The Michigan Student Assembly is elected to represent the interests of students and the ideals of the University. Demeaning and threatening violence against an assembly member with a disability in a secret Facebook.com group – as MSA President Zack Yost did, even if just as a joke – is far from those ideals. In light of his monumental mistake, Yost must do more than apologize: He must resign. If he is unwilling, students must force him out.
The private group, “I waste more time reading Tim Hull’s code amendments than I do on Facebook,” was created by Yost last year while he was MSA student general counsel. Its target was Rep. Tim Hull. In the group’s description, Yost wrote, “I’ll give that kid a fucking disability he can write home about if he keeps sending these code amendments to everyone” – suggesting violence against Hull and referencing Hull’s Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild form of autism. The fact that Yost took the time to create this group, invite a few people to it and discuss it with others online shows that this was more than just a momentary joke made between friends.
In a fit of blatant (and ill-advised) political opportunism at last week’s MSA meeting, Rep. Kenneth Baker made the offensive group public. Baker himself is as much a villain here as Yost. He didn’t tell Hull about his decision to reveal this group until just before the meeting, showing no regard for Hull’s feelings. Baker – a member of the Facebook group himself – at least had the decency to resign under pressure late last week. Yost has so far refused to do so, and he has implied that he would even allow Hull to quit the assembly rather than step down as president.
Almost as offensive as Yost and Baker’s actions were the immediate reactions of their fellow assembly members, who tried to silence any discussion of the offense at the meeting, claiming that the assembly session was not a place to discuss such a “private” matter. Also, the fact that this group existed for more than a year without anyone speaking out against it shows that this problem is bigger than Yost alone.
It should go without saying that it is inappropriate for anyone to make fun of someone with Asperger’s, especially in a forum like Facebook. However, Yost, as the president and face of the student body, must subject himself to a higher standard of behavior than the average student. He may be a great president, as some of his colleagues have insisted, but this violation transcends that. This was a failure to lead in the most fundamental way: Leaders are supposed to be examples for the people they lead, and they are supposed to uphold our deepest values.
Students should be given chances to learn and grow on campus, but Yost has not proven that he can reform MSA’s culture. He has not proven that he can represent the student body after this scandal.
More important, he has not offered any solutions beyond an apology to Hull. And he has not shown that he knows his actions have affected more than Hull: Is someone with Asperger’s syndrome likely to feel welcome at MSA as long as Yost is president?
A true leader should know better than that.
Yost should resign without being asked. However, it appears as though he’s intent on hanging on.
While the assembly did once act in unison to call for the resignation of former Rep. Ari Liner after he sent out an offensive email to a student and parent, MSA representatives have been all too willing to overlook the violations of their fellow members of late. They cannot be allowed to do the same thing this time: We the students must force the assembly’s hand in calling for Yost’s resignation.
All the power that MSA has is derived directly from students (read the first line of Article I of the Michigan Student Assembly Constitution). Though exactly how a student-initiated recall of Yost would work is unclear (the assembly’s constitution and compiled code are long, arcane and inaccessible), students can petition the assembly for any action. Once a petition signed by at least 1,000 students is presented to the assembly, the assembly is bound to adopt the wishes of the petitioners or present the matter to the student body for a vote.
Under MSA’s wildly flawed recall system, the assembly could delay a recall vote on Yost until the next general election in March, when his term would be ending anyway. That is not acceptable. Students must pack this week’s MSA meeting (Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at MSA Chambers on the third floor of the Michigan Union) and subsequent meetings and demand that representatives do something more than sit on their hands. There is a provision in the compiled code for special elections – if ever there was a time for one of those, it’s now.
Students can also petition specifically to have Yost removed immediately in lieu of a recall election: There is such a thing as impeachment in the MSA Compiled Code, though even Student General Counsel Arvind Sohoni is unsure of how that would apply in this case. The Rules and Elections Committee is charged with removing MSA members engaging in inappropriate conduct and an Investigative Committee can be formed to look into the alleged misconduct to determine if impeachment is necessary. With plenty of confusion swirling around how the constitution and compiled code would apply, the Central Student Judiciary will have to step in to interpret and clarify rules.
But this whole process will get nowhere unless students compel MSA to act against its beloved tendency of stagnation. It is vital that the hoards of students who have written outraged letters to this newspaper back up those words and demand action from MSA. Organize a group to attend the meetings and overwhelm the assembly with numbers: It is specifically forbidden to ignore the will of the students.
We have put up with MSA’s self-serving culture for too long. This may be the turning point in creating a government with a conscience that’s responsive to the whole student body. But it can only be done if enough students choose to act.