The Central Student Government’s Campus Inclusion Commission, which disbanded last semester after its 11 members resigned following a conflict between the commission’s chair and the executive commission, has been reinstated with the appointment of LSA junior Kendall Poindexter as the new chair.
For CSG members, especially in light of upcoming elections for next year’s assembly in late March, the resignations prompted conversation about issues of transparency, identity and power dynamics within the body, as well as questions about how the assembly would move forward.
CSG commissions are committees of students chosen by the body’s executive committee to unite students behind specific areas on campus. The Inclusion Commission, whose purpose is to address campus issues associated with race, gender and the LGBTQ community, was effectively inoperative for the month following the members’ desertion of the commission.
In a Michigan in Color piece published last semester in The Michigan Daily, a former member of the Inclusion Commission wrote about why she and the 10 other members resigned. The article was temporarily retracted by the Daily for additional review— an edited version has since been republished.
Engineering junior Sindhu Sreedhar, former executive chair of the LGBTQ Issues Commission, said the power dynamics displayed during a meeting with members of the executive committee regarding commission consolidation left her feeling marginalized and dispensable.
Sreedhar was contacted multiple times for comment and did not respond.
“He is a white man in a higher position than me, and had just implied that that I was dispensable. I’m a woman of color with seemingly no real authority in that space,” she wrote, referencing a member of CSG’s executive committee. “Whose voice really matters here? I felt as though the LGBTQ community that I was advocating for had suddenly lost any voice that it may have ever had in CSG.”
CSG chief of staff, LSA junior Sean Pitt was integral in the restructuring of the commissions and conveyed the executive committee’s decision to combine commissions, which was in part the catalyst for the commision’s disbandment. At the beginning of the 2016 fall semester, CSG launched a complete restructuring of the body’s 19 commissions, cutting 11. Some of these former commissions were turned into sub-commissions.
At a CSG meeting on Dec. 1, after the Michigan in Color piece had been published, CSG President Cooper Charlton called the resignation a misunderstanding but acknowledged the writer’s concerns about the power structure.
“The author of this article felt negatively about this proposal due to the power dynamic in the room,” Charlton said.
Charlton added there was further misunderstanding surrounding the measures of restorative justice that were agreed upon after the perceived microaggression.
“Because full information was not provided to the commission, negative sentiment towards the executive committee grew surrounded in the idea that the executive chose not to meet the requests for restorative justice,” Charlton said. “The sentiment that grew within this commission is founded on false information, and there is no evidence to support these claims.”
In interviews with The Michigan Daily, CSG representatives said the events of last semester were troubling and full of confusion.
LSA and Education senior Michael Chrzan, a School of Education representative, said in an email interview hearing there were issues with diversity in CSG spurred him to run during the mid-term elections last semester to reclaim his seat on the assembly. Following the incident, Chrzan contacted the commission members who had resigned to get their perspective.
“From my outsider view and someone who came into this discussion really late, I’d say personally it was a lack of transparency and communication on numerous levels,” Chrzan said.
Charlton said the restructuring was necessary to actualize the potential of these commissions, which hadn’t been seen in the past.
“Of the 19 commissions, only five of them were active, and by that I mean had communication with the executive team,” Charlton said. “Of those five, only three of them produced changes that students actually felt. Fourteen either didn’t do anything because they were vacant, didn’t have enough members to function or frankly just gave up halfway through the semester.”
However, though the inclusivity commission was disbanded, members of CSG said the body continued to make progress on issues of campus inclusivity. LSA sophomore Anushka Sarkar, CSG chief programming officer, said the initiatives they had been working on were implemented in other ways.
“Maybe there was a vacuum on paper, but the initiatives the commission was being tasked with fell to the executive committee or the other body members,” Sarkar said.
Chrzan wrote though he did not have much experience with the commissions prior to this semester, he was in support of their consolidation.
“That being said, I would argue the decision could have been made and communicated in a better way,” Chrzan wrote. “I know that some commissions were upset about the change and also upset about how it was communicated, specifically those in the Campus Inclusion Commission.”
Chrzan said he has seen more of the commissions and their work than he ever had before, but noted he attributed the change to the CSG chief of staff Sean Pitt, more than the new structure.
Issues of transparency, identity and power dynamics have also been raised by members of newMich and Your Michigan — two political platforms which have emerged in preparation for the upcoming March CSG election — in their reactions to the commission’s walk-off.
Public Policy junior Thomas Hislop, a CSG representative and Your Michigan’s presidential candidate, said CSG relies heavily on its commissions to fulfill its directives on campus.
“People often forget that commissions are such a resource for us,” Hislop said. “I’m a deep believer in the power of these commissions, and I think Cooper’s administration did a really great job of redesigning those nine commissions that really do have a voice and a power so that they can go forward with their initiatives.”
LSA junior David Schafer, a CSG representation heading newMICH’s executive ticket, said the events of last semester need to be a wake-up call for the assembly.
