KU Multicultural Student Government faces complex path to transform from student club into equal governing body

Group has received funding from current Student Senate, contingent on chancellor's approval

photo by: John Young

Jameelah Jones, center, and Katherine Rainey, right, speak to the Kansas University Student Senate about a proposed Multicultural Student Government fee during the Student Senate meeting Wednesday evening March 9, 2016, at the Kansas Union.

Kansas University’s new Multicultural Student Government currently exists as a student club — one tentatively in control of more required student fee money than any other student organization outside the KU Student Senate.

The group endeavors, by various accounts, to become a formal governing body on the same level as the existing Student Senate.

It appears that may be a long — and, as of yet, unclear — path, complete with processes and approvals required at the student, university and even state Legislature levels.

MSG leaders expect to have a busy summer.

“This process is not going to be easy, it’s going to be stressful, and it’s going to be a lot of work,” interim MSG president Katherine Rainey said last week, during an informational meeting about the group. “But it’s necessary.”

University Senate process

photo by: John Young

Jameelah Jones, center, and Katherine Rainey, right, speak to the Kansas University Student Senate about a proposed Multicultural Student Government fee during the Student Senate meeting Wednesday evening March 9, 2016, at the Kansas Union.

Since meeting with MSG leaders two weeks ago, KU University Senate President Mike Williams, associate professor of journalism, has been combing the University Senate code to determine whether their request to become a formal governing body is possible and, if so, what it would take to accommodate.

Williams said the code’s preamble makes clear that the University Senate shall be composed of representatives from KU’s three governing bodies — Faculty Senate, Student Senate and Staff Senate — and that there shall be just one senate per constituency.

“My interpretation is that the way the code preamble reads, it speaks to one student senate,” Williams said.

“If we follow the code, which we’re obligated to do … this is not a two-week process. In a perfect world we might get it done in two semesters.”

Further approval at the state level could make the process even longer, Williams said.

photo by: John Young

Speaking to the Kansas University Student Senate, Jameelah Jones is joined by dozens of students and supporters of the Multicultural Student Government initiative during the Student Senate's meeting Wednesday evening March 9, 2016, at the Kansas Union.

He believes changing University Senate code to account for two student senates instead of one would be “a big change” to the charter the Kansas Board of Regents granted to set up University Senate back in 1969 — big enough that it might require the board’s approval, Williams said.

Furthermore, Williams said, it would beg the question, should there then also be multicultural faculty and staff senates created?

“It’s a cascading effect of growth, basically, at that point,” he said.

Under Williams’ one-senate-per-constituency interpretation, the MSG would need to exist bicamerally with the current Student Senate, he said. Then, the University Senate would need to amend its code to adjust the number of students selected to the body and how they are chosen.

Amendments likely would need to travel up from the University Senate to the body’s executive committee to a subcommittee, then back down again, he said.

Even before that, the Student Senate would first need to go through the process of amending its rules to change the numbers and the way in which it elects representatives.

For the MSG to have equal representatives, that might involve either doubling the size of the Student Senate or ceding half the roughly 100 existing seats to MSG, Williams said.

A state-level step

Regents spokeswoman Breeze Richardson said no current board policy regulates how state universities set up their respective governing bodies.

However, she said, a state law dating to 1975 defines how the Regents Students’ Advisory Committee is populated, so adding any representatives or changing how they are determined would require action by the Legislature.

That law, 74-3229, says Students’ Advisory Committee members shall be the “the highest student executive officer elected by the entire student body” at each of the six state universities.

“They meet monthly in conjunction with the board meetings; they’re often asked by the board to comment on things,” Richardson said. “The Regents take those student voices very seriously.”

Money tentatively in MSG’s control

MSG is tentatively in control of about $180,000 for the upcoming school year — but that’s contingent upon KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little signing off on the Student Senate’s 2016-17 fee bill.

As of Friday, that had not happened.

The chancellor has not taken action on the fee bill, either approving it or vetoing any part of it, university spokesman Joe Monaco said. She has until the university submits its annual tuition and fees proposal to the Regents to make a decision, which typically happens in May, he said.

Student Senate fee decisions are typically approved with no changes, but the chancellor has used her power to amend them at least once in recent years. In spring 2014, when the Student Senate voted to eliminate the student athletics fee, Gray-Little instated two new fees in its place to pay off Student Recreation Fitness Center debt and support university athletics programs.

Monaco said the chancellor did not have any comments on the MSG, as she has not received a proposal from the group.

At this point, there are no charters or bylaws on file with the university.

MSG submitted an application to become a registered KU organization on March 2 and was approved the same day, according to documents from the KU Student Involvement and Leadership Center, which the Journal-World obtained through an open records request.

Also March 2, the Student Senate finance committee heard a request for funding from MSG and amended its original 2016-17 fee package recommendation to include a $2 required student fee for MSG.

On March 9, the full Student Senate approved that recommendation, funding the new MSG with the $2 required student fee expected to bring in about $90,000 annually. The MSG fee is one of several allocated to KU’s Office of Multicultural Affairs.

MSG leaders told the Student Senate that roughly half the $90,000 would go toward stipends for its executive staff — $6,000 per person — and the other half toward programming, supplies and advertising.

