t be compensated,” continued Koffel, “It’s not a matter of what feels the best. The constitution dictates our action.”
The Klebanoff and Shinn-Kranz proposal passed. Shortly after, Koffel stood up during the meeting, announced his resignation and walked out.
“As Senate Liaison, I’m supposed to represent the Senate,” Koffel told the Review. “I could no longer faithfully speak for the Senate after that vote, because I felt what I would be advocating would be unconstitutional.”
He added, “I didn’t go into the meeting thinking I would resign. It was about maintaining trust.”
In the fallout from the debate, Jones said that he felt Koffel blamed him for the error: “I felt…singled out because I was on Senate at the time [the questionable quorum] happened, although I was just a rookie Senator and was no expert on questions concerning the constitution.”
In an interview with the Review, Koffel stated, “[Senators] have a duty to know the rules, you can’t claim ignorance. There’s the constitution — it’s there and anyone can read it.”
Koffel’s abrupt resignation came as a shock. “I didn’t believe that he was going to resign, I thought it was posturing,” Jones commented. “I understand that he takes the constitution very seriously — we all do — but I think [senators] have a lot of responsibility to serve the students. That means finding a constructive way out of this tough situation instead of letting it derail our progress as an institution.”
He continued, “The loss of Colin Koffel was huge. His walking away weakened Senate. He’s such a smart, capable and dedicated guy. His skills make him a remarkable advocate for the student body.”
In response to the suggestion that his resignation was an overreaction, Koffel reflected, “One of the most important lessons I’ve learned at Oberlin is the necessity of maintaining an ethical anchor. Ultimately, we only have our reputations and for me, adhering to the constitution is paramount.”
Ultimately, the referendum question will likely be divided into two parts, allowing the reaffirmation of wages to be voted on independently of retroactive pay. “It will be different than the one [passed] when I resigned,” notes Koffel. “The Senate should be applauded for looking into what is right and constitutional,” he remarked.
Koffel sees a “revitalized continuation of Senate’s efforts over the past years to pay attention to constitutionality. Senate is now following the best and most fair course of action.”
When asked if he regretted his resignation, Koffel’s answer was a definitive, “No.”
“I’m going to continue working to better Oberlin,” he said, “but now with Senate instead of on Senate.”
Grube will fill the Senate Liaison position in Koffel’s stead, while College sophomore Andrew Watiker, the runner-up in the elections, will fill the open spot. In regards to Koffel’s resignation, Watiker stated, “I have a lot of respect for Colin Koffel; I don’t want to pass judgment on his decision to resign without knowing the full details. I have big shoes to fill.”