“What happened last semester, it’s entirely unfortunate. Anytime a student feels silenced, where their voice is not heard, regardless of the circumstances, we need to care about that and we need to do something about that,” Schafer said. “Of course when everyone on the commission resigned, that was not something you should look happily upon.”
Hislop voiced similar sentiments about the events surrounding the commission.
“Obviously it was unfortunate what happened last semester, and you know I know there was some frustration with how it was published as well,” Hislop said. “It was a really unfortunate event because that’s not what CSG is about, and I think the people behind Cooper, they do believe in the importance of inclusivity and diversity on this campus.”
CSG representative Micah Griggs, an LSA junior running for vice president with newMich, said their knowledge of the current power dynamics of the body sets them apart as a party.
“I think what’s unique here is that we realize the root of the problem when someone didn’t understand their power and their privilege in a certain situation,” Griggs said. “Having an IGR mandatory workshop can prevent those things from happening and work towards being more inclusive by understanding our identities and how they impact others.”
Intergroup Relations, a University program of social justice education, offers training to student organizations to create understanding of inequalities and the influence of diverse identities.
Sarkar, who is the campaign manager for newMich, said their platform includes plans for opt-in CSG newsletters and text alerts so that the student body is informed of what goes on behind closed doors.
“A commission chair resigning would definitely be an alert that would go out to people,” Sarkar said.
LSA junior Shamaila Ashraf, who is running on newMich ticket for the upcoming CSG election, said though she was not on the assembly at the time, she believed it displayed a lack of transparency and accountability on the side of the executive committee.
“Transparency in terms of what is CSG doing, what are these commissions? And then the other side, the accountability, who are we putting in those positions and how are they trained?” Ashraf said. “I know we keep going back to the IGR training, but it could be the final aspect of making sure that student leaders are leading in an inclusive manner.”
LSA junior Cam Dotson, current CSG representative and Your Michigan vice president candidate, echoed Ashraf by saying the assembly should have looked more thoroughly into the background of former commission chair Matthew Fleisher,a School of Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore, before hiring him.
“It seemed that (Fleisher) was kind of just in for it for the title and he really kind of just wanted the power that came with that,” Dotson said. “I believe that moving forward with that we need to look into the people that we’re hiring for these positions.”
Fleisher did not reply to repeated requests for comment.
Charlton said what drew him to the current chair, Poindexter, was his response to the incident.
“I think that what really drew me to Kendall was that he was able to see the other side of the institution,” Charlton said. “Of the many things that Kendall asked me, one of them was, I heard about this article, what happened? And that showed me right there he can ask difficult questions even to somebody who potentially in the future might be — I don’t use the word ‘boss’ — but colleague that holds you accountable.”
Poindexter said in an interview when he sought the position of chair he was not fully informed of the events of last semester, but is eager to look forward with the work with the commission. He said his experience with the Michigan Community Scholars Program and Detroit Entrepreneurship Network has allowed him to develop skills with dealing with sensitive issues.
“I would say going back to high school for me, I have always had to deal with sensitive issues, issues in communities where there could be one wrong word and there could be a lot of offense taken and there can be issues that arise, and I would say my experiences with that, leading retreats and being active within the school community, really helped set me up to apply to MCSP and go forth and be where I am now,” Poindexter said.
Poindexter said he has plans moving forward for the commission that may involve past members.
“We do plan to reach out to former committee members. The work is continuing and to sort of give them a little bit of an introduction to me so they can come back if that’s something they’re interested in,” Poindexter said. “There are problems on campus that are very sensitive and I just wanted them to know their work isn’t going to go in vain.”
As more than a month has passed without a chair in place, CSG representatives were eager to see the position filled.
“They found a great replacement this week who was brought in,” Hislop said. “I think Kendall is going to be excellent in that role.”
Sarkar said the long period before hiring a new chair was no mistake. To fire a commission chair requires a majority vote among the executive commission. In the case of Fleisher, that vote was not unanimous.
“This was by no means an easy situation to go through and by no means did we agree on everything,” Sarkar said. “Even the people that stood by the decision that occurred were heartbroken about it.”
Schafer said the most important message to come out of the incident is that it has been a learning experience for the members who aspire to diversify the body.
“All student organizations go through rough patches and periods of great growth and learning,” Schafer said. “I let this experience not define me but rather motivate me. It cannot and should not define us, but it needs to motivate us and it needs to inspire us going forward and it’s something we can never forget.”
Charlton described himself as heartbroken by the events of last semester in a Dec 1 interview, and expressed the desire for the body to move forward from the incident.
“Conversations surrounding (the Michigan in Color piece) and its events have already detracted significantly from the good works CSG does every day to improve the campus for the students at the University of Michigan, mainly projects meaning to improve the minority voice on this campus,” Charlton said. “We are moving forward with our long-standing commitment to inclusion on this campus.”