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Division of Student Affairs validates Campus Life power grab

Following the move by the Department of Campus Life to enact new policies which give it and its advisers absolute control over the affairs of the Student Government Association and its agencies, and a position statement from the newly formed FIUnite party, the Interim Vice President of Student Affairs Larry Lunsford released a response to the FIU community, sent to deans, the party, and other university leaders, in which it validated the move by Campus Life, and rebutting the claims from students that the policies and university intervention in SGA’s internal affairs was contrary to law. 

In the email, Lunsford claims that the review of the legislative history and reading of the law as provided in the statement “does not tell the whole story.” He then goes on to claim that the cited changes in law “merely deleted a provision in the statute that a member of the BOT could request a review of a procedure that was disapproved by a university president.” There is no mention of the explanatory note in the legislature’s website which says “The School Code rewrite bill, Senate Bill 20-E, codified as ch. 2002-387, does not provide for university presidents to have approval authority over internal procedures of university student organizations; s. 229.0082 was repealed by s. 1058, ch. 2002-387.” 

The email includes allegations that the Florida Board of Governors provides clear guidance for universities overseeing student governments, citing BOG Regulation 6.014(5), despite the fact that nothing in Florida’s Statutes authorizes the BOG to develop regulations regarding student governments, which states that the “board of trustees or its designees as deemed appropriate by the board of trustees” shall approve student government internal procedures upon adoption. That same regulation includes provisions mandating that student governments operate within university rules and regulations. Lunsford states that as interim VPSA, he is charged with the responsibility of overseeing student activities, including the SGA, and approving SGA’s internal procedures, taking the requirement of Board of Trustees approval a step further, and leaving it up to him to also approve SGA’s rules.

The response also alleges that, despite the recent flurry of administrator’s interventions, FIU rarely exercises its broad authority over SGA.

Regarding the topic of the Elections Code, and which version of the law should be implemented, Lunsford states that it is correct that the old version of the law, last established by the Student Democracy Act of 2010 is the one being implemented, because he alleges “no final version of the Elections Code Reformation Act of 2012 approved by the SGA Senate and signed by the SGA MMC President, as is required by student government’s own Constitution, has been provided to the Vice President for Student Affairs for approval.” However, there is no provision requiring SGA to send its Statutes amendments, or Elections Code changes to the VPSA for approval. 

Lunsford also states that he has “been advised that the Elections Code Reformation Act is currently missing.” Yet, in October of 2012, Pawlitics was able to request, and receive, all of the Elections Code Reformation Acts bills as approved by the Senate. Then Director of Governmental Relations Dean Williams was able to send the documents after they were requested, including all bills that had been approved, and the ones awaiting the SGA President’s signature. Whether somehow the documents were lost since that period is unclear. 

Because of these allegations, the interim VPSA claims that the SDA of 2010 had to be followed instead of the new law. 

Despite all the claims in the email, questions still remain regarding the involvement of the administration in the internal affairs of the Student Government Association. It is not clear how the officials involved believe the BOG can provide for a power the legislature removed. In addition, there has been no evidence that any of the SGA’s procedures or law have ever been approved by the Board of Trustees, or the VPSA. In addition, the response as submitted makes no mention of which part of the SGA Constitution requires the VPSA’s approval of bills or elections code changes, and only does so for constitutional amendments. 

Overall the response represents a doubling down on behalf of the FIU administration of the actions of the Department of Campus Life and its interim Director, Jose Toscano, which as previously reported, has a history of seeking total control of the SGA. 

The email also represents a challenge to the credibility of Lunsford as an impartial university ombudsman, position he holds after his interim promotion. Given his direct oversight over the Department of Campus Life, and his involvement in this move to rein in SGA towards the absolute control of university officials, his standing as a neutral entity that could help students in this matter can be directly compromised.

It remains to be seen whether the President of the university, the Board of Trustees or the Board of Governors will intervene in this affair, although if history is to be taken into account, any intervention on their behalf would most likely be another confirmation of the already provided interpretation of the law, and acceptance of the standing BOG regulations, even if they go against the legislative intent under ch. 2002-387.

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FIU Department of Campus Life makes power grab, seeks to control SGA

BY William-Jose Velez

The Florida International University Department of Campus Life has made a power grab for the total control of the Student Government Association and its agencies. The move was brought into light after Student Government Council - Modesto A. Maidique Campus Vice President Alex Castro filed a writ of certiorari with the SGC-MMC Supreme Court seeking to have the Elections Board enforce the current Elections Code as last reformed by the Senate during the Fall 2012 semester. Several candidates noticed that in the information sessions the Elections Board arranged, an out of date Elections Code was being provided and cited by the board, despite the changes enacted last semester. This prompted Attorney General Richard Moran to contact Elections Commissioner Charles Peretti asking him to “enforce the NEW elections code because that is the law under FIU.” 

