Medical School Prof. Douglas Smith finally got the chance to speak to the Michigan Student Assembly last night about his concerns over the Department of Public Safety Oversight Committee. His comments came after months of pushing members of the assembly’s executive board to meet with him regarding those concerns.
The executive board members had refused to meet with Smith after the University’s General Counsel’s office advised them not to meet with him.
Ambreen Sayed, MSA chief of staff, said Smith contacted her and asked about the appointment of students to the DPS Oversight Committee — a body comprised, per state law, of students, faculty and staff members charged with holding DPS accountable for its actions.
But MSA executive officers said they chose not to meet with Smith after they were advised by the University’s General Counsel not to discuss the DPS issue with him.
Smith said that he thinks the General Counsel’s office is responsible for him not being allowed to meet with the executive board.
“I blame that mostly on the General Counsel’s office but I think the University administration should trust the students to be able to listen to both sides of an argument and make a good decision,” he said in an interview after the meeting.
An article published in The Michigan Daily Monday reported that the DPS Oversight Committee has had a track record of neglecting internal procedures — a fact that lawyers quoted in the article suggest puts the University in violation of state law.
Problems surrounding the body include periods of time during which the committee lacks student representation, the failure to hold elections for faculty representatives every year and varying participation rates for staff representative elections. Additionally, concerns have arisen regarding the committee’s light load of grievances and the infrequency of its meetings.
Sayed said she felt that a meeting with Smith was unnecessary because she had addressed Smith’s concerns about how student representatives were appointed to the DPS Oversight Committee.
MSA Vice President Michael Rorro said that the executive board made a decision not to allow Smith to speak based on a recommendation made from the University’s General Counsel.
But Rorro said that the executive board was not forced to make any particular decision by administration officials.
“We got a message from the General Counsel’s office telling us maybe you shouldn’t meet with this person,” Rorro said. “We each individually chose not to meet with him based on what the General Counsel’s office said.”
MSA President Abhishek Mahanti said that Smith was overly persistent about setting up a meeting after he had been told that the executive board did not want to meet with him.
Mahanti added that he didn’t know why the General Counsel advised executive board not to speak with Smith, but speculated that it was because of his aggressive approach to setting up a meeting.
Sayed told the assembly she exchanged e-mails with Smith and talked to him over the phone. She said that their conversation elevated to include issues that were out of the control of MSA.
“It came to a point where we were discussing things like what can be done about the DPS committee’s bylaws,” Sayed said. “These are things that are out of my control, out of exec’s control.”
Mahanti said he was aware of Smith’s correspondence with Sayed, but did not think that Smith would be able to offer productive commentary on the issue of student representatives on the DPS Oversight Committee.
“That’s what our role is to appoint people to committees that are elected by the assembly,” Mahanti said. “And it’s so core that it took me aback that somebody who was calling 30 times a day, e-mailing 30 times a day would actually have anything to say about that process.”
But since hearing Smith speak at the meeting, Mahanti said he has changed his opinion of him.
“After listening to him speak and after seeing his demeanor, my opinion has changed, and this is something that we will definitely look into now,” he said.
Mahanti said the assembly will examine the option of changing the process of appointing students to the DPS Oversight Committee, but he is not optimistic about student interest in a campus-wide vote.
“With something like DPS student oversight, I don’t know how much student interest there is but it’s something that we are going to definitely consider and see if we can change that process,” he said.
The MSA executive board made the decision not to meet with Smith without notification of the MSA representatives, according to Public Health Rep. Hamdan Yousuf.
Yousuf said he is worried the assembly will become controlled by the University’s administration.
“Our speaker has made some very disturbing allegations,” he said. “I think we should be cautious about becoming just an arm of the administration.”
Yousuf and Engineering Rep. Pat Pannuto invited Smith to speak to the assembly last night. Pannuto said that Monday’s article in The Michigan Daily about the DPS Oversight Committee was what spurred the invitation.
Pannuto said that he was also curious to see what Smith had to say after reading communications between the executive board and Smith on the comments section of the online version of the Daily article.
In a comment, Smith posted a series of e-mails he exchanged with Sayed and the MSA Program Manager and Advisor Anika Awai-Williams.
“It’s modestly distressing that someone wanted to come speak to the assembly and was shut down, particularly as Hamdan brought up, by a University administrator almost,” Pannuto said.
In his address to the assembly, Smith discussed many of his concerns surrounding the committee.
According to Smith, because the University employs DPS officers, they are not adequately responding to the needs of the greater community — but rather tailoring their law enforcement to what benefits the administration.
“They’re acting more like bouncers than they are professional police officers,” he said during his address to the assembly.
Smith said at the meeting that he thinks the committee isn’t complying with the law because the student representatives are appointed by MSA instead of elected by the student body.
One independent lawyer quoted in the Daily’s article interpreted the state law by saying, “(The statute) doesn’t say elected by the ‘student representatives,’ it says the ‘students.’”
Sayed disagreed, though, saying MSA follows the rules.
“I was asked the question whether MSA liaisons are correctly appointed, the answer is ‘yes,’” Sayed said.
Smith told MSA representatives that they should demand that DPS respond to the needs of the community, not just the University administration.
“If you don’t tell the regents, if you don’t tell President (Mary Sue) Coleman that this is important to you, then essentially it’s killed by neglect,” Smith said.
— Suzanne Jacobs contributed to this report.