Southern University student government passes referendum to take student media surplus

LOUISIANA — Southern University’s Student Government Association wants 40 percent of the Student Media surplus fund, and last week, successfully passed a referendum to get it.

One SGA member has said the referendum was passed illegally, however, and the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper said student media members were hardly given any notice before the student body was asked to vote.

The referendum asked students if they support taking 40 percent of the student media surplus funds and putting it toward “student scholarships, facility upgrades, campus beautification, student transit enhancements and other service initiatives,” The Southern Digest Editor-in-Chief Evan Taylor said.

The referendum was approved by a 927-169 vote. Taylor said the surplus fund currently contains more than $1.5 million that has accumulated over several years.

The vote took place April 15, but Taylor said members of student media didn’t even know it would be on the ballot until she found a flyer under her door on the night of April 12. The referendum was not created in time to be put on the electronic ballot and was instead voted on by paper ballot, Taylor said.

Student government Senator Clifton Blouin said the group didn’t follow its rules when putting the referendum up for a vote. He’s set up a meeting with the school’s chancellor to talk about his concerns, and said that “there is a chance” student media might get to keep their money.

Chancellor James Llorens could not be reached for comment despite multiple attempts.

Blouin said that all referendums must be written and then approved by the senate before they can be put up for a campuswide vote. In this case however, the senate passed a verbal version of the bill, which wasn’t written until Sunday and was then pre-dated to Friday, he said.

When he first saw the written bill, Blouin said his name was on it as an author and cosigner. He said he demanded that it be taken off because he “didn’t have any say so or knowledge of anything pertaining to the bill to enact the referendum.”

Student government President Willie McCorkle and Vice President Sara Martin could not be reached for comment despite multiple attempts. SGA Adviser and Director of Student Programs Jonas Vanderbilt declined to comment.

The fund is made up of unspent money from student-assessed fees, salaries that would have been paid to the assistant director and director during years that no one filled those positions, and excess funds from the operating budget.

The students weren’t even aware the fund existed until a year ago, but they started making plans for office and equipment upgrades when they found out about it, Taylor said.

The newspaper staff hoped the money could help make up for a decrease in student fee funds that is a symptom of declining enrollment at the university, Taylor said. The cost of producing the paper has gone up, she said, and the surplus fund would help fill in the gap.

She said student government never asked about student media’s plans for the fund.

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate at the Student Press Law Center, said student government could face some consequences if the transaction does occur.

The money could be taxable, because “moving funds out of a student activity that generates them converts the activity to an ancillary business,” Goldstein said. “It’s a business that is run for a primary benefit other than the education it provides the students.”

And the transfer would also raise the question of whether the students in student media should be treated as employees who earned this money for student government, he said.

The Southern Digest staff is trying to be proactive about the situation, Taylor said. They have sent public records requests to student government, the Office of Student Programs and the Office of Student Affairs. Among other documents, Taylor requested the minutes and schedules of Student Government meetings; the most recent SGA Constitution, by-laws, and elections code; and budgets of all groups under the Office of Student Affairs. Taylor said she has not yet received the documents.

Taylor also attempted to file a formal complaint with the election committee and asked for an investigation, but was denied both. In a letter to Taylor from Ginea Pride, the Elections Committee deputy, Pride states that the denial is based on Taylor’s “inadequate information about the constitution, by-laws, and elections code of the Student Government Association.”

“They’re not even giving us the option to do a hearing and hear the information and then decide,” Taylor said.

Though she isn’t sure what made student government decide to create the referendum, Taylor said a commentary piece in the newspaper on the group’s effectiveness “sparked some tension” last semester.

Leaders of both groups were called to a meeting at which a number of student government’s concerns about the paper were discussed, Taylor said. Those included concerns about the commentary piece, readership and positive news coverage.

“I don’t know if they necessarily understand that a newspaper has to cover the good, the bad and the ugly, and that it’s not just positive news,” Taylor said. “We love a positive story just like anybody else, but at the same time, the injustices have to be covered too.”

Taylor said she thinks the meeting was meant to help relations between the groups, but she doesn’t feel it was successful.

By Sara Tirrito, SPLC staff writer. Contact Tirrito by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 124.