Student Government: stop hiding from students

Public officials promise transparency; senators must always support open sessions, oppose closed sessions when they are proposed

Yiyi Ding | Mercury Staff

Over half of SG’s senators ignored their promise of transparency to students when they hid away to discuss a high-stakes resolution at a public meeting. Meaningfully participating in SG means facing the public eye, even if there’s backlash. And if senators can’t handle the scrutiny, then SG is not the place for them.

SG passed S.R. 2023-12, a resolution in support of “an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza” on Feb. 27. But what prompted them to pass the resolution is a mystery because the senate chose to go into a closed session– a private session exclusive to just SG members, which senators can’t discuss afterward– by a margin of one vote. Student spectators packed every seat in the usually empty visitor’s section to passionately present their stances for or against a ceasefire and then hear SG’s discussion. In response, the senate forsook their duty to students by voting to remove all students from the room so they could privately deliberate. Senators complained that their peers might feel “uncomfortable” enough to not speak openly in front of the large crowd. The implication was that senators who wanted to speak might remain silent, acquiesce to the opinion of their peers, water down their statements or even lie about their stance out of nervousness – fears that go against the essence of what it means to be a member of the student’s government.

A reminder to senators: you signed up for a role that puts you in the public eye. You are an elected official, and your duty is to represent the students of UTD, not to protect the “comfort” of your fellow senators — a clear euphemism meant to save face by avoiding criticism. It cannot go without saying that students expect the senate to act transparently, especially with sensitive subjects. And what you decide is doubly important to students considering their fees fund SG operations. Transparency is part of the unspoken contract you hold with your constituents, and you must honor that by remaining in open session whenever possible. Your comfort is not more important than that promise.

SG’s upper leadership is not free from scrutiny either. Vice President Leah Sullivan reminded senators that media outlets such as KERA and The Mercury were present, and President Srivani Edupuganti emphasized that name placards were visible, as if the potential of being observed should somehow change their behavior. It is hard to take SG seriously when this is the warning coming from its highest leaders. Regardless of how many people attend the meetings, there is the expectation that the sessions are publicly viewable and that you can be quoted on anything in any given meeting. A Mercury reporter is almost always present – the press isn’t going away – and guests can walk in at any point. This should play no role in whether a senator speaks openly, as media scrutiny is a natural part of holding office.

Potentially the most baseless defenses were when a senator called for a closed session for the safety of SG members and to avoid doxxing. “Doxxing” has a very specific meaning: it is when private identifying information, such as a person’s address, is posted online without the person’s consent and with ill intent. Being held to your word at the public SG meeting is not doxxing; name placards are clearly visible, and photos of senators are available online. If you choose to hold public office, you must accept that you will be exposed more to scrutiny, and that means your name and appearance are public information.

The ceasefire topic is undoubtedly sensitive, but senators had a month to prepare since the ceasefire petition began circulating Jan. 25, with the resolution included in the agenda sent out Feb. 24. Some SG members found it unproductive to address matters of global politics for a resolution that is essentially symbolic in nature, and this is valid pushback that the public ought to hear. But any well-reasoned, articulate or passionate discourse around the resolution is lost to the private meeting. No one is forcing you to talk, nor do we expect the entire senate to give a public statement, but you should speak if you have something thoughtful to say. Consider that going into closed session makes you look secretive and spineless.

There is no reason for a college government to go into closed session in the first place; SG doesn’t handle issues of utmost security and confidentiality, which is essentially the only reason real government entities enter closed executive sessions. What should students think when senators hide the moment a resolution is more serious than debating the cost of pizza? These sensitive topics are the ones that deserve the most public discussion, and senators shouldn’t shy away from them. If the promise you made to students means anything, oppose closed sessions when they are proposed at the next high-stakes SG meeting.

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