As a response to the writ and to Moran’s email, Peretti sent an email to Chief Justice Sebastian Larrazabal in which he stated that in an effort to expedite the court’s consideration on whether to hear the case, he was providing two documents that he alleged justified the Elections Board’s actions in ignoring the laws passed by the senate. The first document is a university policy which states that internal procedures of the SGA shall be approved by the Board of Trustees of FIU. Since the BOT has not approved the latest elections code reforms, Peretti argues that this invalidates them. The second document is an undated document, characterized by Peretti as “official university policy”, which lays out the policies of the Department of Campus Life, stipulating as Peretti cites in the email, that advisers “reserve the right to make all final decisions concerning the council, agency and/or bureau.” This provision, according to Peretti, provides the SGA advisers with the authority to order and dictate SGA policy, contrary to what the Attorney General had indicated in his email.

 

THE LAW

The issue at hand brings into the spotlight the question of how much power the university and its staff actually have over the Student Government Association. While originally established by the Board of Trustees, the SGA actually derives its powers from state law, specifically Florida Statute Section 1004.26, which establishes the structure, powers and role of student governments in state universities. The law does not provide for the approval of internal procedures by the BOT, nor for the absolute authority by advisers or other university officials. This would suggest that the FIU BOT policy requiring SGA’s internal procedures to be approved by the BOT, approved in 2002, is in conflict with state law.

Another issue arising with Peretti’s claims is the fact that the Board of Trustees has never even considered the SGA’s internal procedures for their approval. Pawlitics conducted an investigation of the board’s minutes for the last 10 years, and not once since 2003, have SGA internal procedures been up for approval. In fact the only mentions SGA receives in all 10 years of minutes is the welcoming of new presidents and mentions of SGA’s approval of fee increases. This fact effectively undercuts the commissioner’s argument, since that means no elections code has been approved by the BOT, not the old or new one, effectively rendering the Elections Board decision to enforce the old as an arbitrary choice based on a selective enforcement of the university’s policies by the Division of Student Affairs and the Department of Campus Life. In addition, it appears to be a flagrant violation of the SGA Constitution, SGC-MMC Statutes as well as the Fall 2010 Williams v. Elections Code Supreme Court decision in which it was determined that the Elections Board lacks the constitutional authority to make new laws, as they are doing by selecting which law or parts of the law to enforce and follow.

 

CAMPUS LIFE’S ROLE

The Department of Campus Life, currently under the direction of Interim Director Jose Toscano, who also serves as an SGA adviser, seems to be having the leading role in this controversy. By directing the Elections Board to choose to follow an old elections code, or even a hybrid of the new and old elections code, Toscano and SGA adviser Michele Castro seem to be overstepping their roles and directly conducting processes reserved for SGA officials as established by Florida Statutes. While Peretti calls the campus life policies document which allegedly provides Toscano and Castro with the power to dictate policy, as official university policy, the fact is the document does not appear on the university’s official policies database and lacks the formatting OUPs have. It is unclear when these campus life policies were written, but the use of the words bureaus and agencies, names only enacted during the 2011-2012 term, suggests these are recent policies.

The possible timetable of events, coupled with Toscano’s troubled history as adviser, constitute a subtle but deliberate power grab on behalf of the Department of Campus Life to completely control SGA and its affairs.

This controversy regarding the university’s role inside SGA’s internal affairs stems back to last year’s elections, and even further to Toscano’s handling of adviser responsibilities. In April of 2012, then Vice President of Student Affairs Rosa Jones opened the door to the university openly intervening in SGA affairs in subversion of state law, by reverting a Supreme Court decision and effectively appointing Laura Fariñas as SGC-MMC President, despite fraudulent elections. That action constituted the first official and open move by university officials to control SGA, but it followed years of subtle attempts to do the same by Toscano, often in defiance of university rules.

THE HISTORY

In October of 2010, in a much publicized incident at the SGA Intern’s Retreat, Jose Toscano in his capacity as SGA adviser, sought to punish certain students for violating a nonexistent university policy regarding leaving a university function, by seeking to remove their pay as SGA officials. The move was stopped by the university’s Human Resources department since it violated state law. On a related incident, Toscano was involved in asking Senate leadership to resign based on the same nonexistent policy. The now interim director has also been known to tell SGA Senators that he had the power to remove them from office without reason or process, a statement in clear violation of state law, which establishes that to do so, SGA’s internal procedures must be followed, but one that now appears to be validated by the new Campus Life policies.

If the new rules were enacted by Toscano as Interim Director, it would be a continuation of the pattern of behavior previously noted, which is especially noticeable during elections. Because of the time consuming and sensitive nature of the elections process, involvement of the university staff is significant, and Election Commissioners tend to follow their advice without question, even when state law is clear in the powers it gives the SGA, a tradition now followed by Peretti.

