It appears that some leaders of the Michigan Student Assembly don’t understand the difference between appointments and elections. Appointment is the method by which MSA leaders have been choosing people for the Department of Public Safety Oversight Committee and the assembly’s Constitutional Convention delegation. Election is the method that is required per state law and MSA bylaws, respectively. But after weeks of heightened attention to issues with the DPS Oversight Committee, MSA President Abhishek Mahanti has announced that the assembly will hold elections to determine student representation. MSA must make sure such an election materializes, and the University must push faculty and employees to establish similar procedures for electing representatives to the committee.
DPS owes its existence to a 1990 state law allowing four-year universities to establish their own police departments. This law stipulated that universities that form campus police departments must also set up oversight committees with elected student, faculty and employee representation. But earlier this month, a special report by the Daily discovered numerous problems with the DPS Oversight Committee, including infrequent meetings and student, faculty and employee representation that failed to meet the expectations of internal bylaws and state law. The student seats, for instance, were simply being appointed by MSA even though state law mandates campus-wide elections.
This process represented a gross misunderstanding of simple government terms. It would be false to say that U.S. Supreme Court justices are elected simply because the entities that appoint and confirm them were elected. This is a distinction that one would not expect high school civics students to struggle with, let alone college students in an elected student government. But even the University’s General Counsel — a body that consists of adult, professional lawyers — foolishly reiterated this falsehood when they dismissed University Prof. Doug Smith’s concerns with the committee member selection process and told MSA to do the same.
But regardless of how wildly these entities erred, fixing the selection process for the DPS Oversight Committee should be the current priority, and Mahanti’s announcement that MSA will hold elections for the seats is a positive development. Now he must make sure that the assembly follows through and establishes a sustainable election protocol. This shouldn’t be difficult, as the Daily reported today, such a protocol did indeed exist from 1992 until at least 1999. MSA must do all that it can to ensure that students have consistent, legally compliant representation on the committee, because giving students a check on the police department they interact with is of the utmost importance.
But the student seats on the committee aren’t the only ones in need of attention. The processes for selecting faculty and employee seats are similarly broken, though not to the same extent as the student seats. The Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs and the University’s office of Human Resources — the respective authorities for faculty and staff elections — should immediately get to work improving their election processes. In SACUA’s case, that means holding annual elections as the group’s bylaws specify. In the case of Human Resources, that means revamping the process so both union and non-union members can vote every year, instead of every other.
And the University administration, for its part, should prevent the DPS Oversight Committee from collapsing into irrelevance as it has over the last decade. Instead, it should push for an empowered committee that improves the relationship between DPS and the campus community.