Structural changes reshaping student government following rocky semester


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A Spring 2020 Student Government Association meeting. Photo by Yongze Wang.

By Andrew Brinker, Senior Investigative Reporter

Following a somewhat tumultuous semester at the college, the Student Government Association is proceeding with unprecedented adaptations to the organization’s fundamental executive structure, which are likely to have immediate impacts on the group’s day-to-day function.

On Jan. 16, SGA’s joint session voted unanimously to approve a proposal from Executive President Will Palauskas to create an executive cabinet of five new positions that will serve as the executive board’s staff. The new cabinet represents a sweeping change to the structure of SGA’s highest tier of leadership, bigger than any other in the last 20 years, Assistant Vice President for Student Success Sharon Duffy, the organization’s former advisor of 19 years, said.

In the treasury wing, Executive Treasurer Abigail Semple is pushing forward a proposal this week to create the Financial Equity Board, which would hear students’ financial concerns and recommend action to administration.

The changes come as Palauskas, who was elected to the executive presidency last semester after organizing a last-minute write-in campaign, anticipates a “period of transition” in the coming year as the merger with Marlboro College, which is set to take place in June, inches closer.

A member of SGA for the last two academic years, Palauskas identified a series of recurring problems at the college, citing issues appearing in SGA’s academic initiative, that he feels can be solved through the adoption of an Executive Cabinet.

“One of my biggest goals heading into this semester was to think about how we can kind of strengthen our structure and how can we make SGA as efficient as possible and be able to fight these cyclical problems and find a way to stop them in their tracks,” Palauskas said in an interview. “That’s really the goal of creating the Executive Cabinet.”

Now officially in practice following the Jan. 16 vote, the Executive Cabinet consists of five positions including Chief of Staff, Communications Director, Elections and Outreach Director, Social and Events Director, and Education and History Director.

The Chief of Staff will lead the cabinet at weekly meetings and serve as a liaison between the Executive Board, Joint Session, and the Executive Cabinet. Essentially, the group will function as a separate branch of SGA.

“The idea behind this cabinet is creating roles that will support and enhance the members of our organization,” Palauskas said. “We’re creating a team and a support network within our organization to strengthen our work and allow us to do more work.”

While the cabinet appears to be an ambitious venture with the potential to permanently change the everyday function of SGA, a group of vacancies in the organization that remained unfilled for the entirety of the fall semester initially raised questions about the organization’s ability to fill the newly-created cabinet seats.

Four of the five seats were filled by a unanimous appointment at Tuesday’s joint session meeting, effectively answering those questions. Former Sustainability Commissioner Gianna Gironda was appointed to serve as SGA’s first chief of staff, former FAB member Hannah Flaherty will serve as communications director, Jay Rosato will be history and education director, and Lilly Meehan-Egan will be elections and outreach director.

While the executive cabinet is a form of structural change that SGA hasn’t seen in recent memory, Duffy told The Beacon that the idea has been floating around various executive boards for years.

“We talked about it over the course of many many years,” Duffy said. “So not just with this executive board. There was always this thought of getting more people involved to spread around the work and to give people the ability to really kind of work towards tangible end results. It’s been leading up to this and I think that this [Executive Board] kind of saw that there was an opportunity.”

SGA’s current advisor, Director of Student Engagement and Leadership Jason Meier, told The Beacon in an interview last week that he held no reservations regarding the Executive Cabinet, and that the adaptation will be one that shifts SGA to a more traditional model.

“[Palauskas] really has a vision for how this is going to play out,” he said. “And I think it’s a sound vision—it’s going to be good for student government moving forward. It really is common practice among student governance.”

Palauskas told The Beacon that he studied the student governments of Boston University and others to help form his Executive Cabinet proposal.

Semple’s proposed Financial Equity Board, which is likely to be approved by FAB this week and then by Joint Session next week, will also be a major modification of SGA’s basic structure.

Currently, the treasury wing of the organization is comprised of FAB, which deals with treasury policy and budgetary requests from student organizations at the college. Should Semple’s proposal to create FEB pass Joint Session, the treasury wing will then be split into two separate boards.

FAB will continue to handle treasury policy and budget requests, while FEB will seek to address the college’s key financial issues.

“[FEB] is basically a way for us to include more students in conversations around financial equity and accessibility at Emerson College,” Semple said in an interview with The Beacon. “I am one student. I have one experience. I have one financial situation. It’s unfair for me to take that and be like ‘These are the problems that apply to every single Emerson College student.’”

According to Semple, eight to 12 students from different financial perspectives will make up the board, which will be co-chaired by the executive president and the executive treasurer. Each week, the board will meet to hear student concerns and consult with various outside financial experts, and eventually make recommendations for changes in financial policy to the college.

FEB plans to close its meetings off from the public with Semple arguing that student’s financial records should be kept private.

“We’re going to try to help our administration get a better understanding of who[m] the average Emerson College student is and what their financial needs are,” Semple said. “That’s going to be one of our major goals.”

Meier and Duffy both spoke highly of the proposal, telling The Beacon that financial advocacy is an important part of the executive treasurer’s job that will receive more emphasis under FEB.

“Having this new board and really focusing on non-SGA student leaders being involved really expands our vision of what the student experience at Emerson is, especially when it relates to finances,” Meier said. “I think it is showing humility from student government that they don’t know everything and that they can’t speak to all voices.”

Palauskas, who originally hatched his idea for an Executive Cabinet two years ago, told The Beacon that he felt a change was necessary to maximize the efficiency of SGA.

“There’s no real big structure in SGA that has changed in the past 20 years,” he said. “And in a lot of ways, I think if we’re not like modernizing ourselves. How are we capable of being the voice of the student body? The real answer is that we aren’t. So I see now as a good a time as any.”