THE IMPLICATIONS

Following the precedent established by Rosa Jones in appointing Fariñas, and now by Toscano in enacting rules giving him and other advisers supreme control over student funded entities, the autonomy and role of SGA could be fundamentally altered. Legally speaking, SGA allocates and approves the budget of the Activity & Service Fee fund, which funds all of campus life’s operations, the student centers, recreation centers and student organizations. If university officials are allowed to continue interfering in SGA affairs without due cause, and often in violation of state laws and university rules, the very point of a student government is defeated, with every action taken by it proven to be an exercise in futility. This string of actions opens the door to the administration directly allocating the budget of the A&S Fee, a power they legally do not have, especially when SGA officials are not standing up and questioning these moves, and in some cases, owe their positions to administrative involvement.

This turn of events seems odd in a university that describes itself as student centered, but the inaction of the BOT or President’s office in these issues portrays an FIU more interested in retaining absolute control over SGA and its $12.5 million budget than in following the law, its internal procedures, or its own pledges of believing in the capacity and quality of its own students.

In the meantime, the elections process continues under a Commissioner counseled by advisers who “…would prefer to focus on the timely execution of this year’s elections to the benefit of the Panther student body…”, perhaps even in contempt of the laws of that very same Student Body.

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Unregistered student groups may now use FIU facilities

MIAMI, FL: In their June 19, 2012 meeting, the Florida International University Board of Trustees amended the Student Code of Conduct. Several revisions were made to the document including the deletion of ” the sentence indicating that student organizations are required to register before using campus facilities because this is no longer accurate.”

This amendment has various implications on the different student groups that have had issues reserving rooms and having events on campus such as the Coalition of Students for Reform and Occupy FIU. 

The referenced line was a major point in the cases regarding party registration referenced as Colesanti v. Patel et al, where the effect of non-registration was discussed, ultimately having the court ruling that registration for parties was impossible, which consequently implied the impossibility of using campus facilities.

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Farinas Administration explains flip-flop on tuition increase

MIAMI, FL: The Student Government Association administration of appointed President Laura Fariñas has issued a press release to explain her flip-flop on tuition increase. In the release, Fariñas says that “There needs to be an understanding that the state legislature must be willing to invest in the future of the State of Florida.” Her vote in favor of the increase, which contradicts her campaign promises, is justified in the release with mentions of the state cuts on FIU’s budget.

Appointed SGA Vice President Alex Castro is quoted on how the students of the university now bear most of the budgetary burden, when the State should be one bearing it. The release contains no explanation of why then Fariñas did not vote against the increase to show the disapproval of further increase.

During the campaign before the elections of April 2012, Fariñas and her running mate, Alex Castro promised to fight to keep tuition low. On June 19, 2012, sitting in the Board of Trustees, Fariñas voted for the increase in tuition. In addition, the appointed SGA administration lobbied members of the State University System Board of Governors for the 15% tuition increase, the maximum allowed by law.

SOURCE: FIU SGA Facebook Page

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Board of Governors approves tuition increase, FIU now most expensive Florida university

ORLANDO, FL: The State University System of Florida Board of Governors approved tuition increases for all universities, including Florida International University, who requested and got the maximum legal limit of a 15% increase.

Campaign poster from Laura Fariñas in which she pledged to fight to keep tuition low.This increase in tuition at FIU was first approved by the FIU Board of Trustees, with the vote of the Student Government Council - Modesto A. Maidique Campus president Laura Fariñas, who sits in the BOT. Fariñas also reportedly lobbied for the increase before the BOG, despite a campaign pledge to “…take action in lobbying for the preservation of low tuition at FIU and in the State of Florida…”

In addition, the sole student representative in the Board of Governors, University of Central Florida Student Government Associate president Cortez Whatley, aggressively fought for tuition increases, particularly for UCF who was initially denied its request, as reported by KnightNews. Several members in the BOG were actively against tuition increase.

FIU has released a statement from President Mark Rosenberg expressing his disappointment in having to raise tuition once again, but expressing relief in that a portion of the revenue from the increase will be used for financial aid. FIU has said the increase will provide  ”$15.6 million in revenue to help offset the $24 million reduction in state funding FIU sustained this year.” The increase will go into effect for the 2012 - 2013 academic year.

UPDATE: Reports from the Associated Press show that with this latest increase, FIU will now have the highest tuition among all Florida state universities.

Appoint SGA President Laura Fariñas also reacted with the following:

"No one wants to pay more," Florida International Student Body President Laura Farinas said, but she added that she supports the increase. She said it’s necessary to avoid closing programs and laying off faculty due to cuts in state funding.

"It became very difficult for a lot of the universities to maintain and increase the quality and the integrity of the degrees that students walk out with," said the senior psychology major. "We value the quality of our degree."