On March 30, the Student Senate voted to give MSG complete control of allocating the Multicultural Education Fund, which currently has about $90,000 in it. Under Student Senate control that fund was described as designated for multicultural student organizations’ programming and events.

While the actions spurred emotional debates at Student Senate meetings, they were approved by overwhelming numbers.

Supporters have said a separate governing body for multicultural students is needed because the current system does not adequately represent them, and the Student Senate is not a place all students of color or other marginalized groups feel safe. Supporters also have touted such a government as the first of its kind among universities nationwide.

The few Student Senate representatives who spoke against funding the brand-new MSG this spring said they didn’t support putting the cart before the horse, citing the MSG’s lack of a comprehensive plan or status as a governing body.

Comparison with other groups’ funding

How does that amount of money compare with other student groups?

The 116-member Student Senate allocates a total of $24 million in student fees, according to the Senate website.

Required campus fees for this year were $455.50 per semester per student, according to the Student Senate’s 2015-16 budget.

The Student Senate’s own operating expenses are about $206,000. That includes $100,000 for executive staff pay and $55,000 for the Senate administrative assistant’s salary.

According to the Student Senate’s 2015-16 budget:

• The annual budget for KU’s Center for Community Outreach, which operates as part of the Student Senate, is $43,000. That includes $6,000 in stipends for the two program coordinators.

• The Graduate Student Advisory Board Paper Presentation Fund is $50,000.

• The KU student organizations receiving the most in line-item allocations of required student fees are Alternative Breaks with $24,900, Ceramics Club with $15,600 and Hillel with $10,600. Those figures include pay for the Alternative Breaks director and core members, and visiting artist or speaker honorariums for the Ceramics Club and Hillel.

• University units that serve students receive larger block allocations, with the three highest being the Lied Center with $95,000, the Student Involvement and Leadership Center with $93,000 and KU Info with $68,000.

MSG’s plan

For now, the MSG officers have described themselves as “interim.”

According to names on file with Student Involvement and Leadership Center: MSG adviser is graduate student Jameelah Jones; and student officers are Katherine Rainey, president; Ramiro Sarmiento, vice-president; and Mohana Chakrabarti, treasurer.

In February 2015, Jones was hired as the Student Senate’s first director of diversity and inclusion. Another student took over the post this year.

Rainey and Sarmiento ran for student body president and vice president this school year but lost to Jessie Pringle and Zach George.

During an informational meeting last week at which approximately 25 students were in attendance, Jones said MSG planned elections that would have three components, differing from the current Student Senate that elects representatives based on who receives the most votes.

“Popularity contests have not proven helpful in deciding how people get elected, especially people who are supposed to represent the student body,” Jones said.

She said MSG elections would be decided by a combination of popular vote, interviews and a community presentation of the candidate’s choice.

“We’re trying to make this process a little bit more reflective of how we want a multicultural student government to be formed.”

Rainey said group leaders planned to meet and work on recruiting possible MSG members over the summer.

“This spring semester has really been kind of setting a foundation and really trying to set us up for success, but the work is far from over,” she said. “There’s still a lot more information that we don’t know or just have access to, and so we really want to take this summer to bring in all the folks who are supposed to be represented.”

She said she expects MSG to be able to legislate and allocate money.

“It’s still going to be a student government, so it’s going to have that structure,” she said.

The group’s description on file with SILC says:

“The University of Kansas Multicultural Student Government creates a culture of future leaders that upholds positive social change and justice. We advocate for underrepresented, underserved and marginalized identities to maintain the integrity of the student voice. We are committed to leading with inclusivity in name and practice with progressive action and empowerment of all students on campus. We shall foster a community of individuals who are committed to creating and maintaining a campus that reflects the needs of students, exemplifies inclusivity and what it means to be a Jayhawk.”


Timeline

March 2: MSG submits application for registration and is approved as a registered student organization with KU Student Involvement and Leadership Center. A week later, SILC confirms names of the group’s adviser and three top officers are on file.

March 2: Student Senate finance committee hears request for funding from MSG and votes to recommend a $2 required student fee to fund the group.

March 9: Full Student Senate votes to fund new MSG for 2016-17 school year, with the $2 required student fee expected to generate about $90,000 annually for the group. Representatives of the new group said the money would be used for stipends to pay leaders and for advertising and other operating expenses.

March 30: At its final routine meeting of the year, full Student Senate votes to give MSG control over allocating the Multicultural Education Fund, totaling about $90,000. The Senate also voted to give MSG equal seats on the Senate’s campus fee review subcommittee — adding 12 seats to the existing 12 for a total of 24 — contingent upon MSG being “recognized as a member of University Governance by the University Senate.”

April 13-14: Student Senate elections are held.

April 14: MSG holds informational campus meeting, shares some information on how it plans to move forward, budget its money and organize elections.

April 27: Final Student Senate meeting of the year, a joint meeting of the outgoing and incoming representatives. No new legislation is to be introduced.

May: Chancellor must approve student fee allocations before presenting KU’s tuition and fees proposal to the Kansas Board of Regents.