Pitzer College faculty and administrators are limiting the number of student senators eligible to vote on the school’s College Council, just days before the council decides whether the college should suspend its study abroad program with Israel’s University of Haifa.
After the Faculty Executive Committee decided to enforce a seldom-used rule, only 32 of the 48 Pitzer Student Senate members will be allowed to participate in the College Council’s highly anticipated Thursday vote, according to an email sent from Senate President Shivani Kavuluru PZ ’19 to other senators Saturday. The College Council is a governance board comprising students and faculty.
Student senators bristled at the move. Many interpreted it as suppressing student input on the vote, which will likely determine the fate of Pitzer’s controversial study abroad program.
“This is very clearly working to disenfranchise students, whether that is the intent or not,” senator Brendan Schultz PZ ’19 said at a March 10 senate meeting. “I see this as the biggest threat to the student voice in the shared governance process that I’ve seen in my time at Pitzer.”
All 48 student senators had been allowed to vote at College Council meetings since the beginning of this academic year, Kavuluru said, although attendance never reached that number.
But FEC chair Claudia Strauss said that faculty and administrators decided a rule in the faculty handbook limiting the number of student voters must be followed for the council’s vote on Haifa “to be legitimate,” according to the email from Kavuluru.
Dean of the Faculty Nigel Boyle said that determination was made last week during an FEC meeting, and said it had nothing to do with diminishing students’ voices.
A section of the handbook states: “The Pitzer College Student Senate Executive Board will appoint enough other student voting members of the College Council meeting so that the total number of Student Voting members of the College Council is not less than one-third of the voting faculty.”
The FEC is interpreting that language to mean that the number of student senators voting should equal one-third of the 96 eligible voting faculty, or 32 students, even though “not less than” appears to suggest 32 senators as a minimum requirement.
Strauss responded to the Pitzer Student Senate in an email to students Tuesday. She said “it was not until last week” that the FEC learned that recent student voting “[did] not accord with Pitzer’s Bylaws” and that 32 student senate members were eligible to vote until “about five years ago.”
She said “it is clear from the language of the Bylaws” that they do not authorize all student senators to vote and that the one-third provision is not a minimum.
“We all support Pitzer’s values of shared governance,” Strauss added.
At the March 10 senate meeting, the senate devised a plan to push back on the college’s decision. Senators will first ask for permission for all 48 senators to vote at the College Council meeting. Should that fail, the senate hopes to be allowed to have 37 senators to vote.
If the College Council refuses to permit more than 32 senators to vote, the senate will push for a proportional voting system that would allow all senators to cast a ballot and select a proportional ratio of the votes so that senators only contribute 32 votes total.
If this is disallowed, the senate will call for the 32 voting members to be randomly selected from the willing voter pool, and plans to separately track the votes of the senators who are not allowed to vote.
In her email to senators, Kavuluru decried the decision as a “frustrating disregard for the role that students have played in college governance.”
She said she offered to work with faculty members to “clarify the archaic language” in the handbook “rather than hastily implementing it and restricting student senate votes a week before the vote on Haifa. Unfortunately, the administration has decided to implement the provision in the faculty handbook anyway.”
Boyle said he sees the decision in a different light, and said the move was not intended to undermine shared governance.
“I don’t think that’s what’s involved at all, actually,” he said. “It’s being a bit more laser-focused on the procedures. We’re expecting a lot of people to show up, so it’s just a concern to make sure that the meeting is run in a procedurally correct fashion.”
Boyle admitted that recent college council votes have been “at odds” with the practices laid out in the handbook.
“In the past, for the most part we haven’t had major contentious issues on College Council where the vote might be close, and so we’ve been a little informal about it,” he said. “But the faculty handbook states which students have the right to vote.”
When asked about the “not less than one-third” wording in the faculty handbook, Boyle said: “I think that’s just an anomaly that FEC has said that it’s going to take up. That’s something that will need to be clarified as policy going forward.”
The Haifa program has been a hot-button issue since November, when Pitzer’s faculty overwhelmingly voted to suspend the program in protest of Israel’s restrictive entry laws against Palestinian people and anyone supporting a boycott of Israel, particularly those in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
Following the decision, Pitzer President Melvin Oliver spoke out against the faculty’s motion at a College Council meeting.
He said the program’s suspension would provide “paltry support for Palestinian rights” and would “foolishly alienate a large population” of the school’s community.
“Why would we not suspend our program with China? Or take our longest-standing program in Nepal where the Pitzer in Nepal program has been run for over 40 years. During that time they have had a bloody civil war that killed 19,000 people,” Oliver said. “Why Israel?”
Oliver will have the final say on whether to suspend the Haifa program after receiving the council’s vote. Senator Isaiah Kramer PZ ’20 said decisions by Pitzer’s president typically heed College Council recommendations.
Update: This article was updated Tuesday to include new information from FEC Chair Claudia Strauss.